Thursday, January 3, 2013

Whisky Review: Compass Box Oak Cross

I purchased a sample of this whisky from The Party Source a while ago but only got around to trying it during the holidays. Which is a shame, because I wish I had cracked it open sooner.

Compass Box is one of the most innovative companies in the scotch whisky industry today. Headed by John Glaser, they have been working since 2000 to change the way people thinking about blended whiskies and blended malt whiskies (now that the 'vatted malt' designation has gone the way of the dodo). The company has put together a wide range of whiskies, from the more value-oriented Asyla and Great King Street blended whiskies, to high end blended malts like their annual Flaming Heart releases. But the goal is always to create quality products that couldn't be put together by any one distillery.

Compass Box Oak Cross

Nose: floral, very rich, creamy, mildly sweet oloroso sherry, wine notes, banana, tropical fruits, mineral notes, malt. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry becomes more assertive and shifts towards bittersweetness, a lot of vanilla emerges along with some dusty oak and sour tang, plus there's a sort of floral bubblegum note, with the floral aspects becoming more vegetal.

Taste: floral malty/honey sweetness throughout, sherry and pepper build towards the back, vanilla and mocha plus mild oak near the back. After dilution, it becomes sweeter - shifting towards sucrose and wood sugars, with more intense flavors of sherry, berries, sweet wine, and coffee beans or cacao nibs mid-palate, with slightly bitter oak at the back.

Finish: floral, vanilla malt, bittersweet oak and mocha, a bit of sherry, and a hint of soap

Oak Cross is a blended malt (i.e. no grain whisky in the mix) sourced from Clynelish, Teaninich, and Dailuaine. The whiskies are first aged in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, then married together in a mix of 60% ex-bourbon and 40% 'Oak Cross' casks, which are ex-bourbon barrels with new French oak heads. The latter are designed to impart more spicy notes to the whisky, which is evident in the big pepper notes mid-palate. Bottling is at 43% ABV without coloring or chill-filtration.

The results remind me a lot of the Rosebank I tried last year, with the combination of sherry and strong floral notes mixed with tropical fruits. However, Oak Cross has more intensity and stronger spice notes to help counterbalance its sweetness. It's easy drinking without becoming boring. Additionally, Oak Cross can actually be purchased without much trouble, whereas Rosebanks are getting pretty thin on the ground.

John Glaser has, in my opinion, hit one out of the park here. It's an exceptionally tasty malt for a very reasonable price. I'm really looking forward to trying more of his company's whiskies.


  1. Amen, Brother. You've nailed the tasting notes here. I'm completely in accord. Compass Box has been doing some very nice work indeed. I really enjoyed Oak Cross. In the use of spicy French oak, it comes off as Spice Tree's little brother. Spice Tree is bigger, spicier, darker, more mature, and more expensive. But Oak Cross brings something more than just "less". Its youth gives it more sprightly fruity esters. You've got that with the "floral bubblegum" note. Everything is trade off. Oak Cross has more bubble gum and light to Spice Tree's toffee and dark.

    The big vanilla and wood sugars are part of the entire Compass Box line: the unifying thread. They are the signature of first refill bourbon casks. Glaser puts everything he makes into a finishing marrying period in fresh bourbon casks and gets this lovely vanilla quality. It's particularly noticeable on the lighter ones like Asyla and Oak Cross.

    When you explore their line, don't forget Orangerie! It's dangerously mixable and a killer pairing with good dark chocolate.

    1. I do have a mini of Orangerie. It'll be interesting to compare to some of the other orange liqueurs I've got. Some have a very neutral base while in others the base spirits still shines through.