Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Oak Cross Blended Malt Scotch Whisky from Compass Box - an absolute original.

I'm all over Compass Box this week.  Compass Box is an innovative maker of eclectic Scotch whisky blends.  Many of these are on the gentle and sweet end of things.  I'm a big rough tough man who takes his whisky big and neat and preferably undiluted cask strength and my first instinct is skepticism.  I like my whisky to shoot cannons.  In that spirit, let's proceed.  First up, the remarkable Oak Cross:

Color: glittering light gold with amber tints.

Nose: soft sweet vanilla floral notes lead off. Sweetness joins from below to yield a hard candy quality. A touch of veal aspic. Some distant sherry. Some nice mature oak. The nose is a little like Grandma opening a nice old fancy wooden box of hard candies and offering you one. A gentle and soothing nose - but not a lush fragrance that invites deep extended exploration.

Entry is initially soft and sweet and then zowie - a big midpalate explosion of spice hits. My initial notes described berry acids like jujubes and also bright candy and plum brandy flavors. Those notes were from a pour from a half full bottle (extensively aired). Today, from a fresh sealed miniature I'm getting spicy wood. Maybe that's because now I know what it is.

Oak Cross is, according to info from Compass Box, a blend of 10-12 year old single malts from Teaninich, Brora (they must mean Clynelish) "for fruitiness" and Carron "for weight" (Dailuaine - I imagine). It is blended from malts aged in first fill ex bourbon white oak casks and American oak casks specially fitted with caps made of a spicy french oak called Quercus Petraea - Sessile Oak. (Robin Robinson, US Brand Ambassador for Compass Box, explained this part to me personally) This mixture of oak types is the "oak cross" - as in mixture of oak types. This Quercus Petraea is the "spice tree" in the darker, bigger Spice Tree expression Compass Box also offers. So the explosion of spice in the midpalate is wood - Quercus Petraea oak. G-LO on the Booze Dancing blog calls this spicy aspect "cinnamon altoid" - but the heat I'm getting isn't cinnamon - it's clove, and allspice. Maybe some Mace or even nutmeg in there too. These spice notes mingle with the entry's prominent vanilla floral sweetness and join a honeyed lightly sherried malt richness in the yummy heart of the midpalate glow.

Give this one a lot of time to open up. The entry becomes richer and more honeyed and the spicy explosion becomes bigger and more spicy and aromatic. Those jujube notes are dancing on my tongue now but it took a half an hour of air for them to bloom out of the sealed bottle.

The finish is gentle and brief - a feature of most of the Compass Box offerings that alternately delights, mystifies, and frustrates me. The rich spicy oak fades for a moment into a sandalwood scented incense and lingering sherry sweetness and then as the tannins almost form a bitter note - poof - like a sorcerer - it's gone. There's a faint whisper of flavor after two minutes, like after you've taken chewing gum out two minutes earlier. But the palate is left clean and refreshed - almost as if such a potent dram never happened. Is this a plus? A minus? I can't decide. It's a bit of both. I have the ingrained bias that a "good" whisky has a titanic long finish. Yet clearly Oak Cross is quite good indeed across all phases of it's game; yet it has packed its gear and fully left the field while I'm still panting from the last play... I've wrestled with this and decide that no penalty is called for here. So much of Oak Cross is new - utterly unlike any malt I've had before - that I must treat it as its own animal. The relatively short finish is, at worst, a sin of omission. At it's best it makes it easy to drink, easy to pair, and easy to live with.

Oak Cross is gentle lamb in the beginning, a raging tiger in the middle and a vanishing artist at the finish. It is graced with a delicious and very unusual flavor profile. Will you like it? I did. How do you feel about cloves and mace? How do you like cinnamon altoids?  Ultimately, Oak Cross is true to the gentle and floral "family DNA" of Compass Box but gives me some cannons!

Four stars. Bravo Compass Box! Original, ground breaking, and very very tasty.


Update - I neglected to mention how Oak Cross plays from a value perspective.  Oak Cross is $44/750ml at Shopper's Vineyard (a deep discounter in the NYC greater metro region - the source of all the following prices).  This is the low midrange of malt pricing; the same price class as The Macallan 12, Balvenie Doublewood 12, Dalmore 12, Highland Park 12, Glenfarclas 10, Tomintoul 10, Glen Goyne 10, Isle of Jura Superstition, Arran 10, etc...  In my opinion Oak Cross is a solid fit, value-wise, with this crew.  There are awesome malts here - but these tend to be the introductory expressions in their lines.  In the Compass Box line, Oak Cross is the 3rd most expensive expression behind Spice Tree ($65), and Peat Monster ($50) and ahead of Asyla & Orangerie ($40) and Great King St. ($37).  The whole lineup seems well priced - good value for what you get. 


  1. Im glad to hear you enjoyed this whisky. Like most beverages that I try, I really wanted to love it, but for whatever reason, I didn't. I will totally try this again though. I have a great deal of respect for Compass Box, and love that they, pardon the pun, think outside the box, so I think they totally deserve a second (or in this case third) chance before I come to a final conclusion about the Oak Cross.

    Great review!


    1. That spicy explosive clove and nutmeg thing can be a polarizing flavor profile. I can see some people really not liking that spice heat. Meanwhile, your comment about the strong spirit heat makes me think your sample needed more air time. I found my sample took over a half hour to really open up and get pretty.

      Thanks for the lovely welcome on twitter. You are a true gentleman.

    2. You're very welcome! Let's just call it good blogging karma. Besides, your reviews are a great read. Gotta spread the word!

  2. Reviewing a couple of the Compass Box products now, with some additions who are send over by Johanne over to me :-) Nice products they have, find them not too difficult but enough in them, easy going and quite balanced... This Oak Cross I find it quite good for it's quality/price, and has a quite sweet tone to it, but must say I like it much, as a nice easy going almost desert dram. But the finish is short on many of the products I find, but it does not hurt the total image much. Like what I have tasted so far of them, very nice. And love reading your thoughts on it. Thanks for sharing it with us.