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Compass Box are whisky blenders and bottlers, founded in the year 2000 by John Glaser. After many years working in the wine trade, Glaser became involved with the whisky industry when he was employed by Diageo as marketing director for Johnnie Walker. He found a lack of innovation frustrating, however, and decided that the best course of action was to lay his own path. Compass Box launched with the release of the blended grain whisky, Hedonism.
Over the years Compass Box has, rather unfairly in my eyes, earned a reputation as the rebel of the whisky industry. This largely stems from the release in 2005 of The Spice Tree, a blended malt whisky that underwent secondary maturation in casks altered by the addition of French Oak ‘inner staves’. Alas, this little innovation provoked the wrath of the Scotch Whisky Association who deemed it in contravention of their official regulations. Compass Box were forced into the recall of Spice Tree. Fortunately, however, a solution to the issue was soon found. By using virgin French Oak cask ends on existing barrels, Glaser was finally able to achieve the desired flavour profile without breaking any rules and thus, Spice Tree returned to shelves across the land.
Further controversy arrived in 2016 with the release of two limited edition blends entitled ‘This is not a Luxury Whisky’ and ‘Flaming Heart’. Compass Box saw fit to unveil the complete recipe of the two blends, including the age and percentage of each individual component. Once again, the Scotch Whisky Association was called into action, this time to defend a law which states only the age of the youngest whisky in the blend can be identified. This latest setback led Compass Box to launch a transparency campaign, seeking support from both the public, and from within the industry. Despite initial promise, however, the campaign soon ground to a halt, with little industry support for a change in the law. The whole affair was rather depressing in all honesty, with a clear appetite among consumers for more information categorically denied by an industry happy to keep them in the dark.
Part of Compass Box’ core range, The Spice Tree is bottled at 46% and retails in the UK for around £40.
Smell: Vanilla Fudge, Chinese 5 Spice & Paprika, Cinnamon, Caramel, Orange zest & Pastry.
Taste: Cinnamon and aromatic Spice, Nutmeg, Ginger, Caramel, Fresh Bread and Orange zest.
Thoughts: Spice Tree is an excellent dram at an affordable price. It’s got tons of spice yes, but its flavour rather than heat. There’s also a lot more going on.
While they haven’t shied away from controversy, I sometimes feel Compass Box are defined in some quarters by their quarrels with the SWA, rather than by their whisky. Which is nonsense, because away from the headlines, they make excellent drams. Granted, the price point on some of their special releases would make a glass eye water but their core range is excellent and reasonably affordable with Spice Tree among their strongest offerings.
*If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission on any purchases you make after following links from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.