The Spice Tree is a famous blend made by Compass Box. John Glaser, Compass Box Whisky Company‘s founder, is a man who spent many years in the wine trade. Younger, he wanted to become a wine merchant or a winemaker. After joining Diageo to work in the marketing department of Johnnie Walker, he learnt blending next to JW’s master blender Jim Beveridge. While at first he intended to slide over to Diageo’s wine department, things worked out differently and he fell in love with Scotch Whisky. Later, he decided to go back to his ambition: create. But this time, to create whisky, as he saw the idea of blending whisky as a creative art. So he decided to become not a winemaker, but a “whiskymaker”. And in 2000, he founded Compass Box Whisky.
As said by the company, Glaser established in 2000 Compass Box Whisky, “(…) based on his commitment to evolving practices in the industry to make great Scotch whisky more approachable and relevant to more people”. Glaser had a deep interest and commitment to wood quality, from his wine background. He sometimes got “playful” with the use of wood in maturation, sometimes pushing the limits a bit too far for the Scotch Whisky Association, the powers that be, as we’ll see in a moment.
The First Release
His first release was the first commercial blended grain Scotch Whisky, Hedonism. At first, 25 years ago or so, before Diageo moved him to London, John Glaser started experimenting with blending on his kitchen table with his own bottles, trying to create something that was his and that tasted beautiful. He will quickly determine that a bigger part of single malt in a blend will provide character to the end product, which was a bit opposed to that time’s usage in the blending industry. But he was not against single grains, harder to use maybe, but which had value in a good blend. From that approach he created Hedonism, the first commercial blended grain Scotch Whisky, and jostled the people convinced by single malts. It was the start for Compass Box and its desire to push the limits of whisky flavours.
The Spice Tr-history
In 2005, Compass Box found in the Vosges Forest in France a mill that made staves for wine cooperage, made from slow growth 195 year-old French Sessile oak. These staves are air-dried outdoors for two years before being toasted, allowing them to more complex and rich flavours for the wine… and the whisky to draw out. Then, they used this French oak as inner staves inserts within their casks to age a portion of Highland malt whiskies for a second maturation, giving the whiskies, as they describe, a rich, deep spice character, and thus named this blend The Spice Tree.
But unfortunately, shortly after The Spice Tree was released, the Scotch Whisky Association decided that it was illegal as it was not a traditional technique to mature whisky, and that only traditional techniques can be used to be able to call it a Scotch Whisky (we’ll see another time the same reason was given when Glen Moray released its Cider Cask Project). While disagreeing with the SWA, they pulled off this original recipe from the market and developed a new method to obtain a similar flavour profile to the flat staves initially used, by getting a very heavy toast to the cask heads.
They relaunched The Spice Tree in 2009. This time, they used cask heads with three different levels of toasting, made from oak from the same mill in France. These casks are used for a second maturation up to two years long. In 2015, 10 years after having to discontinue production of their original Spice Tree, they decided to release a limited edition called The Spice Tree Extravaganza, drawing its inspiration from the original Spice Tree but reinterpreting it using older components and a significant portion of sherry-cask aged malt whisky.
Let’s get to it.
A couple weeks ago, my tasting notes were used by Nicky and Anthony from New Dram Drinker on a video on their YouTube channel, from their “Pouring it, Drinking it and Enjoying it with Friends”. The whisky reviewed was the Spice Tree Extravaganza, from a sample I sent them after seeing their review of the core range expression and how Nicky loved it. In exchange, they sent me a very generous sample of the core range one, and with my notes you’ll find Nicky’s notes, edited to better fit this written format. And if you don’t know New Dram Drinker, please do follow them on Twitter (Nicky also has her own account) and Instagram and subscribe to their YouTube channel, they have a really refreshing approach but also a very professional producing in their videos. Enough talked, let’s get to the drams, I’m getting thirsty.
Compass Box The Spice Tree
The Spice Tree is a “Highland blend” re-casked and matured for two more years in Compass Box’s highly active hybrid barrels, as they call them. Their initial Highland malt blend is composed of 60% Clynelish single malt matured in first fill American standard barrels, 20% Dailuaine also matured in first fill American barrels, and 20% Teaninich matured in… you got it, first fill American barrels. But the second maturation is not done in a unique type of casks. It’s going to be a pain to read, so let’s copy/paste the recipe from their fact sheet, there’s no point rewriting that:
25% of the Highland blend goes into hybrid cask high vanilla toast, 22% into hybrid cask high infrared toast, 32% into hybrid cask high mocha toast, and 21% go back into first fill American standard barrel, the hybrid casks using heavily toasted new French oak heads sourced from the 195-year-old Vosges forests used in the original release. The final result is bottled at 46%, not chill-filtered and of natural colour. You can find a bottle of Spice Tree for £44.90 on Master of Malt or £47.95 on The Whisky Exchange, and in France for 58.90€ on Prestige Whisky or 59.90€ at La Maison Du Whisky. The sample, very kindly provided by New Dram Drinker, was taken from a 2018 bottling of the Spice Tree.
Coldorak: Old Sauternes. A swirl gives a nice ring with heads taking a long time to form and an even longer time to become thin legs slow to go down the side of the glass.
Nicky: Really lovely dark amber, beautiful.
Coldorak: Sweet vanilla and gentle spices at first nose. Caramel, honey, cinnamon, icing sugar, beeswax and maybe notes of orchard fruits like overripe peach.
Nicky: It smells absolutely divine. Rich, nice deep brown sugar, dark fruits, sweet and warm, sultanas, raisins and subtle bourbon notes.
Coldorak: Sweet and spicy arrival. It becomes a bit peppery after a moment, with a slightly drying mouthfeel. Rum and raisin ice cream, chilli, cask char, bitter caramel syrup, and melted dark chocolate from a chocolate fountain.
Nicky: Strong, you can immediately tell it’s not 40% abv. Spices (pepper) tingling on the tongue, the palate is intense, full of flavour. Soft undertone of wood, as CB says it’s rich, round and full of flavour. Cinnamon, pumpkin, caramel and ginger.
Coldorak: Peppery and sour, burnt caramel, slightly drying, quite long on burnt caramel.
Nicky: Warm, not completely overpowering. Pepper comes through at the end, sharp and intense, wood, the finish is subtle.
Coldorak: This is a lovely dram. Spicy, full of flavour, good mouthfeel, it ticks all the boxes for a nice warm dram to either spend time on and analyse, or just sip without thinking. And at £45-ish I think it’s really good value. Go for it.
Nicky: If you said would you have this as a dram, I’d would say “absolutely”. And not even at the end of the night, oh go on, one last dram, I’d happily sit down and have that dram at the beginning of the night. That’s a really pleasant, beautiful whisky. Buy one of these!
Coldorak’s Rating: 85/100
Compass Box Spice Tree Extravaganza
As said earlier, this limited edition was released in 2016 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the original bottling being banned by the SWA and its goal was to reinterpret it using older components and some sherry-cask aged whisky. Pay attention, the recipe is getting complicated. First, almost half of the composition was matured in ex-sherry casks, about 2/3 of that from Glen Ord, and 1/3 from Benrinnes. Then, there’s a drop of Allt-A-Bhainne single malt matured in first fill American standard barrel. Finally, they used their Highland blend (with the same recipe as the classic Spice Tree: 60% Dailuaine, 20% Dailuaine and 20% Teaninich, all first fill American oak standard barrel) re-casked into several typologies of their hybrid casks:
As usual with Compass Box, this is bottled at 46% abv, non-chill filtered and natural-coloured. I paid about 120€ a few years ago for this bottle in my local liquor shop. You can still find it at £92.45 on The Whisky Exchange or £91 at Nickolls & Perks, and a steep 136€ in France at Le Gus’t (caveconseil.fr).
Coldorak: Old Sauternes
Nicky: Deep golden
Coldorak: Initial nose is spicy, with all spice, gingerbread, vanilla, nutmeg and liquorice. Some nuts too (almonds, hazelnut). Tobacco leaves, sherry and citrus (orange and lemon peels). Compared to the “classic”, the sherry addition to the recipe is really noticeable, the nose is richer.
Nicky: Instantly beautiful. Not spicy on the nose at all. Rich, full of flavour, bourbon and sherry notes: vanilla, honey, brown sugar, dark fruits. There is a light caramelized dark raisin. Light pear notes and orange. Beautiful, cannot wait to drink it.
Coldorak: Sweet and spicy arrival, oily mouthfeel. Spices with ginger, pepper and chilli, nutty like the nose, salted caramel, honey, and fruity: orange, plum and red berries. Once again, richer than the classic, you’d almost think the ABV is higher on the Extravaganza. There’s also a kind of fizzy feeling like frizzy sugar sweets, popping up on the teeth.
Nicky: Spices straight away, and not in an aggressive way, but gorgeous spices. It’s quite intense: ginger, cinnamon, maybe allspice. There’s also a woody note almost like fresh-cut oak. The palate is balanced, the spices are not overpowering, really beautifully balanced. There’s definitely a sweetness, caramel, honey, vanilla undercurrent, it is sweet but not overly sweet.
Coldorak: Long and spicy with ginger and pepper, orange zest and dried herbs
Nicky: The finish is quite dry and long, oily, it coats your tongue. Fresh wood. Thick and juicy whisky, heavy.
Coldorak: Spicier, richer, it’s Spice Tree cranked to eleven. Maybe not as balanced as the classic, maybe a little bit more bitter too, but nonetheless a great dram. Now would I spend (well I did 2 or 3 years ago but I hadn’t tasted the classic Spice Tree) twice as much? I’m not sure. Really great dram, but I think for this kind of money, now I’d go on a classic Spice Tree and another bottle to go with it.
Nicky: Beautiful, absolutely gorgeous. I can see why it’s an Extravaganza, having had the original Spice Tree, I’m really liking that, this is definitely a step up, this is lovely. I can see why it’s more expensive than the original or why it’s called Extravaganza, because it just feels there’s more going on. It’s a really deep, intense, heavy whisky. Absolutely beautiful, not hard to drink at all.