Blended Malt Scotch Whisky isn’t a category I have explored or own much of. It isn’t a type of Scotch I would tend to see in local speciality drink shops, nor in my local supermarket. Budget blends are all too common and retail for a reasonable price. But, in my own opinion, they aren’t going to bring much engagement or grip when we pour a dram.
I therefore don’t have much experience with blends. I’ve mostly spent my money on Scotch malts and didn’t want to risk a new purchase in a blend/bottle I might not like. However, Compass Box have always been a brand that caught my eye. Standing adjacent shelves upon shelves of whisky bottles, what stands out? I find Compass Box have some of the most beautiful labels and branding. They look like collectibles more than bottles that you would purchase and open. Standing in a whisky shop, I’d be intrigued to grab a bottle, read the label, and see what they have to offer.
Compass Box is a brand well known amongst Whisky YouTube channels and covered quite a lot here on Malt. It would be a brand I wouldn’t mind investing in, given their following and their attempts to innovate and provide transparency in their blends. I’ll not bore you with the Compass Box controversies; there’s an overview here covered by Nikkhil. More information can be found online.
Before detailing some information about Oak Cross, I first wanted to comment and rant a bit on the issue of transparency within the Scotch Whisky industry (and beyond). Compass Box, to me, are innovators in this realm and need applauded. Here’s an example of why that’s the case:
If we look at one of the most famous Scotch blends in Johnnie Walker Black Label (one I have tasted & enjoyed), it is stated online that this expression contains 30 to 40 whiskies. Really? That would average out in the region of 2.5% to 3.3% that each whisky would contribute to this blend. It’s safe to assume that Diageo would be using a bigger mix of their Malts, compared to grain. Black Label is a little smoky, so that would lean towards a lower percentage of Islay/peated malt in there too. At what point does that number of whiskies really have that much of an impact on the overall profile of the expression?
This is just one example of a blend we would all know and see in retailers. But, what is the mix? What proportion of Diageo whiskies are involved in this blend? Consumers and enthusiasts want more, not less, information about the ingredients used in their drinks. It would be great to find out and know their blend so we can try and pick out each whisky individually.
Let’s switch the focus over to Compass Box, and onto Oak Cross. The story of this expression begins with Oak, as do all the expression that Compass Box produce. Oak Cross comes from the use of both American and French oak in the whisky maturation.
The whisky used in this expression starts its life off in first fill bourbon barrels. Half of the whisky set aside for Oak Cross is then placed into casks of new French Oak. The French Oak used in this bottle is from Voges Forest in France. This is primarily a wood used in French wine making. This oak is described as more complimentary to wine due to coarser (wider) grain and typically lower concentrations of aroma compounds.
As for the blend itself, it’s a vatting of three Highland Single Malts:
- Dailuaine (14% blend – Refill bourbon barrel)
- Clynelish (47% blend – First fill bourbon barrel)
- Teaninich (39% blend – Custom French Oak. Lightly toasted)
Already, there is a stark contrast between the blend above and Johnnie Walker Black Label. Three single malts are used in this blend, with a precise breakdown of how much of each. Age can be found out by contacting Compass Box, but they have asked that reviewers/bloggers/etc. keep this information to themselves.
Why can’t we expect this level of information, and demand the same of other producers? I understand European Union legislation stipulates what can be shared in terms of age statement: state the youngest age, or no age statement at all. This can be manipulated and misused to market one aspect of a certain expression, e.g. Johnnie Walker Blue Label publicising that sixty year old whisky was used in their blend. In fact, it was only a tiny percentage used in the overall recipe. But, this loops back to my gripes about other blends. How is Oak Cross?
Oak Cross Blended Malt – Review
43% ABV. £45.50 from Compass Box.
Colour: Light honey
On the nose: Bright on first smell. Loud and punchy. Some youth, I imagine, is coming through initially on the nose. Reminds me of nail polish remover used by my wife. As it settles, you can pick out some citrus in the form of orange and a little lemon. There’s a dusting of icing sugar on top of some shortbread biscuits, with some vanillas and honeys. Slight toasted oak there. A little malty, too. It is very spirit driven to me. A tiny hint of clove in there, too. It honestly tastes like someone handed me a hot whisky trying to battle off an annoying head cold. Adding a drop of water and the dominating vapour calms a little. More of the lemon comes through and sugary malt. Not much else in the way of change.
In the mouth: Again, the brightness and spirit forward nature comes right at you on first sip. Tingly at the tip of my tongue. Quite astringent and hot. A nice light mouthfeel overall. Taste lingers ever so slightly but the youthful nature of this falls off eventually. A deep breath after the sip and I can feel a lot of alcohol vapour persist. It rounds out and brings some of that flavour. All the vanillas and oak on the nose carries through on the taste. Some hidden pear drop sweets in there too. Some of that French oak at play here I’d suggest. Reminds me of a Glenlivet Nádurra I once had that used French Oak. A very young whisky. Again, that orange blast. I’m surprised some of that Dailuaine and Clynelish meatiness and thickness isn’t coming through on the palate.
A drop of water in this flattened the taste out. Quite thin now on the tongue and the taste falls off a cliff.
It’s OK. Really nothing to shout about. I enjoyed sipping a few drams of this without having to really care too much about each individual note. It is recommended as “a great aperitif whisky served with water or ice. A great partner in stirred cocktails. An excellent match for many cheeses.” Fair enough; maybe I’ll try it alongside a cheese board over Christmas.
Taking a quote from The Whiskey Tribe: “The ‘best’ whisk(e)y is the whiskey you like to drink, the way you like to drink it.” It’s only my opinion on this expression, but: this one just really didn’t do it for me. I did expect a lot more given the three malts vatted together here. It’s made me want to buy bottles of Dailuaine and Teaninich and experiment myself by blending them together with some Clynelish at home. But, as for Oak Cross, all we’ve got is the blending of John Glaser and Compass Box.