By Dave Broom

Spicing up the industry

Compass Box's new product is a cracker. But will it upset the traditionalists?
A few weeks back, John Glaser took me on an oak hunt round the more obscure parts of Kew Gardens. It rained. Hard. Like a good Boy Scout he was prepared and put on an emergency poncho.The walk in the woods was to talk about his latest baby, The Spice Tree, a vatted malt, part of which has been given secondary maturation in ‘inner stave’ barrels. I’ve tasted it.Personally I think it works. Well balanced, not too oaky, with an exceptionally long finish and a new intensity and brightness of aroma.In techie speak he has given the spirit a short period of contact with some very active wood. The key for him lies in using high quality (“wine quality”) oak to bring a new range of flavours into whisky. According to Glaser, wine quality oak costs $800 a barrel, whisky quality is $100. The better the oak, the better the end result. (Morangie’s Artisan Cask has gone down a similar quality route).Good news? Yes. Innovative?It certainly explores new frontiers. Is it new? Not in the wine trade where inner stave has been used for many years. Not really in the whisky industry either. Plenty of major firms have been looking at this for a long time, but this is the first time one has appeared on the market.At this point, I get an e-mail from Tenacious C. He knows his whisky and has ‘views’ about certain issues. It’s always good to hear from him.Today though, he wasn’t happy and Spice Tree was the cause of his less than temperate mood.“This is nothing new,” he wrote indignantly. “It is just another way to bring young whisky to the market with ‘apparent maturity.” I pointed out that the malts were a minimum of 10 years of age and that though this technique could be used for accelerated aging it wouldn’t work. It would just make the whisky woody.He’s not called Tenacious for nothing.“Ah, but it would work to accelerate ‘partly’ matured whisky and John will have to do that. He’s now filling his own casks and he can’t wait 10 years – he’s a young man in a hurry.” But, says I, if you look at what John is saying about Spice Tree it’s not accelerated maturation but an increase in extractive which, he knows, is easily pushed too far.Tenacious took another tack, musing that Spice Tree and inner staves might fall outside the Scotch Whisky Act. I had asked Glaser about this and he was robustly confident that his new product was within the law and indeed “enhances the integrity of Scotch.” I could hear the “hmm...” long before Tenacious’ next missive whooshed into my inbox. “My personal view is that it is wrong, and not within the spirit of the definition,” he said. “It opens up a real Pandora’s Box which should be of enormous concern to all of those good souls who were so concerned about ‘the integrity of Scotch whisky’ a year or so ago. But given that everyone seems to be motivated by avarice I take such fine words very lightly.” Will inner stave fall foul of the new, tighter regulations on finishing? Can it be called ‘traditional’? That’s up to the lawyers.In quality terms I think it is better than most finishes, a sector of the market which has been flooded with poorquality examples very few of which enhance the flavour profile or reputation of Scotch. Most are clumsy attempts to cover up poor-quality, immature whisky. At worst (Islay cask, beer finish) they are absurd contrivances.Undoubtedly some people will take advantage of the inner stave technique and release poor quality whiskies.Having a minimum age hasn’t stopped three year old blends appearing... ‘tradition’ hasn’t stemmed the flood of pink whisky. Ultimately the ‘integrity’ of Scotch whisky lies in its quality and the integrity of its producers.That said, I’d advise Glaser to pack another emergency poncho. Storm clouds are gathering.