In a market awash with goofy Gaelic names, it's rare that the name of a product is so dead on. It's even rarer when a whisky maker succeeds almost perfectly in nailing the flavor profile they tell you they were gunning for.
The history of Compass Box is a story for another day, but I'll say this much now: their mission statement is all about creating drinkable blends of whiskies. They don't distill anything themselves, but they take an immense amount of pride in sourcing scotch whiskies, finishing them in-house, and creating new tastes.
Oak Cross is about as straight-ahead as you can get. You might interpret the name as I did at first blush: a synonym for "wooden crucifix." In fact, Compass Box means it a lot less poetically—it's best to read the name as something akin to "combination of barrels." This whisky is quite literally finished (partially, anyway) in hybrid casks made from American oak barrels that have had their heads replaced with heavily-toasted French oak. So... oak. Crossed. Oak Cross.
The reason for the double-cross is listed right on the box. American oak, traditionally, lends creamy and vanilla-forward qualities to the base spirit when used as an aging container. French oak has a reputation for being toasty and spicy. Compass Box took a step back and asked, "Hell, why do we have to choose?"
Let me quickly interject that there have been no shortage of whiskies I've had where the makers have heavily suggested tasting notes that I didn't think were there. I mean, just checking Diageo's own notes for the garbage-grade Johnnie Walker Red, they're saying it has "fruity sweetness" and "a mellow bed of vanilla." I call that a mellow bed of horseshit.
By way of comparison, Compass Box says it wants to give you creamy vanilla and spice with the Oak Cross. That is precisely what you can expect. Oak Cross opens with a very well-balanced combination of malt, fruit sweetness, and vanilla cream. Thanks, ex-bourbon casks! Then, once you've really played with it and begin to swallow in anticipation for the next sip, there's some subtle clove and cinnamon that spread out and make themselves comfortable. Thanks, French oak casks!
In the interest of fairness, I should mention that one of the three single malts that make up Oak Cross is Clynelish: some readers may remember the 14-year expression is one of my favorite off-the-shelf whiskies. Here, the maritime nature of that distillery's products comes through and becomes very complimentary with the fruit and spice.
The only real knocks against Oak Cross are the price, as it competes with single malts, and a slight lack of complexity in the flavor it presents. That said, the price is certainly fair for the inherent quality of the malts and the expertise of the blender, and the flavor is a good one. I'd buy with total confidence, and I think it's the ideal starting point in exploring what Compass Box is all about.