“Bacardi exits Compass Box with Caelum Capital taking control,”
read the headlines of industry newswire Just Drinks on 5 May, 2022.
Suddenly, a prominent and beloved darling of the whisky scene now seemed to face an uncertain future.
What would a private equity-controlled Compass Box look like? We know of course, the goal of any investment entity is to endeavor to produce good financial returns for their investors, ideally by creating value in an invested company upon inserting themselves into the roundtable and helping push the company in the right direction. Ideally, the newly improved and polished company would be able to be sold for more than it was acquired for. Ideally. We don’t really need to wrap our heads around all the complexity of how this operation would work, as simple as it may be, and perhaps at the risk of being reductive, we know one thing – Caelum Capital is here to make a profit out of Compass Box.
(Image Source: Caelum Capital)
Is that good or bad? Most would intuitively say nay. After all, private equity has not made a pretty name for itself. The idea of an opaque group of moneymakers taking over a company with plans to flip it for profit doesn’t exactly carry much to romanticize about. One would instinctively assume higher prices and perhaps lower quality produce in exchange for better margins. Assume.
Yet, what if this also meant more expertise through experts and seasoned professionals who could give advice. Who doesn’t want some good advice in our tumultuous times? What if more capital today meant the ability to procure better quality whiskies and let them sit for longer, without caving in to near term liquidity needs? What if it meant more money to invest in the much needed production arsenal? Or a greater ability to engage in marketing and distribution to places that would otherwise stretch too much the existing sales and marketing teams?
Caelum Capital's ways of value-adding to their investments. (Image Source: Caelum Capital)
All that could mean better whiskies, more accessible whiskies, and a darling that can better weather the storm we’re in. Come on, we’re in a storm, we all know it. Does the fact that private equity getting their hands involved necessarily bode ominous things? Would it be foolish to believe there could be a win-win here.
Personally, I don’t know. And I’m happy to admit that. I recognize that there are things behind closed doors that I am not privy to and so I am more than comfortable taking my uncomfortable seat on the fence here. Maybe Compass Box really needed some help? Maybe they’re in bed with someone they really don’t want to be in bed with, but are forced to? I don’t know. But I’m willing to watch and see how it goes.
What I do know is that Manish Rungta, the head of Caelum Capital, was previously from Diageo (and other roles prior in private equity that have nothing to do with spirits) and that ex-Bacardi chief Maurice Doyle (also Chief Marketing Officer of William Grant & Sons, Chief Operating Officer at Suntory, and more recently a non-executive Director at Ron Santa Teresa) will replace Compass Box Founder, John Glaser, as Chief Executive Officer of the beloved independent bottler.
Compass Box's range of premium blended whiskies - will we see this take an upward trajectory? We sure hope so. (Image Source: Celtic Life International)
Also, LinkedIn tells me that Compass Box is now hiring a Brand Manager and an Operations Director. Both job descriptions tell us ”Our primary markets are in the US and Europe, though there’s real appetite for our whisky in Asia and Global Travel Retail too,” which indicates where we’re probably going to start seeing more of Compass Box’s products.
The Brand Manager the company is looking for is told to recognise “There’s so much opportunity around the world and we have already put the foundations for brand growth in place. Your challenge is to take things to the next level and help deliver demand-led growth.”
The Operations Direction on the other hand, should know that “There’s so much opportunity around the world, and we need someone with an investigative and inquisitive mind to shape and deliver a highly efficient and sustainable business model.”
New markets, more accessible products, brand growth, more efficient and sustainable business model, I’m up for that.
So we know Caelum Capital means business. Change is most definitely afoot. Positive change, we hope.
I should also mention that it appears that Compass Box is the first investment the private equity has made since their founding in late 2020. But y’know, pandemic and all…
John Glaser, the chief rebel. (Image Source: Daily Beast)
In any case, it seems like the rebel independent bottler known for their gorgeous labels that champion transparency even if sometimes at their own peril, whose focus has squarely been on elevating the perception of blended whiskies, founded by the rebel with a cause, John Glaser, once Marketing Director at the famed Johnnie Walker, will have some new cooks to their alcoholic broth.
Bear with me as I state the obvious – I hope John Glaser continues to stay in the driver’s seat with the subversive outfit. Let’s pray Caelum Capital takes in their stride their role as the engineers that better the car and not try and tussle for the steering wheel – or they might to their horror find their investment turn over-oaked. It is after all the man’s vision that has gotten us here, and trust in him to bring Compass Box forward we shall. No man, no fans.
Today, we take a look at Compass Box’s Orchard House expression.
We are told that the expression is designed to be “fruit-forward and spirit-driven” – sounds good so far. It is made with a whole slew of fruity malt whiskies that the Scotch industry counts on to (fruit) juice up their blends – Clynelish, Linkwood, Benrinnes, Glen Moray, Balmenach, Tomatin, and just a tad of smoky Caol Ila. Still sounds pretty good thus far. But let’s cut to the chase, the Orchard House caught eyes because for the first time for the indie bottler, these whiskies were sourced as new spirits (young in terms aging, if any at all) some 10 years ago and were matured in Compass Box’s own oak casks up until bottling (most of them 8 year old malt whiskies). That is to say Compass Box took most of the control here when it comes to how the whiskies were aged and how that crucial part of the process influenced and shaped these spirits. Now that sounds really good.
The composition of the Orchard House. (Image Source: Compass Box)
That is wildly interesting because most indie bottlers typically add value to casks of whiskies already matured and rejig it through various means to create something more left field from what the distilleries that produced them currently puts out – that is to say, they don’t typically influence the majority of how the resultant whiskies turn out. That is not to say they don’t play an invaluable role, I should be clear. But clearly, what Compass Box has done here goes that much deeper.
This expression is supposedly designed with a lighter oak influence so that the brighter, fruitier notes can shine through. I believe that this is the last breakthrough expression to debut from Compass Box before the change of hands. Hopefully, it isn’t meant to be (and isn’t incidentally) a swan song. So let’s give it a go.
Compass Box Orchard House, 46% ABV – Review
Color: Light Honey Gold.
On the nose: Light, gentle, inoffensive (as advertised). There are soft florals here – jasmines, lilies, cherry blossoms, vanilla, but all very delicate. There’s also waxiness and some glue-y notes that are slightly cloying and seem to hold back the florals. The combination of the waxiness and the vanilla gives off something of a crème brulee or burnt sugar note, which could also pass off as marzipan or fondant.
Light florals, lots of wax and a more confectionary note that is reminiscent of fondant. (Image Source: FNP.sg, Harlem Candle Company, Fine Dining Lovers)
It takes some time (which is alittle surprising given the supposed fruit-focus) but the fruits do show up – pears and apples namely, very crunchy and yet to ripen. This is also coupled with a more accentuated woodiness – young, freshly shaven wood, that gives off an impression of this being a much more youthful spirit than it really is. The woodiness carries a slight tannic astringency that reminds one of grape skins. Finally, there’s a very light and gentle smoke that passes through the nose.
It takes some time but the orchard fruits do appear - apples and pears, followed by some freshly shaven wood and a tartness that is reminiscent of grape skins and just the slightest whiff of smoke. (Image Source: Food to Live, You Work For Them, VinoVest, iStock)
For some reason, although this is a malt blend, it could almost be mistaken to be a grain whisky, given how confectionary it is.
On the palate: Fairly consistent with its aromas – it is fairly gentle, with riper orchard fruits here, of apples and pears. The apples being closer to apple juice than whole apples, while the pears something closer to a poached spiced pear in form. It isn’t nearly as sweet as one would expect, yet retains the perfumery quality that makes this whisky almost feel like eau de vie (or fruit brandy). Somehow, it is reminiscent of the fanciest hotel fragrances. While we keep with the fruit notes (because that’s why we’re here), there are also lighter notes of sugared kiwis and pineapples.
Consistent with its aromas - the orchard fruits show up, but this time as apple juice and poached pears, alongside candied kiwis and pineapples. Somehow its perfumery character reminds me of a fancy hotel lobby. (Image Source: Shutterstock, Healthy Living James, Adobe Stock, Hotel Tech Report)
The honeyed notes here are also more apparent yet coupled with malty notes as well, which puts it closer to something of graham crackers. Again, vanilla pods and fondant notes abound. Also, more interestingly the tannic grape skins on the nose have evolved into dried black tea leaves or pu-erh tea.
Buttery Graham crackers, more fondant, and grape skins having turned to pu-erh tea. (Image Source: Texanerin Baking, Fine Dining Lovers, Spruce Eats)
Overall, medium-bodied, slightly buttery, with light oak notes.
The finish: The white peppery spice here is a more poignant, as the sweetness begins to recede, while the more astringent tea cakes and poached ginger notes become more gripping. A mid-length finish.
A milestone for the indie bottler certainly, an effort that I most definitely applaud and hope to see continue to develop over time. Yet, as the name suggests, this was never going to be an overtly complex whisky. It was meant to be fruit-forward and spirit-driven – which I unfortunately felt it was not much of either, either. I didn’t find it to be nearly the fruit bomb I had hoped it was nor was it evidently spirit-driven. Or perhaps it was too spirit-driven, depending on what you think that means. I’m personally a huge fan of all its constituent malts and yet with Orchard House, I found that none of these malts expressed in full their individuality. It was almost as if they cancelled each other out – if that is even possible.
Yet overall, it is an inoffensive whisky, one that would make for a great highball, which perhaps I missed, was the intention with the Orchard House. But as a sipping whisky, it is too one dimensional and if that were the goal - to unlock fruit heaven - it was far too muted. This leaves it in some sort of limbo, where it is neither here nor there.
I certainly like the idea of Compass Box continuing on their string of experiments, even if as of late, have gotten more pricey, which itself was a big draw for fans towards the Orchard House, given that it was priced far more affordably than whatever has been released as of late. Which is why, I think it is key to remember that with experiments, there are bound to be hits and misses. Unfortunately, as much as I would have liked to have been a fan of the Orchard House (particularly given my love for fruity spirits), I was not. That said, I continue to cheer the rebels on and I look forward with great excitement to what they have in store.
I might not personally enjoy every experiment's result, but experimentation is what we need. A rebel like John Glaser, is what Compass Box is all about. Let's hope their new owners appreciate that. (Image Source: Daily Beast)
For the time being, I withhold any assumptions about Caelum Capital’s involvement and hope that Compass Box continues to retain their streak of irreverence and emerge with guns a blazing, emboldened rather than tamed. Change is most definitely afoot. Positive change, I hope. I look forward with considerable anticipation to penning down a great review when I next encounter the indie bottler as they undergo their transformation.