We had the pleasure of interviewing John Glaser, founder of the Compass Box Whisky Company, to hear more about his fascination with whisky blending and the celebrations and challenges with changing perceptions in the whisky world. Thanks John for sharing so much insight for us and our audience - settle in everyone, it's an interesting read.
Hi John, thanks for 'sitting' down with us, can you share the story of how you fell in love with whisky and got involved in the industry?
I started out my career wanting to become a winemaker. I followed that path for many years, working in the wine trade in retail and wholesale and spending time in Burgundy and Napa Valley. I decided to change course and try to get into the management side of wine, but instead I eventually found myself in a job in marketing with Johnnie Walker in New York. They sent me to Scotland and on a visit to the Talisker distillery I fell in love with whisky – I was offered some Talisker straight from the cask, drinking it from a glass measuring cylinder right there in the warehouse. It was an epiphany for me. This was also the same trip when I discovered what blending really is all about. I visited the blending room for Johnnie Walker where I met blender and industry legend Maureen Robinson. Seeing her surrounded by dozens of nosing glasses of whisky, working on a recipe, I realised that blending is really about creativity. It’s about putting a creator’s touch to whiskies from different distilleries to make something that no single distillery can create. That captivated me.
At Compass Box it's all about the blends, how did it come about to focus on blended whisky rather than single malt?
Knowing that blending in wine is how many of the most compelling wines in the world are made, I saw no reason to think differently about blending whisky. That moment in Maureen’s blending room sparked something that stayed with me for years. To me, blending whisky seemed a natural way to create complexity and balance and products that no single distillery or place can make. What could we create, I wondered, if we blended with only the best whiskies, well-matured in great casks? Why couldn’t we make whiskies just as compelling as the best of the single malts? This is what inspired me to start Compass Box.
You’re also known for reviving grain whisky. What was the decision behind launching with Hedonism, a blended grain whisky?
One of the things I learned in my days at Johnnie Walker was just how good Scotch grain whisky can be if it’s aged in good quality, American oak casks and given time. I prefer first-fill American oak barrels for grain whisky. After 10 or more years, they start to get rich and sweet on the palate and delicious. When I started Compass Box, I wanted to show the world a side of Scotch whisky that most people weren’t familiar with. So, I started with a grain whisky, a blend of 10 year-old Cambus and 20 year-old Caledonian (both closed distilleries, even back then when I sourced them).
You are coined as the ‘maverick’ whiskymakers in the Scotch industry, how do you embrace this in your day to day operations?
The reason our company exists is to make the world of Scotch whisky a more interesting place. Furthermore, I have instilled in our company the belief that we have an obligation to make Scotch whisky stronger in the future than when we started. We owe that to our industry. To achieve all of this, sometimes you need to challenge convention to take advantage of new ideas and to make whisky ever more compelling and delicious for people. I believe that’s what’s necessary sometimes.
Can you tell us about how you set out creating a new whisky?
We have a Picasso quote on our wall in the new blending room: “I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.” That sums up the creative process for us, too. There is no one way to create a new whisky. We’ll start with an idea that could be inspired by all sorts of things – other whiskies, wines, a song – and we iterate on the idea. We create what we call prototype recipes. Over many weeks, we will taste them and talk about them and evolve them. It’s a process of iteration and it can take up to 50 or 60 different iterations – different prototypes – before we finalise a new recipe. The process can take half a year or more. And usually where we end up with a project is very different from what we had in mind when we started. Keep in mind that for us, what we create is not just the liquid. The liquid is the most important thing, but we are creating a concept and a story that’s comprised of the liquid, the name and the package design. It’s like what Manfred Krankl once said about his Sine Qua Non wines: that each wine is like its own little poetic biosphere.
Compass Box has an ethos of innovation and risk-taking which over the years has resulted in a number of novel releases. What ways of innovating and experimenting with whisky can we look forward to seeing the results of in the near future?
One of the things we are most excited about at the moment is that we are beginning to make products from whiskies we laid down into our own casks seven and eight years ago. That was when we started filling our own casks each year, filling six or seven or eight different distilleries each year. We’ve always worked by purchasing aged whiskies from distilleries, which we still do, but we are now just beginning to augment that with whiskies we’ve had control over from the first day of maturation. It’s exciting for us. Even more so because we are doing things differently with our new fill spirit. We fill at lower cask strengths than everyone else in the industry – 58% instead of the usual 63.5% (and we do that for both our single malts and single grain whiskies). And the casks we source are quite special, particularly the custom casks made for us in Missouri. And we are constantly experimenting with new cask types and new distillates.
You began experimenting with other spirits with your ‘Affinity’ release, a blend of Scotch and Calvados. Do you think you will continue to experiment out with the realms of Scotch? As an American, would you be interested in doing something with Bourbon?
We never say never. We’ve worked over the years blending other spirits such as Bourbon with various styles of Scotch whisky. We’ve simply never hit on something we found compelling and delicious, except for whisky and Calvados. I’m not saying we may not find something that works one day. You never know.
What’s been your favourite project you’ve tried so far?
I so love our Scotch whisky and Calvados project, the limited edition named Affinity that we released two years ago. Completely nuts, but completely delicious.
Compass Box led a transparency drive in 2016. Have we heard the last of transparency, what has happened since then?
We have made our views clear to the industry and the Scotch Whisky Association. We are not in a position to lobby the government, but they are. I hope that in the coming years that common sense will prevail and the laws will be evolved to catch up with the times.
I'm sure there have been some challenges along the way. What difficulties have you faced in creating a non-traditional brand of Scotch?
I don’t look at the challenges we face as difficulties; it’s just part of getting people to think differently, to open their minds to what’s possible. All we’re trying to do is make Scotch whisky a more vibrant category of spirits – to make it a more interesting place for everyone. I have always believed in the importance in business of experimentation and evolution -- that businesses must constantly create, invent, try new things, jettison what no longer serves their purposes. If you stand still, you go backwards.
Can you tell us about your approach to creating the beautiful and unique labels for your whisky. What is the inspiration behind the designs?
You can look at what we do as creating a fully-formed concept, not just a whisky – a little ‘poetic biosphere’ as Manfred Krankl puts it. We start with a liquid concept, then, as we iterated on that, a name will usually present itself to us. We tie the name to the concept in the form of a story about how we’ve created this liquid. That becomes the basis for a short design brief we give to Stranger & Stranger, our design agency partner of 12 years. They then perform their magic. I am pretty hands-off with them once we’ve delivered the design brief and talked them through it. They are an extremely talented bunch, and they take the essence of our ideas and bring them to places we never would think of. That’s why I call them partners. We complement each other’s skills and make something neither of us could do on our own.
What are you most excited about in the whisky world right now?
I am very excited about the expansion of whiskymaking across the globe. When I started Compass Box, whisky was pretty much something people here in the UK and Europe thought was done mainly in Scotland, Ireland, the US & Canada…and some people knew that the Japanese made pretty good whisky. Now people know the Japanese have been making world class whisky for decades and that fascinating whiskies are now being produced in dozens of countries around the world, even here in England. What I’m most pleased about, amongst all of this, is the burgeoning movement of new distilleries in Scotland. I’ve been looking forward to this for 20 years!
Is something new from Compass Box on the horizon? Can you give us any insight into future releases?
There is always something new from Compass Box on the horizon. We are constantly working on new ideas. It’s one of the things that gets us out of bed in the morning. Have a look on our website. We’re usually previewing an upcoming project or two. We’re always busy, always thinking!