John Glaser is the man behind Compass Box whiskies. His unique and uncompromising approach to the craft is nearly unrivalled in terms of innovation and determination. This fierce drive and desire to break the mold have led to more than a few hackles being raised, and conversely…not a few glowing accolades. While finding ways to work within the narrow confines of SWA regulation John has still managed to carve his niche and blaze a trail of originality. His battles to bring The Spice Tree to life are legend now.
Along the journey, John has littered the path with gems the rest of us are fortunate enough to pick up. Hedonism, Eleuthera, Flaming Heart and The Peat Monster are but a few. I would strongly recommend any whisky enthusiasts find their way to one of John’s tastings, and if that proves an impossibility…well…hit up your local specialist and tell them you want Compass Box.
Without further ado…
ATW: How did Compass Box come about? Your history in wines and working with Johnnie Walker have quite obviously given you a formidable bedrock from which to start, but was there a catalyst that made you say “okay…here’s what I’m going to do…”?
JG: Starting Compass Box came out of a realisation that I was in a unique situation: I am someone who likes making things, who enjoys the creative process, and I found myself living in the UK with an idea for doing Scotch whisky in a different way (that of the craft-scale blender), access to purchasing whisky direct from the producers, and an understanding (due to my work) of how to bring whisky brands to market internationally. One day, on a holiday to the island of Eleuthera, I simply decided I was going to act on this and do it on my own. There did not seem to be any option otherwise. It just seemed to make perfect sense.
ATW: Can you explain the significance of the name ‘Compass Box’ and why you
ATW: Compass Box whiskies are beautiful marriages of only a select few components. Was this more of an early reflection on the quality of certain whiskies and your opinion of how they would compliment each other, or a reaction to the homogeneity that is too often a product of blending many whiskies?
JG: It was both. My approach to blending is that I WANT the characteristics of key whiskies to stand out. I don’t want to use so many components that you achieve homogeneity. It’s a different approach to blending than others take. I start by using component whiskies with significant character and build around that, adding a few other whiskies to enhance complexity, to complement, to create balance.
ATW: When you started up Compass Box were you aiming primarily at whisky enthusiasts? Has this changed over time?
JG: I have always aimed at people who seek out good stuff. Whether whisky enthusiasts or not. The core mission of our business is to share the joys of great whisky with more people. In the beginning, this was mostly picked up by enthusiasts, but as we ‘ve grown, our reach has broadened.
ATW: Do you single-handedly create all Compass Box expressions?
JG: As our business has grown, and as the range of what we offer grows, I have been helped enormously by Gregg Glass, my assistant. I still create the direction for new whiskies and lead the creation of these through prototype development. Gregg helps me with this and helps manage our relationships with the distillers, coopers and our bottler.
ATW: Where does the inspiration for your new lines come from? Do you start with a specific end in mind, or build on the-go as you come across interesting casks that will form the foundation of something new? Have you ever reached out to your customers for input on new blends?
JG: Inspiration comes from all over. There is no formula. I believe if you work hard and if you keep your eyes open inspiration will come along. You can’t plan for it. You have to just keep working.
ATW: What can you say about the Compass Box wood policy? You are purchasing mature (or maturing) whiskies to use in your blends, of course, but the wood you choose for final maturation will obviously have an influence on your end product.
JG: Our policy is to work with higher quality, more active wood. By higher quality I am talking about two aspects: one is how active the oak is, which is based on how many times it has been used. The more a cask is used, the less it has to offer in terms of flavour materials and the less complexity you are able to achieve in the whisky. Most casks in Scotland are far too many times in my mind. Which is why so many Scotch whiskies are boring. Secondly, I am talking about the inherent quality of the oak for maturation purposes. This is based on the tightness of the grain, the type of seasoning (air-dried, which we prefer, versus kiln-dried), the duration of the seasoning, (generally, longer air drying of the wood creates more complex and delicious flavours in the wood), and the type of toasting and/or charring the wood is exposed to (this transforms the flavours in the oak further and very significantly).
ATW: What is the Compass Box expression you are most proud of to date?
JG: You mean, which child am I most proud of? Hmm. Difficult… .
ATW: Going on a decade now, can you reflect back on the peer reception Compass Box received upon inception, and the esteem it is held in now?
JG: Perhaps a question better answered by others.
ATW: What has been the single greatest hurdle Compass Box has had to overcome?
JG: My tendency to try and do too much.
ATW: Compass Box has been the recipient of many awards (over 60 at this point, I believe). Can you speak to the award that meant the most to you?
JG: Our first award for Innovation was given to me in our second year, and it was presented to me by the late Michael Jackson. I look back on this fondly, for he was such a tremendous influence on the world of whisky (and beer, for that matter!). He was a devoted individual who worked extremely hard, right up until he passed away.
ATW: When you hold master classes or tasting events, what is the message you really want to get across to the audience?
JG: Share and enjoy.
ATW: There has been mention of Compass Box tastings that allow a ‘blend at your table’ deal for attendees. Can you elaborate on this and the inspiration behind it?
JG: I simply believe that one way to change peoples’ perceptions of something, of anything, you need to offer them rational explanation for why their current perceptions are inaccurate. To change the perception in whisky that blending is somehow bad (and anything “single” is supposedly good), I let people blend for themselves, using our components. They see that when you start with high quality components, and just a few (not 30 or 40), and if you blend with care and with a stylistic objective in mind, you can make lovely things. When people experience this, it changes their minds about the possibilities with whisky blending. For ever and for good. This is our “blending school” program which we have been running for several years now.
ATW: …and finally, a fun one…
I believe you were a literature major. Can you recommend a few book and whisky pairings for the Compass Box expressions?
JG: Alfred Jarry and The Peat Monster. I’ll buy a drink for anyone who
makes the connection between the two!
Thanks, John. Your time and effort are appreciated.
The gauntlet has been thrown. I wiki’d Alfred Jarry and am now more than intrigued. Readers out there…if you make this connection please do not post it here. Keep it on the downlow until you meet Mr. Glaser. Let’s keep this challange alive.