15 Years of Compass Box with John Glaser

When I think of not only the best whisky companies in the business, but also the nicest and most genuine people within those companies, John Glaser will always come to mind near the top of that list. I've been doing this gig since 2009 (it will be six years as spirits buyer this November) and John Glaser has been a partner for K&L right there with me since the beginning. He's not only someone whose work I respect and whose whiskies I will always purchase with my own hard-earned money, he's a true friend—always available to help when I need it, and always there to answer a question should I have one. While I've spent eight years now in the wine and spirits business, John will celebrate fifteen years tomorrow as the head of Scotch whisky's most creative of curators: Compass Box. With the recent release of his Flaming Heart and "This is not a Luxury Whisky" editions to help celebrate this milestone (two of, if not the best two whiskies I've tasted this year), I thought now would be the perfect time to sit down with John and talk about some of the accomplishments he and his company have achieved over the last decade and a half. Tastes and trends are starting to change in the industry once again and Compass Box might be more prepared than any other company to embrace that new momentum. I spoke with John via the phone earlier this morning and this is what he had to say:

David: There’s a full circle movement that I think we’re both well aware of at the moment—in terms of whisky trends, fashion and popularity. It was originally a movement towards purity, away from blends towards single malts, then within the genre of single malts even more towards purity—like cask strength or single barrel selections. But once the purest possible expressions became either too expensive or perhaps a little suspect in terms of quality, the supply became a little less interesting—let’s say—so then those same people became open to revisiting the blends. But not in their former iteration, rather in a reinvented form. Like what you just released, for example: the Flaming Heart blended malt and the “Luxury Whisky” blended Scotch, both with complete breakdowns as to their components and their compositions, down to the exact percentage. Now that customers are more familiar than ever with the individual whiskies that go into blends, it seems they are also more comfortable with the idea of drinking them as a blend. It’s almost like we’ve spent the last few years educating consumers about the building blocks of whisky in order to give them a greater appreciation for the craft itself. I think people are finally coming back around to the idea of blended whisky.

John: I feel the same way, or else I wouldn’t have started this business (laughs). I knew it was going to take some time though.

David: Are you seeing increased sales at Compass Box?

John: Absolutely. We grow every year. We’re now at a very fortunate point, fifteen years into this—it will be fifteen years exactly tomorrow, actually—where because we’ve always been transparent, because we’ve always told people what we’re doing, what our recipes are, what our approach is, the way we think, everything, I think the result is that we’ve built up some loyalty and maybe some respect as well. The whiskies have always been pretty good and offered a pretty good value, I think. I was just talking about this earlier. I was in my office this afternoon with two guys, we were talking about what we do and I was saying that customers aren’t buying Compass Box Hedonism because they’re out shopping for grain whisky. They’re buying it because it’s a whisky from Compass Box and it just so happens that we use blending as a platform for creativity. That’s what Compass Box does. It’s not like they’re specifically buying a blend, they’re buying a name. 

David: When you sat down to plan out this year’s anniversary special editions, what were the concepts? Were you trying to do something with the whiskies you had on hand, or did you select the whiskies to fit the concepts themselves?

John: With the Flaming Heart, we had done this four times before. The whole idea with Flaming Heart is to combine French oak-aged malt whisky from the Clynelish distillery with smoky, peaty stuff. So you get the sweet and you get the smoke. But every time we do it I want to do it a little differently, so the recipe takes a slightly different approach each time. Last year, for example, we added a tiny little bit of sherry cask malt. This year there’s no sherry, but the smoky component is partially thirty year old malt whisky from the Caol Ila distillery, so that brings a lot of depth to the basic idea of sweet and smoke. That one’s pretty straightforward. With the “Luxury”,  what we wanted to do was start a conversation with the industry and acknowledge that—without pointing fingers—people ought to think before they drink some of this stuff. So we thought, “What’s the profile of a lot of these expensive whiskies?” Well, it’s sherry and smoke. It’s a popular one, a big seller, as you know. We looked for some old sherry cask-aged malts that had real depth, and some old smoky stuff. 

David: What did you think of the result? I thought it tasted expensive, if that was the goal in mind.

John: I’ll be honest with you, we were trying to make something that we thought would get a big score from the whisky cognoscenti out there. Then line up that score with some of the scores of these other luxury whiskies—if you’re even able to find people who have tasted these bottles that cost four or five figures. In the world of wine there’s a high positive correlation between the wines that tend to be the most-coveted, the most collectable, and quality. There’s cause and correlation between that collectability and the scores—and you can use auction prices to determine this. Say what you want about wine scores, but super high scores tend to designate that the wines have a certain amount of character. It may not be my cup of tea, or your cup of tea, but—hey—I’d drink Petrus if I could. I don’t believe the same correlation exists in whisky today, where you have that same high positive correlation between the price of some of these whiskies and the degree of compelling character. At this point, however, it’s theoretical because I haven’t tasted nearly as many of these whiskies as you probably have. And as I pointed out earlier, a lot of people don’t ever taste these whiskies. 

David: So you were able to create a whisky that you hoped would spark a conversation, and here we are. You wanted to make people think about what goes into their whisky and ultimately what they’re paying for, but what do you hope that conversation does in terms of the other Compass Box selections? We should have a conversation about your standard release whiskies as well, as I think that conversation would go over much better today than it would have—say—in 2010. In terms of telling people what’s in your whiskies, I mean.

John: I’m actually going to do a tasting in San Francisco next week where we go through the whole Compass Box line up and in doing so I will include the recipe for each whisky and the wood types. We’ve very transparent about all of our whiskies, which I think is important in this age of NAS debate. We’ve always been this transparent. If more NAS producers were this transparent, the whiskies might be a little better. Not to say they’re all bad, but some of these you and I could look at and probably question.

David: I agree. But at the same time, if you made an absolutely incredible Compass Box blended malt whisky, but then said on the label that it was composed of Loch Lomand and Fettercairn, I don’t think anyone would be all that interested. In fact, I think it would legitimately hurt potential sales because of the perception of those distilleries. In some cases—speaking as a potential brand owner—I think you’ll do your product a disservice by telling people exactly what’s in it, even when your product is of a high quality. But, of course, when you can tell people you’re using twenty year old Clynelish and thirty year old Caol Ila, then absolutely tell them what’s in it!

John: Yeah. Although I’m confident enough now when we do our limited editions. We’re speaking to this very narrow section of the spirits drinking population around the world with these whiskies. It’s obscure for a lot of people in terms of what we’re doing. But I think if did come across a particularly great cask of whisky not known for greatness—if they exist—and we wanted to use it, we would tell people. We would just say: those of you who know the reputation of this whisky will be surprised. 

David: Right, we do the same thing, but I think you can only do that once you’ve reached the level of respect and trust that Compass Box has now reached. You can’t do that starting out and be successful. 

John: I suppose that’s true. You’ve gotta have a certain degree of respect and trust for the voice you’re listening to.

David: At this point, if you came out with a blend of Jura and old Bladnoch, or something, I would still buy it (laughs). I would listen to you. I trust your judgement. Speaking of components, however, let’s talk about where some of your other expressions are at today. What’s the breakdown of today’s Peat Monster, for example.

John: Today’s Peat Monster is based primarily on malt whisky distilled at Laphroaig. Then we use whisky from Ledaig and Ardmore distilleries as well. The Ardmore whisky has always been the secret ingredient in Peat Monster because it’s not as peaty as the others and it brings a malty character that binds the other whiskies together and rounds off the edges. What we’re doing now, where we’re going, is bringing whisky distilled at Caol Ila back into the recipe—slowly, gradually. When we look long term over the next ten years, we’re now able to get Caol Ila again—we weren’t for a number of years—and we’re laying it down. So I like the idea of malt whisky from the Laphroaig distillery, malt whisky from the Caol Ila distillery, and malt whisky from the Ardmore distillery, which comprises the original Peat Monster recipe. We’ll slowly move away from the Ledaig whisky. 

David: What about the Asyla?

John: Asyla is made of grain whisky from Cameronbridge, malt whisky from Teaninich, and just a touch of malt whisky from Glen Elgin—about 5%. Everything in there, all of the components, are aged in first fill American oak barrels. That’s the key to the style. 

David: Now will those three whiskies always make up the formula, or will you change them up as different stocks become available?

John: We’ve got a good line of sight on our supply over the next decade, so what we’ll slowly be doing over time—much like we talked about with the Peat Monster—is moving the Teaninich component over to malt whisky distilled at Linkwood, which was the original Asyla going back many years. When we couldn’t get first fill barrels, we evolved into the Teaninich. Now that we can get malt whisky from Linkwood distillery again and we’re laying it down into our barrels, it will slowly evolve back into Linkwood. No one ever really noticed when we moved it away from Linkwood though, and again—if we do it well—no one should notice when we move it back. 

David: This happens all the time at major blending houses, right? You used to work for one, so you know. They have to swap out formula components based on availability.

John: Absolutely, and they’re chopping and changing with many different parts. They have maybe twenty to thirty different components in their big brand blends, whereas we’re working with three or four. You just talked about the two recipes that have evolved the most over the years, whereas what we use to make the Oak Cross and Spice Tree—malt whiskies from the Dailuaine, Clynelish, and Teaninich distilleries—those have remained consistent over the years. Hedonism is another story because that’s about trying to find great grain whiskies from first-fill American oak barrels, which I’m sure you know from your travels through Scotland is becoming ever more difficult. Last year we started to put the batch number for every single batch of Hedonism—they’re about twelve to fifteen casks—on the label so that those couple hundred people around the world who are really interested can look up the details online and see the actual casks that went into every blend of Hedonism. While the recipe does change, grain whisky is easier to chop and change around than malt whisky because it’s lighter in character. What we’re looking for ultimately is the quality of the cask, rather than the distillery name, although Hedonism does tend to be sourced from the Cameronbridge distillery. Usually a significant portion of it. 

David: Since we were talking about consumer evolution and education, what do you think about the growing appreciation of grain whisky? There’s obviously a contingency of drinkers out there who think it’s lower in quality because of the way that it’s made. 

John: Well, it’s a perception problem. They might think it’s lower in quality because it’s lighter, but it’s just a purer, cleaner spirit because of the way that it’s distilled. Also the raw materials. But if you put grain whisky into quality cooperage, it can be a really lovely, sexy, delicious whisky. I think the fact that Diageo and William Grant have recently jumped into that game from a long-term perspective proves there’s a number of people out there who like grain whisky. Is it as interesting as malt whisky? No, it just doesn’t have the same complexity. But it’s for a different kind of person and a different way of drinking.

David: What you just said speaks to perhaps the main question we’re talking about as a whole, which is: when does the flavor of a whisky become more important than the way in which it’s made, or what it’s specifically made from? When does the information about something become less important than the quality? And when do you become confident enough as a consumer to trust your palate over the general public perception?

John: I think over the last fifteen years we’ve created quite a bit of cognitive dissonance in peoples’ minds. We present them our whiskies and we say: “we’re blenders.” And they say, “What? I only drink single malts. How can these be interesting to me?” But then they try it and the open-minded ones change their associations towards blending and Scotch whisky as a whole. To make a distinction, however, between catering to a particularly niche audience and the way I think about whisky, I’m trying to achieve something greater with our business. My ambition has always been to touch a lot of people. The mission of the business has been to share the joys of Scotch whisky with more people in the world. This is one of the world’s great drinks. Scotch whisky has not only an extraordinary breadth of style—grain whisky on one end to Ardbeg on the other—but it also has an extraordinary breadth of usage. There is an extraordinary number of ways in which you can enjoy it. You can drink it in a cocktail, or at a bar with ice and club soda. You can end a meal at a Michelin three-star restaurant by nosing and intellectualizing a super-compelling aged malt whisky. And you’ve got everything in between in terms of the ways to use it—and I love that about it. That’s part of the reason we do all the things we do. At the end of the day, the most important part of my business is getting more people to drink Great King Street.

David: The everyday Compass Box whisky.

John: That’s gonna take another ten years, though. To get there, however, I decided that we were going to take advantage of some of the other ways to enjoy Scotch whisky. If people like what we do, then they’ll tell people and that gives us credibility. And if Compass Box has credibility, then when Compass Box tells people to drink Great King Street—to try it in a Penicillin cocktail, or a classic Japanese-style Highball—then they just might listen. 

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll