An Interview with Compass Box Founder John Glaser
By Richard Thomas
Among the many small companies that have sprung up as part of the worldwide whiskey boom, few have carved out the reputation of John Glaser’s Compass Box, while Glaser himself is arguably the leading figure in modern artisanal Scotch blending and vatting. The Whiskey Reviewer was lucky enough to catch up with Glaser and ask him some questions about
RT: A whiskey-maker like Compass Box is sometimes called a “negociant,” in that you take whiskey made at a variety of distilleries, act as a skilled middleman, and turn that into a new product. How exactly do you go about finding the whiskey you use in crafting things like the Peat Monster or Hedonism?
JG: We have long-standing relationships with several of the major whisky distilling companies in Scotland. When I started the business in 2000, Scotch whisky sales were not as robust as they are today, and many companies had excess stocks they were happy to sell to companies like mine. We’ve maintained those relationships and built on them. In addition to buying mature whiskies, we also now fill our own casks each year into our own wood. This gives us even greater control over quality and our supply situation well into the future.
RT: “The Spice Tree incident,” where the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) told you that you could not use French Oak inserts in making the Spice Tree, has become a central piece of whiskey lore. Some condemn the SWA for stifling experimentation, while others praise it for defending Scotch-making traditions. As the company at the center of that controversy, where do you stand on the whole whiskey tradition vs. innovation question?
JG: I believe we need definitions and we need regulations to protect the integrity and reputation of Scotch whisky and ensure it will be a strong and relevant category into the future. For me, a key issue in all of this is around quality of the product and the techniques, processes and ways of thinking about production that one can apply. The law is very open in terms of this. However, the Scotch Whisky Association has created regulations for its members which are quite strict, and in my mind, do not adequately apply the idea of product quality in their thinking. Sparing you the details, this is my view.
RT: Let’s say you were talking to an American Bourbon drinker. Compass Box covers a range of styles and flavors. What would you recommend for him to try as a starter?
JG: If a Bourbon drinker wants to try one of our Scotch whiskies with a similar intensity of flavour, I’d recommend starting with our malt whisky Spice Tree (it’s not quite as intense as most Bourbons, but close, and the trade-off, I believe, is a more complex and elegant set of core flavours). If someone wants something soft and approachable with flavours that echo those found in Bourbon, then try Hedonism, our Scotch Grain whisky.
RT: You have a reputation now for being the seminal figure in the artisanal Scotch blending business. Does that put a lot of pressure on Compass Box to perform, and live up to expectations?
JG: I don’t believe our standing in the business puts any pressure on me to do certain things. I have always followed my heart and my instincts in producing what we do, and that’s not going to change. In fact, I’d encourage everyone to do follow the same instincts in whatever it is you do in life!
RT: Is something new from Compass Box on the horizon? Perhaps another early 20th century-inspired limited edition or another installment of The Flaming Heart?
JG: We’re always working on new things. This year we’ll release a 10th birthday limited release of The Peat Monster to celebrate its creation in 2003. And we’ve got at least a few more things up our sleeves to have fun with this year. You’ll see shortly!