Scotch Whisky is in many ways the liquid manifestation of the dual power and elegance of the countryside in which it is carefully crafted. As the harsh wind and rain whip against the sides of dunnage warehouses, the whisky sits safely in its casks, waiting to be bottled at just the right moment. It’s as much about spirit as science, and one of the most romantic epicurean experiences out there.
So you can understand my confusion at hoping on London’s District Line, turning off the Chiswick High Street, and entering a nondescript industrial park to visit one of the world’s most talented whiskymakers. The romance of the moors seems a world away when you’re avoiding traffic in West London. But that is where John Glaser, former Diageo giant, crafts whisky for his Compass Box Whisky Company, one of the most innovative and directional forces in the whisky world.
Single Malt scotch only shot to popularity as a luxury commodity in the second half of the twentieth century, and what most people know as scotch whisky is actually a blend of malt and grain whiskies. Often these blends use inexpensive grain whisky for up to eighty percent or more of the blend, merely using malt whisky to lend its distinctive flavor to the final product. With a talented hand and palate, like Mr. Glaser’s, the possibilities for excellent blends are nearly infinite. Compass Box offers blends of all grain, grain and malt, as well as all malt blends known as vatted malts by insiders. This is the first article in a series about Compass Box, how to get the most out of your whisky, and how to expand your spirits palate.
The Craftsman – John Glaser
It all started when Mr. Glaser took an enology course his final year of college, and was bit by the wine bug. After a few years doing different things in the wine industry, he moved to Diageo, the company that owns brands like Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker and Guinness. Eventually, he was transferred to London where he began getting involved in the whisky industry. Finally, in order to take his home experiments in blending to the next level, the Compass Box Whisky Company was born in 2000. Eleven years later, Mr. Glaser is still doing things no other whiskymaker would dream of, pushing the boundaries of what truly high quality whisky can be.
As with most crafts, whiskymaking begins with the best ingredients. You may think this means great spirit, but the process begins long before a still is even touched – wood is first and foremost. Without good casks, even the best spirit will end up dull and flavorless. While most distilleries primarily utilize casks which formerly held Bourbon from America or Sherry from Spain, the wood program at Compass Box is much more complex. By mixing heads and staves from different types of casks, which might have previously held various spirits or wines, and from different species of oak (French, Spanish, American, etc.), Mr. Glaser can get the raw ingredients just right.
The Whisky Blending
A blend often starts with an idea, and Compass Box’s first offering Hedonism began by bucking the single malt trend in the strongest way possible. There is no malt at all. Glaser felt that the beauty and elegance of top quality Scottish grain whisky was often overlooked in favor of the popular malts. Sadly, most blended whiskies pay little attention to their grain base, relying on the small amount of malt for flavor. Instead, Hedonism combines a handful of great grain, giving it a creamy, custardy taste and mouthfeel that is unlike any malt I’ve ever had. I first had it at a tasting in London, and immediately sought out Compass Box’s other offerings.
My personal favorite might be the Spice Tree. By combining different types of oak in one cask, with various levels of toast and char, Glaser ends up with a whisky that is almost like liquid fruitcake. But unlike most fruitcake, you’ll find yourself coming back for more. There is a long story of scandal behind this whisky, and when it was first released, the powers-that-be in the Scotch whisky industry put an injunction on its sale. Apparently, they argued, the oak being used did not meet the strict definitions of the industry, and thus could not be sold at “Scotch.” Well, after a slight re-formulation in the wood program, it’s back and better than ever.
Mr. Glaser was kind enough to provide me with a tasting kit as well as a few special samples, so stay tuned in the coming weeks for a tasting of the Compass Box range. I have had most of the whiskies before, but by tasting them side by side, hopefully I’ll be able to give you a sense of which one might be right for you.
In the meantime, you can watch two videos about whisky by Charles MacLean, one of the world’s leading authorities and author of a number of books on the matter.