A Conversation with John Glaser, Compass Box WhiskymakerBy Thijs Klaverstijn
Compass Box, a Scotch whisky producer and bottler, has been around for nearly two decades. In that time the company has made a name for itself through its creativity, innovation and by challenging commonly accepted whisky regulations—most famously with its Transparency Campaign. Along the way Compass Box has delighted whisky drinkers with creations such as The Spice Tree, Flaming Heart and This Is Not A Luxury Whisky, among many others.
At the same time, Compass Box has helped put a spotlight back on blended malts, a category that has long been overshadowed by single malts and blended whiskies. John Glaser, Compass Box founder and self-described “whiskymaker,” has proven himself to be an expert blender, learning from some of the best in the business.
But Glaser originally intended on a career in the wine business. When he was offered a job at Johnnie Walker, he couldn’t refuse—but he still had every intention of eventually sliding over to Diageo’s wine department. Things worked out differently though, as he fell in love with Scotch whisky and the idea of blending whisky as a creative art.
A Compass Box tasting / Photo Credit: Compass Box
We at Distiller got an insight into the creative process from Glaser himself as he explains finding that elusive “deliciousness” in each of his creations.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Distiller: Tell us about how you made the transition from wine to whisky.
Glaser: “During my first trip to Scotland I ended up in a blending room with Maureen Robinson, who is still one of the lead senior blenders at Diageo today. The perimeter of the room had shelves, and there were nosing glasses on all the shelves. Each glass had a little bit of whisky in it, with a watch glass on top. There was a big measuring cylinder and small sample bottles all around. She was nosing all the whiskies. As someone with a background in wine, where blending grape varieties and vineyards is common, that struck me as fascinating.”
Distiller: How did your fascination evolve from there?
Glaser: “Basically I started blending at home. This is 25 years ago now. I started with what back then would be considered a pretty silly whisky collection, and I blended from bottled whisky that I would buy myself. Or samples that I would get from the company.”
Distiller: What were you trying to achieve at the time?
Glaser: “I can’t remember the recipes from back then, but I was trying to create something that was mine and that tasted beautiful. I would make little vattings and bottle them and give them as gifts to friends and family. But then [Johnnie Walker] moved me to London, and part of my responsibility was product development. That’s when I started to really get under the skin of blending, learning from Maureen and [Johnnie Walker’s master blender] Jim Beveridge.”
John Glaser / Photo Credit: Compass Box
Distiller: How much can you learn? Or is blending more like an innate talent that people have?
“Most people are born with a pretty good nose. Those who are great at nosing are the people that concentrate on it, do a lot of it and learn. They learn the vocabulary and what to expect. Nosing and assessing is one part of it. The blending part, the creation, is really intuition, which is what you develop over time. I’ve always, going back to my early days, talked about whiskies that are delicious. Back when people said, ‘Delicious is not a whisky word.’ But, why not? Great whiskies have a deliciousness that makes you want to take another sip.”
Distiller: The term delicious is very subjective of course.
Glaser: Yeah, that’s really interesting. But I think that there are some underlying truths about what we, as a group, want to drink more of. If I put a 15-year-old Clynelish from a first-fill bourbon barrel in one glass, and I put a 2-year-old from Johan’s distillery from down the road, who is just learning how to distill, one of them is going to have something moreish, something that draws you back. Is it related to umami? I don’t know.
Distiller: What is it that makes you capable of creating a successful blended malt?
Glaser: “If I’m decent at one thing, it is having a sense of what people that have grown up in the cultures that I have grown up in, like and find delicious in whisky. Blending has a technical aspect, and you develop intuition for what happens when you develop certain whiskies. But then there is understanding what you’re trying to make, and if something is really good or just okay. That’s the big measure at Compass Box. We try to find this balance of flavors and deliciousness.”
Compass Box blending bottles / Photo Credit: Compass Box
Distiller: Could you take us through your process of how you create a new whisky?
Glaser: “It’s a creative process, without a doubt. We start with an idea and think of what will make it special and different from everything else that is out there. Do we just tweak things? That’s one path. Or do we take a core component and start adding different things to it and go in a different direction. Sometimes we take two or three paths at the same time, and we’ll keep making tweaks and iterations. Eventually one just sort of shows you the way.
“Sometimes, although not always, you’re going down a path and have this eureka moment, and very often you don’t expect it. Like, ‘there’s too much sherry, so let’s add a little bit from this refill hogshead, just to balance out the sherry.’ And then you suddenly realize it didn’t just balance out the sherry, it brought a whole new aspect to it. So it is an iterative process, and a creative one as well.”
Distiller: For someone interested in blending and is looking to try things at home, do you have any advice?
Glaser: “I like to encourage people to blend at home. Because it is fun and I used to do it, you can create whiskies that are your own. Keep trying stuff, and above all, make it delicious. Sometimes when we make stuff on our own, we have a bias towards it. I make wine every year from one big vine in my garden. It’s horrible. But I acknowledge that. Just be objective about what you’re making. Go for deliciousness and try to figure out how to get to that point.”