Master of Malt.
Probably the world’s smallest and most exclusive whisky company.
The Compass Box Artisan Whisky Company conducts its business affairs in London’s vibrant West End. When John Glaser set up the company in a disused garage 15 years ago, his aim was to create Scotland’s finest whisky. For some traditionalist malt drinkers, the address alone – if not Glaser’s method – is nothing short of provocation. For Glaser doesn’t distill; instead, he buys barrels of single malts of various ages and blends them in various styles of barrique. His barrels are stored and subsequently bottled in Scotland. In 2014, the company filled around 175,000 bottles. Although that sounds a lot, it’s but a drop in the ocean in the whisky business. Glaser’s creations bear names like Asyla, The Peat Monster or The General. Behind the 16 intriguingly named blends and exquisitely-designed bottles there is a small team of nine enthusiasts. Over the last few years, this team has brought about a minor revolution: they have reinvented the world of whisky.
„When I came to Scotland in 2000, people lacked ideas and optimism.“
An American in Scotland – and, worse still, in the whisky business? I can imagine you weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms in the Highlands.Well, you’re wrong. The whisky business in Scotland was in deep crisis 15 years ago. Many companies had been forced to shut down and there was little hope of a quick turnaround for the industry. When I came to Scotland in 2000, people lacked ideas and optimism. They were glad that someone was at least concerned about the fate of their whisky. After all, this was Scotland’s national drink. So they gratefully accepted help even from an American.
In France, many American investors learned the hard way – through trial and error – and went home with empty pockets after a failed investment.
Sure. But you’re talking about winemaking, where everything is very different – especially in France. I started out in wine, so I know the scene.
I didn’t realize you had a background in wine. What did you do?I set out to learn winemaking. Initially I worked at Bruno Clair in Burgundy.
Not a bad place to start!
Yes, an excellent place. I spent a year with Clair and soon discovered what France meant to French winemakers. There is an underlying sense of positive patriotism, a cultural understanding that automatically sets the tone for the domestic market. Then I went back to the United States and worked for Beringer in Napa, another leading vineyard, but a little bigger than Clair.
A little bigger is putting it mildly.I know, Beringer is enormous. But then came the unexpected offer to move to Johnny Walker. I was 29.
„So, suddenly it was whisky.“
Yes, don’t ask me why. I saw Johnny Walker as a bigger challenge. But even in those days, I knew I couldn’t work for a big corporation forever.
How did you get into winemaking? Did you study agriculture?
Not at all. Don’t laugh: I actually studied literature.
Did your studies influence your current line of work in any way?
Yes, studying literature taught me to move away from stereotypes, to think out of the box. Literature is about imagination, about creating an imaginary world. Literature encourages you to dream about new possibilities.
So you were able to reinvent whisky, because you saw the opportunity.
Yes. The way it is made, at least – and above all the finishing.
You don’t actually distill whisky.
That’s correct. I buy finished barrels from a hand- ful of selected distilleries, young and mature whiskies, with and without a vintage, then at my Scottish premises I transfer them to new small and medium-sized wooden casks.
What does that achieve? Richer flavours from toasting the cask?
No. The thing with my casks is that they bring more secondary notes out of the whisky and enhance its complexity. Although most whiskies are left a long time to mature in the cask, they are brought to market without any proper finishing. And that goes for some of the really superb distillates. But even these are capable of further refinement.
„I want the whisky to reveal its true potential.“
Do you have a nose for wood, like a winemaker who knows instinctively which wood combines best with a Merlot, Chardonnay or Cabernet to help it develop?
You’re back to winemaking again. I make whisky, not wine. I don’t know if I have a nose for wood. Of course, toasting the casks makes a huge difference. But I tend not to go for very strong tones, since whisky is already strong enough. Sweetness is not the objective, but more spice, greater complexity. I want the whisky to reveal its true potential. In winemaking, barriques were used mainly to improve a wine’s strength, and its suitability for storage. But these are not issues you really have to worry about with whisky. So the casks serve a different purpose. They are there to bring out secondary notes. In fact, whisky only really becomes whisky when it’s in the barrel: that is where it gets its distinctive colour and characteristic flavour. Small margins can make a huge difference in this respect. Most distilleries traditionally store their whiskies in old sherry or port casks.
„Each whisky has to have the right sort of wood.“
What sort of wood do you use?
I work mainly with oak from the Vosges, American timber and a Spanish cooper who makes the sherry casks.
American oak is said to bring out the sweet notes.
That’s right. That’s why we use it almost exclusively for smokier whiskies, where it enhances the flavour without being overpowering.
Do you try out a wide range of different casks?
Sure. Each whisky has to have the right sort of wood. It’s not the same as in winemaking, where the winegrower makes do with three or four cooperies for his entire range. That’s not the case with me. If necessary, I use a specific cask for each whisky.
Here we are in London, in your West End office. It’s a pretty sober environment, with a laboratory and a few laptops. How does your facility in Scotland compare?
It’s a modern building, not in the least romantic. Deep cellars are useful in the wine business – but they aren’t necessary for whisky. Hardly anyone uses them in Scotland, not even the really old distilleries. You just have to leave the barrels to rest at a more or less regular temperature. That’s all there is to it.
„It’s a trend towards improved quality.“
In the last few years, the market has seen the arrival of some very expensive whiskies. Does that signal a trend towards increased profits through customization?No. If anything, it’s a trend towards improved quality. It’s a very sound development compared with 15 years ago. Self-confidence was not as high then as it is now – and nor was the quality of certain whiskies. I think there’s a great future for the market in rare, expensive whiskies. That isn’t so much to do with fashion as with people’s increasing desire for genuine, authentic products.
Many Scottish whisky producers complain about the way the state impedes any positive development in the industry.
That’s probably very true for the domestic market. The tax on alcohol has been extremely high for so long that whisky is no longer the Scots’ national drink. People are opting for cheaper products, which are unfortunately not so good. But I don’t envisage the situation changing anytime soon.
But back to the original question: the Scotch Whisky Association has often been very critical of your use of wood.I don’t want to go into the matter any further. I’ve said all that has to be said. It’s really no longer an issue.
Have you ever thought of setting up your own distillery?Why would I do that? I see myself very much in the French tradition of a négociant-éleveur – the difference being that I improve whiskies rather than wines.
Is that because it gives you greater independence?Independence and dependence at the same time. After all, I’m not the first person to work with whiskies that are already finished. That tradition has been around for a considerable time. I just do it differently so as to give the whisky a modern twist.
„I’m interested mainly in flavour.“
Smoking has all but disappeared. Are you concerned that whisky and other alcoholic beverages will suffer the same fate?
No, I’m not worried at all. I’m interested mainly in flavour. And in getting more and more people to appreciate how complex whisky can be if you just take the trouble to explore its secondary aromas. It’s not about volume and drinking to excess. It’s about quality.
And that’s reflected in the higher price tag.