Indie Spotlight: Compass Box Whisky Co.
John Glaser was convinced that blends, if constructed well, can be placed on the same pedestal as good single malts.
(Image Source: United Creatives)
People tend to treat blended whisky rather differently from single malt whisky. Blends (typically a Johnnie Walker or Chivas) have been regarded as mass market whiskies that you could cheapy mix with a coca cola for parties. Single malts (such as a Macallan or Glenmorangie) are seen to be closer to luxury, which afficionados and general consumers are happy to spend more money on.
Compass Box is an independent bottler (IB) with an anti-establishment streak (and several run-ins with the Scotch Whisky Association). Yet, the company is one of the few to successfully premiumise their blended whisky and elevate their brand out of the mass market category.
The company is highly respected for its range of blended whiskies created by its innovative team. Their most well-known core range of expressions includes the Spice Tree, Peat Monster and Hedonism.
A company started by an “enfant terrible” CEO
Compass Box was founded in 2000 as an IB company focused on blending Scotch whisky. The founder is a bespectacled American named John Glaser who looks very much like a hipster. The man previously worked in the American wine industry, and then became a marketing director in Johnnie Walker UK. One morning, he woke up and decided to found his own company, Compass Box.
Compass Box Founder, John Glaser (Image Source: Whisky Auctioneer)
Labelled as the “enfant terrible of the Scotch whisky world” by authoritative whisky writer Michael Jackson, the American came into the Scotch scene, stirred controversy and shook up the industry. How so? Let’s take a look at how Glaser drove the direction of Compass Box with his ideas on how whisky should be made and drunk.
Leading the wave of premium blended whisky
Typical blended Scotch whiskies (Image Source: Gentleman’s Gazette)
Can blended whisky be taken as seriously as single malts? John Glaser was convinced that blends, if constructed well, can be placed on the same pedestal as good single malts.
Back in the early 2000s, the whisky industry saw blended whiskies as inferior to single malts. The primary reason is that blended whisky makers- such as Johnnie Walker or Chivas- focused on accessibility and consistency. To appeal to the widest audience, bottle after bottle of blended whiskies were made to be as consistent in flavour as possible with cheaper components – think of this as being the McDonald’s of the whisky industry. Of course, this results in a perception that blended whiskies have less character, lower quality and are only intended for casual drinkers.
Wine blending had no negative connotations in the American wine industry (Image Source: Hudson Valley Magazine)
Glaser, who came from the American wine industry, did not have such preconceived notions or a prejudice against blended whisky. Blending, in the wine industry, does not have any negative associations. Fine wine makers see the practice of blending as a way to create balance between flavours from different vineyards, barrels or grapes. Blending helps to create something more interesting and complex. Certainly, whisky makers can create blends of great quality for more demanding consumers.
Quality blends at Compass Box
His experience from the wine industry guided Glaser’s philosophy on whiskymaking. Unlike IBs that simply release bottles from specific distilleries (i.e. single malts), Compass Box styles itself as a “blending house” and actively crafts its own style of blended whiskies. Similar to French wine blending houses (known as négociants), Compass Box procures individual casks from different distilleries, usually with complementary flavours, and innovatively blend them in small batches.
John Glaser and assistant whisky blender Gregg Glass testing a mixture of malt and grain whiskies (Image Source: Howard Halsall)
These whiskies are married and matured in Compass Box’s custom-made casks that have bespoke toast levels and innovative features unusual to the Scotch whisky scene.
Compass Box procures its own custom-made casks for further maturation (Image Source: Compass Box)
Using excellent malt whisky and grain whisky components, the company has created a range of high-quality blended expressions with diverse flavour profiles. After operating for two decades and with many awards to boot, the industry now agrees with John Glaser that blends can indeed be placed on the same pedestal as a good single malt.
Polished brand identity
On top of quality, Compass Box crafts a polished brand identity with its attractive bottle livery, skillful storytelling and unusual expression names that are more common to punk rock music albums.
Tobias & The Angel (Image Source: Whisky Monster)
Stranger & Stranger and Hedonism: The Muse (Image Source: Grits + Grinds and Packaging of the World)
Bottle art for the Hedonism (Image Source: United Creatives)
Compass Box Hedonism
Compass Box’s first release in 2000 – Hedonism – is a superb example of the company’s ability to create and market a premium blended whisky.
Despite prevailing wisdom that malt whisky is superior to grain whisky, Compass Box went against the grain and released Hedonism as a grain whisky. Hedonism is much sweeter than most malt whiskies, rich in vanilla and caramel and has notes of coconut. This is a marriage of grain whiskies from between eight to fifteen Scottish distilleries, mostly over twenty years old and all aged in first-fill American bourbon oak. The expression has been heralded as the World’s Best Grain Whisky at the 2008 World Whisky Awards. This is also one of the expressions to have cemented Compass Box as the leading producer of blended Scotch.
Compass Box’s inaugural release (Image Source: Whisky Auction)
So which are these eight to fifteen distilleries that make up the Hedonsim? This leads us to the next point about Compass Box.
Radical and law-breaking transparency
Recipe for Compass Box’s This is not a Luxury Whisky expression (Disclaimer: Lest we land the company in further trouble with European and Scottish authorities, please note that the publication of this image is not endorsed by Compass Box Whisky Company.)
Take a look at the infographic above. The information is in fact illegal to release under Scottish and European Union law.
Compass Box has a philosophy of providing a high level of transparency of the components in its products, such as publishing recipes with the proportions of whiskies from various distilleries used in creating an expression (but without the ages).
Breaking Scotch whisky law
Edinburgh, the Scotch Whisky Association’s headquarters (Image Source: The Edinburgh Reporter)
In October 2015, the company took a further step of publishing the ages of the component whiskies for two expressions, including “This is not a Luxury Whisky”.
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) promptly censured Compass Box that its disclosure of the older component whisky’s ages was illegal.
You see, under the Scottish and EU legislation, whisky sellers can only disclose the age of the “youngest alcoholic component in the drink”. It was illegal to disclose the age of the older components in a blend, such as the 40-year-old Stratchclyde, 40-year-old Girvan and 30-year-old Caol Ila. Compass Box is only allowed to communicate the 19-year-old component of “This is not a Luxury Whisky”.
Compass Box protested this law and even launched a campaign to amend the EU legislation. It argued that consumers would benefit from knowing the full information on every component in their product.
Compass Box continues to piss off authorities
Even though the transparency campaign won the support of Bruichladdich Distillery, the campaign proved futile. The Scotch industry was neither ready nor willing to accept this change. One year later in 2016, John Glaser conceded to the industry’s unwillingness to change.
John is still up for a fight (Image Source: The Whisky Exchange)
That said, there is a legal “loophole” Compass Box could rely upon. Although the prevailing laws prohibit Compass Box from openly disclosing the ages of the components used in their blends, it is not illegal for Compass Box to respond to consumer’s queries on the ages of the components in their blends.
Despite a run-in with the law, the defiant Glaser encouraged interested consumers to get in touch with Compass Box if they have any queries on the ages of whisky components in their blends:
“The legal advice we received is clear: while we must not actively promote the ages of the components used in our blends, we can provide information when we are asked for it by interested consumers. We are simply asking interested consumers to get in touch with us by calling our office, emailing us, contacting us on social media or speaking to us at events. The information is there, we’ll do all we can within the current regulations to share it with you – all you need to do is ask.”
Challenging orthodox ways of whisky-making
Not everyone agreed with Compass Box’s production methods.
Compass Box Spice Tree (Image Source: Compass Box)
The age-related shenanigans were actually Compass Box’s second run-in with the law. In 2005, the company released the Spice Tree expression that has rich and intense baking spices flavours, layered with toasty oak accents. To achieve these flavours in the Spice Tree, Compass Box matured a blend of whiskies in American oak barrels with French oak inner staves inserted into the barrel to add spicier and slightly bitter chocolatey notes. These French oak staves were from 200-year-old trees from Alsace that have been air-seasoned for two years. Compass Box essentially used a method of aging common in wine-making with oak of such high quality that had never been used for whisky.
Another innovation from the wine industry: oak inner staves that impart contrasting flavours (Image Source: Lafond Winery)
The resulting whisky was immensely popular. The first batch of Spiced Tree sold out quickly, and the second batch was sold out at the pre-order stage.
Suddenly, the conservatives at SWA stepped in and demanded that Compass Box cease production of the Spiced Tree or face legal action. The use of oak inner staves was contrary to Scotch-making tradition, and the SWA contended that under EU law, this was also illegal. Compass Box duly suspended production of the Spice Tree. It went back to the drawing board to develop a maturation process that complied with SWA specifications, and produced the same effect. This reinvention was later launched in 2009.
When Compass Box re-launched the Spice Tree in 2009, the company explained with tongue-in-cheek:
"Unfortunately, due to its avant garde method of oak-aging, we were compelled by the powers that be to discontinue production. Undeterred, we worked with our cooper friends in both France and Scotland to develop a new, hybrid oak cask that would allow us to achieve similar results, but in a way that would be acceptable to even the most conservative of observers."
Compass Box Affinity (Image Source: The Whisky Exchange)
Purists would also want to look away from this one. In 2020, Compass Box released the Affinity – which is not whisky. Instead, it is a blend of Scotch malt whisky and calvados – that is, French apple brandy.
37.5% of the spirit is made of Calvados or apple brandy
This is an odd pairing, but Compass Box insists that the spirits are unexpectedly complementary. The result is an unusual but delicious balance of tart and fruity ripe apple notes mingling with malty, spicy vanilla notes from Speyside and Highland Scotch distilleries.
As bohemians of the industry, the Compass Box team claimed that they have been blending calvados with Scotch at home and in their blending room for years and felt that the world would appreciate their creation.
John is our favourite rebel (Image Source: WhiskyCask)
There are rebels and rebels. Some rebel simply to be different. Others, like John Glaser, rebel meaningfully to create something they believe is better. Initially, Glaser’s unconventional whisky-making policies earned himself the “enfant terrible” label and the scorn of conservatives. Twenty-one years since its founding, the proof is in the pudding. Despite their run-ins with the establishment, Compass Box has received consistent and high accolades for its very good blended whiskies and innovative ways. At present, John Glaser's laurels also include being a five-time recipient of Whiskey Advocate’s Innovator of the Year award.
Compass Box’s blending room (Image Source: ScotchWhisky.com)
We like Compass Box for innovating and challenging at every turn, not only by introducing some really exciting styles, but also transforming the industry’s perceptions of how blends are created and who they are for. But above all, we respect Compass Box for its sincere commitment to creating good whiskies and its meaningful innovation. Too often, original bottlers (OBs) and IBs tout about how “innovative” or “bold” a new range of whiskies are- but it usually seems that these statements are mostly for marketing purposes without much substance behind claim. Finally, like many other consumers, we enjoy the very pretty bottle art used by Compass Box, which make their whiskies great collectibles.
Compass Box’s blended whiskies are very well-received and are worth the slight premium you have to pay for. The awesome part is that most of them are not extremely expensive. Our favourites are:
Entry Level: No Name (First edition); Spice Tree; Story of the Spaniard
Moderate: Hedonism (First edition); Flaming Heart (2018 edition); Magic Cask; This is not a Festival Whisky; Rouges Banquet
Top Shelf: Canto Cask, The General, Lady Luck, Tobias & The Angel