Box clever (John Glaser)

Box clever (John Glaser)

Dave Broom talks to John Glaser, the man exploring the boundaries of whisky

People | 16 Aug 2002 | Issue 25 | By Dave Broom

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There's three things I look for when I make my whiskies," John Glaser is saying to me. "Flavour, creativity and pleasure: by which I mean moreishness and drinkability." There's 10 glasses in a circle between us precariously balanced on a table consisting of two boxes of Asyla and the end of an old cask of Cambus. We're in his new office in Marylebone, a place which, despite the poshest of postcodes, looks like a strange blend of avant-garde art gallery, second-hand bookshop and sample room. It's some contrast from our first meeting. I was up seeing Peter Warren at Cardhu and was invited to lunch at the adjoining Johnnie Walker 'home'. Some of the Walker team joined us, including their Global Marketing Director, a fresh-faced, clean-cut young American. Five of us dined in a vast room. It felt like eating at Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu. We talked, as you do on those occasions, of how to regenerate blends, of how to make whisky contemporary. The American seemed to have some pretty good ideas. He gave me his business card.A year or so later a vaguely familiar figure approached me at London's bar show and gave me his business card. 'John Glaser' it said. 'Whisky zealot'. Now that's enough to make you start asking questions. He was still fresh-faced and clean-cut but now was promoting his one-man operation Compass Box and had just made his first whisky which he had assembled in his kitchen. Hang on, I thought. This man turned his back on the biggest blend in the world to make whisky at home? "It's a vatted grain" he said, showing me a bottle called Hedonism sporting a label that looked as if it was designed by Terry Gilliam. I was intrigued, excited and suspicious at the same time. If truth be told, for a nanosecond I wondered if the pressure of working for UDV had got to him and he had gone totally mad. A vatted grain for Christ’s sake? Then I tasted it. It was superb. Luscious and sexy, it was that rare thing – a new whisky, a genuinely fresh idea in a market devoid of innovation. EleutheraThings have moved on since then. Compass Box now has three whiskies: Hedonism, the vatted grain; Asyla the blend of malt and grain and Eleuthera, the vatted malt. Not your normal names in a market where nomenclature usually reaches such radical heights as '21-year-old'; or if you are being really out there 'Purple Label'. There are stories behind them all which give you some insight into John's approach to whisky-making. Take Eleuthera. "It's an island in the Bahamas where some friends have a place," John says. "It was there where I committed myself to leaving UDV. It's a cool word too!" In fact it's the Greek term for spiritual freedom. So, the place where he made the leap into personal freedom was named after the Greek for personal freedom. That's pretty neat.It wasn't that the eleutheric leap was prompted by a radical disagreement with UDV. In fact he enjoys a close and friendly relationship with the firm. It was just that he had begun to see whisky in a different way. "I'm not trying to transform whisky, but help it evolve," he says. "We used to talk about 'transforming whisky' in New York, of turning it on its head and I learned a lot from that. I learned it doesn't work. You have to help things evolve organically, and that evolution is usually driven by small and independent companies. In the early '90s we tried all these drastic things which weren't credible. We went way too far and tried to force whisky into areas where it simply didn't fit."Yet his new approach was radically at odds with the big brand philosophy of his former employer. It was in direct opposition to his MBA mindset. "I just had to learn to go with my gut feeling and not apply the marketing rigour that I was trained to use," he says. "I'm just trying to show people that it's possible to push the boundaries out, that you can cross them and when you do, guess what? You haven't been vaporised!" He's been pushing at the envelope only to discover there isn't an envelope in the first place, which is pretty Zen when you think about it.It's long struck me that John is like the whisky equivalent of the great Californian wine maverick Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon. He seems embarrassed by the comparison, mumbling something about not being as clever with words or as wild in his ideas. "The funny thing is that Randall Grahm doesn't seem so much of a maverick these days because the wine business has evolved round him. Whisky hasn't had a Randall Grahm. Not that I'm trying to be," he adds quickly. "I don't have a maverick personality, but … it doesn't take much to be one in the whisky business!"That's the central problem. Whisky has been left behind as other drinks have evolved. "Why can a $50 bottle of wine manage to sell itself with a boot on the label and whisky cannot?" he asks. "Wine wasn't always like that, but wine has been more creative in the last 20 years. It's evolved." He speaks from experience. His first job was in the wine business, his first dream was to own a vineyard in California. He only tasted whisky for the first time when he joined UDV in 1994. "There's an obvious connection," he says. "The appreciation of whisky is analogous to wine. There's as much to discover. I want to share the joy of this incredible product, to bring new people to whisky but also appeal to whisky lovers."AsylaHis process of discovery about whisky has taken him into a new place, one which bears some resemblance to the name he gave his second whisky, Asyla. "I read about this orchestral piece by Thomas Ades [called Asyla] and how it was the plural for asylum. I just thought it was a really cool word which could mean madhouse or sanctuary … or something in between." Compass Box is a kind of refuge for Glaser, a world away from the madness of big business, though, if his some of his ex-colleagues are to be believed, it is he who has gone loopy. But hey, isn't all creativity a form of madness? And what could be more insane than announcing your arrival with a vatted grain? "I always knew that would be the first whisky," he says. "I was at Cardhu on a Johnnie Walker programme and we had a sample of grain. I remember thinking it was so good and I started pestering people about it. It had that complexity that a great old grain can have, the same that you get from that Signatory bottling of Cambus” (see page 70).We're back at the circle of whiskies on the makeshift table. "This is the stuff I think is really good," he says. "They might not be the most compelling whiskies on the market but I like them!" He is boyishly enthusiastic about them all. "I bought this," he says, brandishing the glass of Cooley own-label malt, "and thought, Goddamn I wish I could make a whisky like this for £14." He talks up the bizarre St George single malt which has an aroma of American cream soda and orange muscat. "I'd LOVE to make a whisky that tastes of American cream soda! People don't know where to place this," he says, "but St. George is a lovely distillate. I love things like this that blur the lines." We go through Crested Ten ("I just love triple-distilled Irish pot still"), a Michel Couvreur single grain ("I like the guts of the guy for doing such a weird thing"), a Linkwood from first-fill barrels, Cambus ("I love Cambus because it is so soft and sweet, elegant and pretty. Just imagine it with Rosebank!"), Cadenhead's 9-year-old Islay and a couple of his own experiments: Asyla which has been put back into first-fill bourbon barrels to give it greater weight, and a wild drink that smells like the orange in Jaffa cakes which turns out to be Asyla with orange peel macerated in it. It's like an instant Old Fashioned (minus the bitters). "OK it's outrageous," he says. "Why not? It's fun.""These are the whiskies I love," he goes on. "One sip can be the basis for a whole new idea. That Cadenhead Islay was what led me to Eleuthera. I love peaty whisky but I find few are moreish. That's why with Eleuthera I wanted to get the impact of the peat but balance it, so you get a soft cushion of richness and sweetness on the finish. That's what brings you back for another and another."HedonismAnd that's the key to his whiskies. They are about hedonistic enjoyment rather than technical appreciation, though that doesn't mean he hasn't a deep understanding of the techie side of whisky making. "I only use whiskies where everything is in balance," he says. "The immaturity has gone, the cask isn't taking over and there's a softness on the palate. I'm focussed on a style that's approachable, that has richness, sweetness and a lot of the qualities which you get from good spirit aged in first-fill US oak. That's what links the three. I just wish more first-fill was used in Scotch because we are in an era where the taste of those drinks are in tune with people's tastes." It's evolution again.They are, dare I say it, whiskies made to be enjoyed. "Correct. It's about good stuff whether it's wine, food, cheese, or whisky. It's about enjoying life. The problem with whisky in Anglo-Saxon countries is that it has been allied with the pursuits of the moneyed classes, with golf, shooting, with roaring fires. That's not whisky to me. I drink whisky when I'm cooking, when I am out socialising, at a picnic, but I don't have the after-dinner dram in front of the fire so I don't make whiskies like that." It strikes me, I say to him, that in the UK and the US whisky appreciation is a self-centred activity, something to be enjoyed on your own. The bottle is there for personal enjoyment, for that solitary dram late at night. You don't, by and large, share the bottle as you would with wine. It's usually even kept in a locked cupboard! He nods. "That goes right back to my preferred style of whisky which is a whisky to share, something people get enjoyment out of. It's about making drinks which are equally compelling to whisky newcomers and whisky drinkers. I want people to share whisky by the bottle like they would do with wine."The irony is that at a time when brand owners are paying lip service to the need to get new drinkers interested in whisky Glaser is out on his own. Hedonism, Asyla and Eleuthera don't just look different. They taste different. That's the point. No other whisky brand has been able to connect with the trend-setting London bar owners – and you can bet New York won't be far behind. "Yeah, it's funny," he says "because there's lots of competition, ie lots of blends, but there is actually no competition at all because no-one has taken this approach. Maybe I'm unlocking the door."
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