Has John Glaser run out of steam?After years of making cutting edge whiskies where else is there for Compass Box to go? Is the company heading off on to a side track and hurtling towards the buffers?
After more than a decade admiring Glaser’s work, asking such questions is totally legitimate. But it takes about 10 seconds from walking through the door of Compass Box’s West London office to have all doubts well and truly kicked in to the long grass.
Sitting in front of Glaser when I arrive are Tristan Stephenson and Ryan Chetiyawardana. And if those names mean nothing to you, then the individuals in question are the metaphorical equivalent of donning a white coat, lining up the test tubes, and shouting ‘I’m a mad professor!’
Tristan Stephenson is a member of the Fluid Movement and a director of London bar Purl, an atmospheric cellar bar dripping in Jack Ripper Goth chic where Stephenson and his colleagues serve Laphroaig cocktails in domes pumped full of wood smoke, and where dry ice, foam and various gases are all on the menu. They are experimenting with a scent invented by a French perfumier called ‘the smell of fear’. This is ‘molecular mixology’ and these guys are doing for drinks what Heston Blumenthal is doing for food.
Ryan Chetiyawardana, is, quite simply, a drinks genius. He applies science to alcohol with mind-boggling results, he loves distilling and everything that goes with it, and at the end of April he will be the bar manager at The Worship Street Whistling Shop, the Fluid Movement’s new bar and an establishment based on a Victorian gin palace.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is as serious about drinks as that guy,” Glaser says of Chetiyawardana after the pair has left. “He has always wanted to distil and he’s capable of amazing things. He told me once that he removed all the wood from a Talisker, and then he put the clear Talisker back in to wood. What’s that about? Crazy stuff.”
So, is innovation alive and well in whisky, and is Glaser still in amongst it? That’ll be an emphatic double yes then. But not as much as Glaser would like.
“If you’re talking about innovation in whisky then you have to look to America because in recent years they have gone from 20 distilleries to 200 or maybe more. They’re sprouting up like mushrooms after a rain storm. Why is this? Because barely a week goes by without another state relaxing its distilling laws to permit small distillers to produce whiskey.
“They’re doing it because these distillers will pay big amounts of tax and provide work at a difficult time. Letting people distil is good for jobs and good for the economy.
“That ought to happen here. The Government should be persuaded to lower the barriers of entry to make it easier for guys like Ryan to make spirits. There might be 200 guys like Ryan out there and can you imagine what would happen if they could band together and distil? Just imagine where that might take innovation...”
So after 10 years as a lone wolf, of being branded a maverick and a rebel, of disputes with the Scotch Whisky Authority and of exploring whisky’s wild west, Glaser’s not concerned about competition?
“Not at all,” he says. “Back then it was very different. There was no one doing what we were doing. I didn’t mind being out there at the front on my own and at the centre of controversy, for two reasons. One, because I never once doubted the integrity of what we were doing and there was never a compromise on quality, and two, because most people backed what we were doing. At times I was almost embarrassed by the number of awards we got for innovation, but there was no one else doing it. A lot’s changed in 10 years and there are a lot more people trying different things and perhaps what we’ve been doing has had some effect on other companies and given them the courage to try new things and that’s been good for the industry.”
Glaser’s call for a distilling revolution might on the face of it appear to be the latest challenge to the authority of the industry in general and the Scotch Whisky Association in particular but in actual fact it’s anything but. He points out changing the rules as to what is and isn’t whisky is not the same thing as allowing more people to distil spirits and create new drinks styles and flavours.
“If a new generation of distillers in Scotland create new spirits then that’s not a threat to the integrity and quality of Scotch whisky because they won’t necessarily be making whisky and if they do want to make whisky they’ll have to do it to the same standards as before,” he says.
“This sort of evolution is already happening in America and there’s an inevitability about it,” he says. “Lots of the new drinks won’t be very good and they’ll fall away naturally, leaving the ones which drinkers want. There’s a demand for this sort of innovation, it’s out there, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
That Glaser isn’t standing still is demonstrated by the limited bottling of the stunning Double Single, which could be dismissed as simply ‘a blend’. But how many other blends are cask strength and contain just one single malt – Glen Elgin – and one grain – from Port Dundas?
“Yes that was a very esoteric Compass Box thing to do,” he laughs.”To do a limited edition blend containing 76 per cent malt and 24 per cent grain aged 19 and 21 years old, and to charge £95 for a whisky which is neither heavily peated or heavily sherried.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Glaser is only interested in serving a small percentage of drinkers who can afford premium and super premium prices. His next offering, which will be with us by June, will turn that one on its head.
It’s under wraps for now – Glaser likes his hard working distributors and agents to hear about his new releases directly and not through whisky magazines – but suffice to say that it will be populist, affordable, and easily available. It’s no coincidence he’s talking to the likes of Stephenson and Chetiyawardana, either, for two reasons: they’re young, and they’re fascinated by the Victorian past. Early prototypes of the new bottle and the name of the new whisky both sit comfortably in that environment. Indeed, Glaser is happy to go on record to confirm it.
“Some people may see what we’re doing as a great innovation but for me it’s back to the future,” he says. “If you look back at the history of whisky it fits. In some ways we’re going to do what I’ve always wanted to do but wasn’t able. It ties in with the company motto, which is to share whisky with people and enjoy it. It’s not a brand launch for me, it’s the start of a mission.”
So Glaser’s still out there, asking the questions, prodding and probing. But with a worldwide business to attend, with distributors to keep sweet and with competition fierce, he must be stretched thin. It’s like a band with second or third album syndrome, with public demand for the brand restricting the time for creativity. How much time does he give to whisky making these days?
“Not nearly enough. I’m embarrassed to tell you. So I won’t.”
And he doesn’t. The maverick.