People

Whisky Alchemy

Our man meets the brains behind one of the most innovative whisky companies out there.
By Rob Allanson
On the face of it Compass Box's offices in the bustling sprawl of Gunnersbury, west London is as far removed from Scotland's distilleries as you can get.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and whisky's very much at home here.Just down the road and nestling in a side street in Hammersmith are the headquarters of Chivas Brothers. Michael Jackson lived and worked just a stone's throw away, and Park Royal, where Diageo have recamped, is a short drive.

This is the business end of Scotch whisky and with Heathrow Airport close by, it is a gateway to the rest of the world. You suspect Compass Box founder John Glaser wouldn't have it any other way. Pagoda-free it may be but for him whisky isn't about buildings, it's about the liquid, and about creating whisky alchemy. Compass Box is all about taking high quality spirit, mixing it and turning it in to something different and even better. Gunnersbury's as good a place as anywhere to do it.

Compass Box was formed at the turn of the Millennium and is a new Millennium company. Now about to enter their second decade, Glaser and his team have succeeded in taking whisky in a whole new direction, evolving flavours into challenging and new areas. They have tested the boundaries of whisky making and prodded at the industry's rules. Some people didn't get it, some tried to stop it. But throughout Compass Box has stayed true to its fundamental principles of never cutting corners or compromising on quality.

"It's incredible to think we're entering our 10th year because in many ways it feels as if we're just starting," says Glaser. "It's gone so quickly and yet in many ways things have changed a great deal in that time.

"When we set out and put out whiskies without an age statement and with unusual names such as Hedonism only about 10 or 15 per cent of people understood what we were trying to do. Now that's probably 35 or 40 per cent. There are still plenty of people scratching their heads."

Undoubtedly Compass Box has had an amazing few years. Whiskies such as Oak Cross, Spice Tree and Flaming Heart have raised the bar in whisky full stop, each of them world class. Then there were the experiments - a 'whisky infusion' containing oranges called Orangerie, the Canto range, a complicated experiment in single cask maturation, each cask for a different international market.

Although Compass Box's modus operandi isn't unique - mixing malts has gone on for as long as whisky has been marketed - the way the company has tested whisky's boundaries and questioned how spirit is made and matured, what wood is used and how it is prepared, has been very different.

Now, with companies such as Glenmorangie throwing out the rule books to make stunning whiskies such as Signet and with the move away from a fixation with age and towards taste, the industry is showing signs of catching up with Compass Box.There's something else, too - a growing belief in some quarters that the drive for quantity has meant a sacrifice of quality, and the emergence of a niche for small quality-driven companies.

"If you look at wine then the only thing the big commercial wine makers have in common with a tiny French vineyard is that they both grow grapes," says Glaser. "They have nothing else in common at all. And there's a developing backlash to the big brands in wine and in spirits.

"In New York and San Francisco there are many people who do not want to see the big name brands in their bars and restaurants.They want unusual names produced locally.They call them localvores. That's the way we're going."

Spend any time with Glaser and you realise he takes what he does very seriously indeed. He talks about mixing old and young whisky as he has for new release Lady Luck, about the qualities of European sessile oak, about levels of toasting wood and the benefits of air drying for flavour. He's having a love affair with whisky making and is devoting an inordinate amount of time to every nuance and detail. Everything is about quality.

Nevertheless Glaser's approach has run against opposition. In the last few years he has locked horns with the Scotch Whisky Association more than once. Unsurprisingly, he still has issues with the way they interpret the rules of whisky.

"I thought the article you wrote on the Scotch Whisky Association was soft," he says. "I appreciate that you were trying to show all the good work it does behind the scenes, because the SWA actually does a lot of good for the industry. But no one asks the difficult questions, such as how it justifies being so heavy on small distilleries such as Glenora, which makes single malt whisky in a region known as Nova Scotia? Or how they could possibly push ahead with the 'blended malt whisky' terminology when it is so clear most people disagree with it?

"Or why when it comes to their rules, they feel that quality is irrelevant when it comes to considering evolutions of traditional practice? When we spoke to the SWA about the high standards used in the making of the original Spice Tree in 2003, and how it was a quality initiative, they told us straight that when they consider things like this, quality is irrelevant. How can that be?"

And don't get me going on their view of what types of stills they feel we can and can't use in Scotland. Maybe we should have had this conversation after we had eaten..."

It's a strong argument. Quality has to have a role. How can it be right to take a tired and spent wine cask used to make wine from a modern and artificial grape, transport it to Scotland and then fill it with some indifferent Scottish malt spirit for just three years, then call it Scottish single malt but object to Spice Tree?"It's ridiculous," says Glaser.

You suspect that the future holds more surprises, more challenges as evolving company clashes against immovable rocks. In the mean time Glaser will continue to balance the making of great whisky with the marketing of it.

"You know we've come a long way over these years and we're ahead of where I ever thought we'd be at this time," he says. "It's hard balancing the different demands of the business. But we defined a style right at the beginning, with richness, sweetness and good quality oak and we've stayed with it.Our hallmark will always be great tasting whisky."