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Published:  23 July, 2008

John Glaser, Compass Box Delicious Whiskies. Interview: David Williams

24 Great King Street, Edinburgh, EH3 6ON Tel: 020 7486 3400; Fax: 020 7486 6063

John Glaser's interest in drinks started when he discovered wine while studying for a degree in literature in the US. He went on to spend several years working in the wine industry in the US, mostly in retail and wholesale, but also working a vintage in Napa and for a year in Burgundy. His love of whisky developed as marketing director for Johnny Walker, a position which also brought him to the UK in 1998. He set up the multi-award-winning Compass Box in 2000, as a one-man blending-band. Working from his kitchen in Kew, he came up with his first release, an all-grain blend called Hedonism. His team has since grown to three, and his product range to six whiskies including grain/malt blends, vatted malts and an orange-flavoured whisky infusion.

What exactly do you get up to? We're a craft blender, a boutique whisky company. We create blended whiskies by buying up raw materials and take them to the world.

How do you go about that? We go to Scotland, find the whiskies we want and then get cask samples sent to us. We're working to rough recipes, so we know we'll need so much Glenn Ord, say, in one of our whiskies, and so much of another. Then we taste through the samples and put together a prototype blend, evaluate it against previous bottlings and buy the casks we need. These get sent down to us, and we add water to bottling strength and then put the whiskies back into cask for three to six months to marry. Then we bottle the whisky and sell it.

All your whiskies are blends, aren't they? Why don't you do single malts? My initial idea when I set out was to make a range of different whiskies, from different distilleries, which would be considered some of Scotland's greatest whiskies and which would change the perception that to be great you have to be a single malt from a single distillery. One of the things that I have learnt throughout my career with Scotch is that the backbone of Scotch and what has made it what it is today is blending. It goes back to the early 19th century, when people started blending different whiskies from different distilleries.

So you don't see yourself as a whisky bottler as such? Independent bottlers are for the most part bottling up individual, single-cask whiskies, which is a beautiful thing to do, and some of Scotland's greatest whiskies are found in their portfolios. But I want to create products of that quality using blending to do so. I have tried to create a house style of Scotch whisky that no one else is doing, and with 90 different distilleries working in Scotland, I have a very broad palate to work with.

How would you describe that style? I think the palates of a lot of people my age, and also those of younger people who have been brought up on Coca-Cola and Californian Chardonnay, prefer sweeter styles to drink, and I don't necessarily mean sugar sweetness so much as a sweet impression. A lot of Scotch whisky isn't like that. Across the products, our style has a certain sweetness or richness.

You're also known for reviving grain whisky. That goes back to my time with Diageo. I was asking a lot of questions: about blending, and why we are afraid of talking about it, and why we aren't giving it the respect it deserves, but also about grain whisky, and why we weren't bottling it. I had tasted some and I couldn't get out of my mind how great they were. When I started Compass Box, I was working on my own out of a kitchen in Kew, so I was too small to launch straight away with a whole range of stuff and take the world by storm. So with an all-grain whisky, I knew it would be something that would take the world by surprise and attract attention, and also change people's perceptions.

You were at Diageo for 10 years. Why did you leave? Diageo was obviously geared towards big brands, but I always thought that, in the biggest whisky company in the world, there ought to be some scope for trying new things whilst still being great brand stewards. But, at least while I was there, that just wasn't the case.

Why aren't more people doing the kind of things you are doing? For some reason, there isn't an embedded entrepreneurial culture in Scotland that you can find in other countries. Plus there is a tradition around Scotch whisky, which most people are afraid to approach or challenge. There's a bit of cultural inertia there. Then there are barriers of entry, because the duty in this country is so high. And I guess, unless you have contacts in the industry, it's difficult to knock on the door of a distillery and just ask for some casks.

So far you are all about Scotch. As an American, would you be interested in doing something similar with Bourbon? Never say never, but I just find that there is such a breadth of style in Scotch that I have never been tempted by anything else. Having said that, I went over to Normandy last year and was captivated by Calvados. They could do with someone to do something like we have done, because they have all this gorgeous product going unnoticed. But as soon as I got back, I realised that it wasn't going to be me!

You seem to love Scotland. Do you have any Scottish blood? We do have a couple of relatives born in Ayrshire in the early 1800s, but I'm American and, like most Americans, I'm a mutt! I can be German one day, Swedish the next if I want!