Posted: January 25, 2006
It may seem odd to think that the founder and whisky maker of a boutique Scotch whisky company should be an American who hails from Minnesota and came to the liquor world by way of his love for wine. But the concept makes more sense when it's revealed that the whisky man in question is John Glaser of Compass Box Crafted Whiskies, the young company that is producing some of the most innovative Scotches on the market.
In an atmosphere in which whisky connoisseurship has been defined by the single malts of Scotland, Glaser has championed not only vatted malts (marriages of pot-stilled single malts) and blends (malts blended with column-stilled grain whisky), but grain whisky itself -- the very ingredient that was thought to degrade blended whiskies. Despite his odd choice of direction, he has been consistently putting out whiskies that are not only interesting taste experiences for enthusiasts, but world-class spirits.
Glaser stopped in from London last week to discuss his take on whisky over a few drams of his spirit. Seems that once his life's ambition was to have been a winemaker. However, a job opportunity early in his career led him to a position marketing Johnnie Walker blended Scotch for Schieffelin & Somerset, which was then owned by Moet Hennessy. He now confesses that he had at first hoped to eventually make a shift over to Moet's wine division, but became enamored with Scotch whisky. "Inside every wine guy is a whisky guy waiting to get out," Glaser reflects on his conversion.
Then one day while vacationing in the Caribbean, he announced to his wife that he would market his own whisky, buying special casks from Scottish distilleries and putting the product together. He was on the island of Eleuthera and hence his original vatted malt was named.
Vatted malts were rare at the time, usually created in the United Kingdom to commemorate events such as coronations, but it wasn't completely unheard of among whisky lovers. The category has grown in the ensuing years and major brands like Johnnie Walker and Famous Grouse have marketed vatted malts -- sometimes called pure malts -- on these shores. But where Glaser seemed to step off the deep end was when he bottled Hedonism, a blend of grain whiskies.
The genius of Glaser, however, was they weren't just any grains, they were especially old (some as old as 23 years) and aged in prime wood. The result is a cake icing of a whisky worthy of its name. It shows off the craft of the large grain distilleries that sometimes labor in the dark. The whisky has such an interesting profile, however, that it is not hard to understand why one of Glaser's friends accused him of making a Scotch that tastes like white wine. (It doesn't really, but, as Glaser will attest, grains do bring the sweetness and softness to a blend.)
But for his rebel stance, Glaser is a traditionalist when it comes to wood. The Scotch whisky world is currently entranced by special aging and finishing. Whiskies rested in barrels formerly used for Port and Sherry no longer seem exotic in a market where Bordeaux, Burgundy and even Château d'Yquem barrels are entering Scottish warehouses. Yet Glaser insists on nothing but American oak for his whiskies.
The Scotch industry, which almost exclusively uses reused barrels for aging, has typically procured spent barrels from the Bourbon makers of Kentucky, who are legally bound to use their barrels only once. Glaser upholds that tradition, not only for a belief in American wood, but because he dislikes the flavors that wine casks impart to whisky. With a note of irony, Glaser observes: "I may come to whisky as a wine lover, but I don't like wine-flavored whisky."
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