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.
In his whisky journey he also came to appreciate some of the unknown products of Scotland that he felt were being underplayed in the game of large corporate liquor marketing. He visited dozens of distilleries, collecting special tastes, not only from the highly touted malt stills, but the grain whisky makers, who are often dismissed as industrial whisky makers. Somewhere inside, the chemist in Glaser came out and he began mixing whisky at home. "My desire to make stuff as a winemaker manifested itself as a whisky maker," he says. "My approach is American as opposed to traditionalist. I say, 'Why not? Why don't we?'"
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.)
The Compass Boxes line of whisky now includes a blended Scotch as well as a second vatted malt directed at lovers of peat. Glaser also creates limited-release whiskies with intriguing profiles, such as one recently based on spice. Orangerie, marketed over the holidays, was his first foray into liqueurs.
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."
|The Peat Monster|
His strictness regarding barrels used for aging extends to the number of cycles the casks have undergone. The number is one. Scotch makers not only purchase formerly used barrels for other wines and spirits, they also are allowed to recycle them for further whisky making. Glaser insists on only first-fill barrels (casks new to Scotch aging that have been used only once for other spirits). The result is obvious: advanced maturation compared with whiskies that have been aged in second- and third-fill barrels.
The overall results are obvious as well. In Glaser's words: "It is about pleasure. Not clubbiness or trying to assert your masculinity. It's about drinking good stuff."
A tasting follows of Glaser's standard portfolio (distilleries noted are the principal sources for each spirit:
Hedonism -- Vatted Grain -- Cambus, Caledonian, Cameron Bridge grain distilleries -- between 12 and 23 years old -- 86 proof -- $75
This pure grain mixture will be an eye-opener for anyone who thinks grain whisky cheapens blended Scotch. A rich whiff of vanilla, almost Bourbon, on the nose is followed by decadently sweet candy on the palate. The sugar gains body and becomes toffee and vanilla before the finish slowly fades with a host of interesting spices.
Asyla -- Grain & Malt -- Blended Scotch Whisky -- Cragganmore, Linkwood, Glen Elgin malt distilleries; Cambus Cameron Bridge grains -- between 10 and 12 years old -- 80 proof -- $35
Another learning experience about grains, this time with a blended Scotch. The quality grain whiskies are evident on the nose with sweet vanilla and some grain, but then comes the slight smoke of peat. It hits the tongue with sweetness, but quickly turns into an explosion of spices and licorice. Long, spicy finish.
Eleuthera -- Vatted Malt -- Clynelish, Glenlossie, Caol Ila malt distilleries -- between 10 and 18 years old -- 92 proof -- $50
The whisky weds Highland, Speyside and Islay single malts, and all areas announce themselves on the nutty, sweet, smoky nose. In the mouth, it becomes a blast of licorice with a vanilla core, then softens to banana flavors. On the finish, the peat of Islay asserts itself with a slowly fading smoky warmth.
The Peat Monster -- Vatted Malt -- Caol Ila, Ardmore malt distilleries -- between 10 and 15 years old -- 92 proof -- $45
Glaser created this whisky to satisfy popular demand for -- as the name suggests -- something overwhelmingly peaty Scotch. While the nose announces that intention quite loudly and the palate echoes it, the whisky is not a one-note samba, but rather a dance with a number of sweet, spicy, meaty, cheesy meat components. As the flavor parade marches in your mouth, you forget the smoke until it returns on the forever finish.