Compass Box’s John Glaser – In conversation
Posted on June 02 2015
At The Good Wine Shop we’ve been cheekily calling the Compass Box Whisky range our ‘local scotch’ for a while. The company is based in Chiswick and its founder John Glaser lives across the river in Kew. Sarah Ball caught up with him on one of his recent visits to our shop on Royal Parade …
How did Compass Box Whisky get started?
I started Compass Box from the kitchen of my first home in Kew, on Defoe Avenue. The kitchen was where I did all the whisky assessment and prototype blending. The dining room was my office. And the front hall was where I stored cases of the whiskies! Prior to that I worked for a small whisky brand you might know called Johnnie Walker. And before that, following university, I chased the dream of becoming a winemaker for several years.
It’s the company’s fifteenth year – how has the whisky world changed over that time?
It’s a completely different world. Fifteen years ago, spirits were not cool like they are today. Whisky was definitely not cool, and global shipments from Scotland were flat or declining. There were only a handful of private companies in Scotch whisky and not much innovative thinking. I looked at things and thought there were too many whisky brands making and selling whisky in the same way. I saw whisky as a huge secret to people under the age of, about, 40. And I thought someone ought to try a new approach. Inspired by my former career, the wine business, I set up Compass Box to try to make the world of whisky a more interesting place.
Your whiskies have won lots of awards – what do you think makes them so successful?
We are fanatical about oak. That’s the fundamental thing that is different about our approach. We’re using types and qualities of oak casks that are very unusual for Scotch whisky, but these help develop delicious flavours in the whiskies. We also bottle whisky types, like grain whiskies and single malt blends—that few other companies do.
What keeps you personally passionate about your job?
I love what I do, I love our industry because it’s about connecting people, and I love being able to make a difference.
Do you have a favourite Compass Box product (and why)?
They’re all like children to me, so I can’t pick a favourite. But as our bin men on High Park Road know, I have been going through a lot of Great King Street “Glasgow Blend” in the last several months. Right now, with warm weather coming, I like it with lots of ice, soda water (to taste), a sprig of mint (bashed up a little in the hand to release the oils) and a twist of lemon zest. A classic Scotch Highball and a great way to start a late spring or summer evening!
Your packaging and label design is brilliant (like the contents) – how important is that side of the industry?
Packaging and the way we present our whiskies are part of the overall experience of enjoying products like ours. Let’s face it, human beings don’t need whisky to survive, so I believe that while the experience is first and foremost about the liquid, the bottle itself, the labelling, the stories they convey, can also be part of the enjoyment, part of the whole experience.
Some whisky brands now have celebrity ambassadors (such as Haig Club and David Beckham, Christina Hendricks and Johnnie Walker). Which celebrity would you like to represent Compass Box – if budget was no option?
Ulp…that’ll need quite a big budget! What are you working on at the moment for later in the year…can you let us into any secrets?
A new Flaming Heart. And a bit of luxury. I’ll leave it at that for now!
You’re based in Chiswick but live in Kew. What do you love about West London?
The planes, the parakeets. And the predictability of traffic on the South Circular.
Compass Box is holding a whisky cocktail evening in the Kew shop on Friday 26 June. What’s your favourite recipe?
This really depends on the day of the week, the time of day, the time of year! What’s worth pointing out here is just how much the world of cocktails has changed in 15 years. There is a global move toward a culinary approach with cocktails that did not exist when I started Compass Box. We’re seeing more and more restaurant people moving from the kitchen to the bar. And the distinctions between “wine people” and “spirits people” is blurring. For example, fifteen years ago, you didn’t see any serious interest in spirits in the best restaurants of the California wine country. Now, great cocktail bars are all over, particularly in Napa and Sonoma.
If you would like to explore the world of whisky cocktails with The Good Wine Shop and Compass Box then pop in to our Kew shop from 6pm on Friday 26 June. This informal tasting event is free.