Meet John Glaser, Proud Heretic of Scotch

How an American ex-pat made Compass Box one of the most boundary-pushing whiskies in the world

Compass Box Whisky founder John Glaser; barrels of whisky; a glass of whisky.

Compass Box founder John Glaser has helped shift perceptions of Scotch

By Kirk Miller

Read almost any story on John Glaser and you’ll start noticing a pattern in how others describe the Compass Box Whisky founder: Maverick. Disrupter. Enfent terrible

In reality, Glaser is polite and self-effacing while also possessing a dry wit. And a fantastic palate. In two-plus decades, Glaser’s turned Compass Box from a kitchen experiment into an award-winning Scotch brand that’s revived and modernized the art of blending, while ignoring a lot of tired tropes that dominate the whisky world — to start, their blends eschew age statements and often have cool/funny names. (And great origin stories — for example, can a whisky evoke an antique bookstore? What kind of Scotch can you make to commemorate a Chicago punk rock bar? And do whiskies even need names?) 

“I’m not trying to be a rebel. This isn’t about rabble-rousing, or seeking attention,” he tells InsideHook. “But we did set out to make a change.”

As an American ex-pat living and working out of London, the Scotch whisky world may have initially found Glaser’s mere existence to be heretical — and that’s a word he’s quite comfortable with, as you’ll read below.

InsideHook: It sometimes feels like everyone’s trying to paint you as someone who’s giving the middle finger to the Scotch world. 

John Glaser: I don’t like giving anyone the middle finger. Actually, I gave up swearing this year. I’m not 100% on that, of course. There’s a quote from Thomas Jefferson that I’ll paraphrase. From the beginning of Compass Box, people weren’t sure about who we were or what we were doing — he’s a rebel sticking his middle finger up, an American doing Scotch whisky, etc.  Jefferson said something like, it’s not about rabble-rousing, it’s not about being a rebel, this is just about the defense of common sense. I always loved that. I’ve always felt that way. 

Instead of rebels, I consider ourselves heretics. It’s OK to be heretical to have positive intent. I thought Scotch whisky needed some new businesses to make it more interesting and relevant when I started this about 22 years ago, I didn’t think the industry was doing enough, so I left at Johnnie Walker and started this.

Do you think you’ve had an impact?

Look at the numbers. Scotch whisky is enjoying a renaissance. Twenty-two years ago, the industry was in the doldrums. At the risk of sounding slightly modest, we’ve had a small impact on the industry, in the way we present and communicate about Scotch whisky.

You’ve mastered the art of blending, but doesn’t that mean that you can’t always do what you want since you’re at the mercy of what’s available and how other people make their whisky?

In an ideal world, I’d like us to do our own distilling, I’m not interested in doing 100% of our distilling, it’s not practical to distill a dozen different styles of whisky, but I’m interested.

Will you ever step outside of Scotch?

I’m committed to Scotch whisky. We have blended Scotch with Calvados in the past and bottled things that weren’t technically Scotch. But people will say, why don’t you do something like gin? That feels like mission creep. We started this to make Scotch whisky a more interesting place and bring more people in. And I’m averse to novelty or doing something for the sake of doing it. The only reason we even did a Calvados blend is it was stunningly delicious. So much can be done with that spirit. It’s so underappreciated.  

How far ahead do you have to work to come up with a concept?

We have projects officially plugged into our calendar for the next two years. When we start a new whisky project, it’s on a spreadsheet that we call a prototype log. It starts with an idea, like being inspired by the Johnnie Walker Blue labels from the ‘90s. Those were really special. That’s how we created Ultramarine, one of our newer bottles. It’s part of an Extinct Blends quartet of releases we’re planning. It’s inspired by … well, it’s like a band doing a cover. The least interesting covers are when a band plays it exactly the same way as the original. For this line, we’re doing covers, but bringing something new to an old blend and putting our own touch to them.

What was so special about that era of Blue Label?

In the ‘90s, Scotch whisky was in a declining period. Big companies like Johnnie Walker had warehouses filled with too much inventory — the ‘60s, ‘70s, before the decline, they thought, “We need to lay down whisky for the growth” and then that growth didn’t come. Now it’s the ‘90s, and there’s all this old stuff. When Blue Label launched, they didn’t need all those old whiskies. Now, my guess is that they don’t have as much aged stock. I collect those bottles from the ‘90s, they’re so good and complex. It has this thing called antique whisky character. It’s like the smell of old furniture. 

Speaking of which…you guys are known for some offbeat concepts. Like Vellichor, which is supposed to evoke the aromatic atmosphere in second-hand bookshops.

Vellichor, that was [whiskymaker] James Saxon’s idea. He studied literature at St. Andrews. Vellichor is the wistful feeling one gets inside an old bookstore. He also had an idea for a whisky called Petrichor, the sensation after a rain. We have all these ideas floating around. 

A few of Compass Box’s more memorable releases
Kirk Miller

Flaming Heart has kind of a rock’n’roll vibe to it.

We’re up to our seventh edition. Most of our Special Editions are one-offs, but Flaming Heart we keep bringing back. It’s got a distinctive style — there’s nothing else like it in Scotch whisky. It combines smoke and French oak sweetness. Each release is a little different, and all have their own personality. We named it after a song by M. Ward. I keep a list of cool names until we have a whisky that fits it. And we did dial up the rock references in the design, it’s a bit of a play on Pink Floyd, Kiss, Zeppelin and Motorhead album covers.

Do you have any great names that may never get a whisky?

Petaloso. It’s a beautiful word invented by an eight-year-old to describe something that has lots of petals. Phantasmagore. Also, Sidewinder. I don’t know how you’d connect that to whisky. It sounds more like a cocktail. It came from an R.E.M. song. 

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One thing I dig about you guys is that you think it’s perfectly fine to freeze whisky.

We love pulling a bottle out of the freezer when people visit. You don’t necessarily know how people feel about whisky. But just take it out of the freezer, and give everybody tiny little shots…there’s no way someone could not like that.

I’m pretty catholic — small “c” — about my whisky drinking. 80 percent of what I drink at home is highballs. After that, it’s either neat, with a splash of water or with a giant rock of ice in a stemless red wine glass. 

How about cocktails?

Actually, I left some Compass Box for Sam Ross at Milk & Honey when that was around, and he invented the Penicillin from that. 

Is it getting harder to source the barrels and the whiskies you want, considering the whisky boom that’s going on?

We’ve been fortunate to be doing this for over 22 years, and we started at a time when everyone had too much stock and they were happy to help us. We have good long-term relationships with our partners. Now, sometimes we have to retire some whiskies when we can’t get enough of something and it can’t be reformulated. But overall, we have 40,000+ odd casks of whisky around. 

Has any one of your stranger ideas not worked out?

Yeah (laughs). Frequently. Sometimes you go down a path to get something and it’s not working so you back up and take a different direction. When stuff doesn’t work it’s not horrible, it’s usually ‘oh, it’s not compelling.’ We use that word a lot. A great whisky is one that is compelling. It’s something that calls you back to the glass. 

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