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Interview: John Glaser On Compass Box’s Role In Blended Scotch

January 25, 2017

Editor’s Note: While most of Scotch whisky’s recent progress has come from single malts, a U.K.-based American, John Glaser, has staked out a robust niche in blended Scotch with his Compass Box range. Founded in 2000 by Glaser, a 52-year-old American who once worked in marketing for Johnnie Walker, Compass Box has adroitly sought out aged stocks—its Hedonism ($120 a 750-ml.) contains liquid 18 years and older—and sold them to high-end bars, restaurants and specialty retailers. Creative names like Peat Monster ($65 a 750-ml., with 8,000 six-pack cases shipped to the U.S. last year) have caught consumers’ attention. Compass Box, in which Bacardi has a minority stake, has also gained an iconoclastic reputation for taking on the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) over issues regarding transparency and age statements. SND recently caught up with Glaser at his London headquarters to get an update Compass Box’s progress.

SND: You started Compass Box at a time when blended Scotch was trending down. What did you see in the marketplace?

Glaser: In 2000, five big corporations controlled the Scotch whisky industry. I thought there could be a place for small, entrepreneurial brands like ours. With blends, the problem has been an abundance of cheap, boring Scotch brands on the market. That’s how single malts came to seem so superior. But there’s nothing inherently inferior about blends. Indeed, you can be far more creative with blends, as single malts comprise the same liquid every year. From the start, we worked on seeking out the best malts from a wide range of distilleries.

SND: Your first product was Hedonism, a 100% grain whisky. You were a pioneer with that product.

Glaser: Except for the occasional independent bottler, nobody was doing grain whiskies back then. People thought we were crazy. Today companies like Diageo and William Grant offer their own grain whiskies. We sent 1,500 six-bottle cases of Hedonism to the U.S. last year.

SND: Which is your biggest seller?

Glaser: Our top brand is Great King Street Artist’s Blend, which retails at around $40 in the U.S. and is closer to Chivas Regal in style. Many blended Scotch whiskies get their components from dozens of distilleries, but King Street uses just six—with liquid coming from places including Clynelish, Laphroaig and Cameronbridge (a grain distiller). Overall, we exported about 30,000 six-bottle cases to the U.S. in 2016, up from around 10,000 cases in 2010. We’ve been growing at 20% a year in the U.S. over the past five years, riding the wave of rising interest in high-end whisky. We’re now in 35 states. We aren’t really looking to expand on that, since our seven labels are mostly allocated.

SND: Will you continue to do your special releases every year?

Glaser: Yes. Last year, we introduced Spice Tree Extravaganza, bottled at 46%-abv and priced at $140, with a significant portion of the whisky finished in Sherry casks. We released 12,000 bottles worldwide. Collectors look forward to these special releases. It’s too early to say what our special whisky will be in 2017.

SND: You feature a lot of aged stock—eight and 10 years old and more. Yet, with the exception of the humorously named Three Year Old Deluxe (which contains less than 1% three-year-old malt whisky), you don’t use age statements.

Glaser: Most of the liquid in Great King Street is nine to 10 years old. Spice Tree averages 12 years of age. Some of Hedonism is 25 years old. But we don’t believe in age statements—they constrain your blending and can mislead the consumer. I can tell you that we’ve been fortunate to line up long-term contracts with many Scotch distilleries, which guarantees that we’ll continue to have access to these older stocks.

SND: Will there be enough supply to keep you growing at a 20% annual pace?

Glaser: Yes. We can continue to grow at 20% annually for the next 15 years, which would get us to 250,000 cases a year. I’ll take that.

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