Whisky Advocate

Guest blogger: John Glaser of Compass Box Whisky

March 30th, 2009

Continuing our guest blogger program, here’s a great blog by John Glaser of Compass Box Whisky. As most of you already know, John is a leader in producing small, high quality Scotch whiskies–many of which incorporate “outside of the box” experimentation. His ideas are fresh and exciting, and his whiskies are always very good.

Thank you John for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us. For all of you who read his blog, feel free to comment.

A few weeks ago I was invited by new friends Sam and Fairfax to see the still they’d just installed in their new office in London.  

Sam and Fairfax are planning to start a distillery restaurant in London, making their own gins, vodkas, and who-knows-what-else, but before finding their restaurant site, they plan to install their still and begin working it. 

I hadn’t been to their office before, so the morning of the visit I checked the address.   Twenty-seven Nasmyth Street.  That sounds familiar, I thought.  Isn’t that the street in Hammersmith where Michael Jackson used to live?  I checked my address book and sure enough, that was the exact address of Michael Jackson’s old office, next door to the house where he lived.

When I showed up I was amazed, actually a little emotional.  Sam and Fairfax had moved into Michael Jackson’s old office and installed a still.  How perfect, I thought, for the legacy of the industry’s great man.

Michael would have been pleased meeting two guys like Sam and Fairfax regardless of where they set up shop.  That’s because Sam and Fairfax represent an important new wave in the spirits industry, one moving across the globe.  They represent the small businesses, the small brands that are moving the spirits industry closer to its artisan roots.  I’ve been travelling around the world for Compass Box for many years, and I can tell you that more and more, around the world, there is a cultural shift toward an interest in understanding more about distilled spirits.  People want to know the people behind the businesses and brands, the stories, the processes and the techniques.

As a whiskymaker, I am excited and pleased to see the growth of small distilling businesses.  Just in the last month, in addition to visiting Sam and Fairfax, I’ve been in touch with my friend Henric Molin on the island of Hven, Sweden, who has recently started distilling after many years of planning.  (He’s selecting individual trees from America for his casks!)  I’ve spoken with Jean Donnay in Brittany in France who is preparing to release his first own-distilled whiskies.   I had a fellow from New Zealand come to my office last week to talk to me about his plans for a small whisky distillery in his country. 

And of course, in the US there is an explosion of activity among small scale distillers.  Being an American abroad, I’m excited about this and sometimes wish I were home taking part.

All of this is all driven by the increased interest people around the world have in the art and craft of distilled spirits.  This is real, and it’s growing (big branded spirits take note!  …Or perhaps not; just let us get on with things!).  I recently had a call from a bartender in London, re-writing his spirits list, and he wanted to know every conceivable detail about our whiskies–not just the distilleries we draw from, but the water source we use to dilute at bottling!

It’s a grand cultural shift, a new wave, and it’s global.  With time, we all stand to benefit by having more choices and more interesting choices when it comes the spirits we drink.  Sam and Fairfax, in Michael Jackson’s old office, are at the leading edge of this movement in the UK.  (In fact, they have been instrumental in shaping UK legislation in this area which I am sure will help open the floodgates for new, small distilleries across the UK in the coming years.) 

Their business is called Sipsmith.  They begin distilling this month.  They’re still working on their website but check back at www.sipsmith.co.uk .   Small artisan businesses, operating in an industry dominated by mega corporate brands, need and deserve our support.  The more businesses there are like Sam’s and Fairfax’s, the more interesting and rewarding spirits offerings will be, and we will all benefit in the long run.  

Michael would be proud.

14 Responses to “Guest blogger: John Glaser of Compass Box Whisky”

  1. MrTH says:

    I think this is the future of distilling, at least as far as we, the people who love fine spirits, are concerned. The big drinks companies, concerned first and foremost with profit, are becoming less and less responsive to the punters. They all seem to want to position themselves in the “luxury” market. Small craft distillers like Kittling Ridge and Clear Creek are seeping into the cracks. Eventually, the big companies will sell only cheap blends and Louis Vuitton designer bottles, and the appreciator’s market will belong to the craft businesses, as is now the case with beer.

  2. Mike Dereszynski says:

    Hi John (Both of you),

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experiences with the rest of us.
    John G.,I’m always excited to hear about your new releases.
    As someone who has worked with the “Big Guys” ie. being J.W. Global Marketing Director and also working with your family capturing the “Essence of the Orange”,you have been all over the whisky mountain.
    I’m proud of what you have accomplished and continue to create.
    You rightly deserve the accolades of four time “Innovator of the Year” and twice named “Pioneer of the Year”.
    With the world economies being what they are, I think you also deserve being called “Optimist” of the year!
    Speaking of Optimist,have the few rare bottles now been bought or are there still some available to Club Members?
    You wouldnt possibly be bringing one to John’s April Fools Whisky Fest on Wednesday would you?
    I unfortunately will be saving my nickles,dimes and dollars for a summer trip to England/Scotland so will miss tasting your charitable contribution of the original Spicetree as well as your talk on Maturation and Microblending.
    Since I wont be able to converse with you at the Fest,I have a few questions I hope you might find time to answer.
    ? I have only had the opportunity to taste one of your Canto Cask Releases (Cask 46),
    do you plan on maintaining the Canto’s or perhaps expanding on them?
    ?I have also had the pleasure of tasting your Canadian Magic Cask,do you plan on doing anymore Canadian releases.
    ?And last question,do you have a location in London where visitors might stop to taste or buy your creations,Id hope to do that when visiting and maybe make a mini London Whisky Trail,perhaps starting at 27 Nasmyth Street ,a Michael Jackson Memorial and visit Sam & Fairfax,then take in 19 Geville St. for a SMWS taste or two and finish with a Compass Box!

    Slainte to John n John,
    Mike Dereszynski

    • John Hansell says:

      Mike, John is certainly doing some great things. Sorry to hear we will miss you at WhiskyFest tomorrow. Hopefully John will have a chance to answer some of your questions over the next several days.

  3. Neil Fusillo says:

    It’s an exciting era, to be sure. Just thirty years ago, single malts were near impossible to find here in the Southeast US. And while it’s still unlikely that we’ll soon see some of the newer whiskies out there, and some of the more off-named brands, there’s been a surge of activity in the last decade with even the local mom and pop shops understanding they have to stock more than just a single Macallan and a single Glenlivet to draw customers.

    I was in the aisles of an almost rural liquor store the other day, perusing their selection of scotches (as I often do — hoping against hope to find something new and exciting that’s not already on my shelves at home), and was amused to see a woman talking with the store’s owner about whiskies. Her husband was having a birthday soon, and she wanted to get him a special scotch for the occasion. He’d had scotch once (a Dewar’s) some time ago, and it had been something extraordinary for him. She wanted to give him something special and was looking for assistance on what to buy.

    The store’s owner really had no ideas at all. He didn’t have Dewar’s on the shelf (they were out), and he had no experience with whisky himself, so he was just sort of offering random suggestions about what might make a good scotch for a gift.

    His solution? Jack Daniel’s. I visibly cringed, and felt it my obligation to step in and steer her in a direction away from the obvious misinformation of the store’s owner. Since when is Tennessee in Scotland?? I selected, for her husband, a bottle of Balvenie 12 doublewood, as I thought it might make a nice gift at a very reasonable price for an excellent scotch (and I didn’t want to steer her toward an Islay as that can be sort of daunting for a new scotch drinker).

    But what amazed me is that this little hole in the wall store in the middle of nowhere, while the owner had little clue, actually HAD some decent Islay single malts and a couple of Balvenies and other speysides and highland malts. Something that simply wouldn’t have been around even ten years ago.

    I think the smaller craft distilling may stretch things even further, with unique and individual whiskies from all over coming into play — and I find that a thrilling prospect and something to really look forward to in the coming decade.

    If only it weren’t illegal to distill at home the way it’s not illegal to brew at home. Perhaps someday that will be the case as well.

  4. Unless I miss my guess, “Sam” would be Stamford Galsworthy, ex of Fuller’s USA, who I heard left the company a while back to pursue some sort of distillery-pub venture. Glad to hear it’s coming along in such fine fashion!

  5. Todd says:

    John and John, a few weeks ago I noted the appearance on shelves of a Grande-sized bottle of CB peaty whisky, what’s the scoop on this one? You could pour a dram for yourself and 100 of your closest friends out of this one. Is the same whisky as we have seen in 750 ml bottles, or a batch with distinct characteristics? BTW, I thought the Peat Monster bottled for Park Ave a few years ago was the definitive batch.

    Todd

  6. butephoto says:

    Agree wholeheartedly with the article and the comments. Real whisky drinkers want real whisky, not overly-priced, excessive packages nor bland, supermarket shelf-filling, standardised brands.

  7. Stephen – great to track you down. It is indeed me – Stamford / Sam. We’re distilling away trying to make waves and get noticed – we plan to launch formally in early May. Would be great to catch up soon though if you’re ever this side of the pond. To anyone this of the pond…feel free to reach out by email and swing by the distillery.

  8. Red_Arremer says:

    John [Glaser], I think it’s great that you use your space here to support a nonwhisky spirit maker and to situate the what you’re doing in the context of the spirits market as a whole. This kind of attitude, talk, and vision are the most effective way to motivate the large-scale solidarity, which is necessary for survival of great companies like yours.

    • John Hansell says:

      Yes Red, I think it was very admirable that John didn’t toot his own horn with his guest blog. But I told him that next time he’s more than welcome to tell us about some cool experiements he’s working on. I don’t think any of us would mind. That’s for sure!

  9. John Glaser says:

    Hello, all,
    Apologies for delayed reply. Been on the road.

    I’ll address some of the questions/comments from above:

    1. Canto.
    The Canto Cask series was a one-off. (All the info can be found on our web site at compassboxwhisky.com) However, I should mention that this autumn we plan to bring back our malt whisky SPICE TREE, making it in such a way that the SWA won’t possibly be able to take issue. Our CANTO CASK maturation (super heavy toasted cask ends) is how we’re doing it. (For those unfamiliar with the SPICE TREE story, again, see our website under “Past Whiskies.”

    2. More limited releases for Canada? If someone would ask, perhaps…!

    3. London Visits. Please come see us. We love visitors to our London office. This is where we evaluate whiskies and do all our prototype blending. Simply email or call us (info on web site) and set up a time. I love Mike’s idea of a London Trail. If you have time, you might also consider going out to Norfolk to see the St George malt whisky distillery (just over an hour by train, then a 20 minute taxi ride).

    4. PEAT MONSTER RESERVE EDITION. Yes, last year we bottled a special recipe PEAT MONSTER in magnums only (actually, 1.75L for the U.S.). It’s a bigger (48.9%), peatier, smokier, slightly richer version of our regular bottling. We made 4,000 bottles for the whole world, as a one-time only thing, to commemorate the 5th birthday of PEAT MONSTER.

    John

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