Scotch for the Heretic: Compass Box’s Unconventional Approach to Whisky Makes It Accessible and Even Delicious

click to enlarge Scotch for the Heretic: Compass Box’s Unconventional Approach to Whisky Makes It Accessible and Even Delicious
Ron Bechtol
John Glaser doesn’t admit to being the Bad Boy of Scotch whisky, at least not on the record. But that doesn’t mean Glaser observes the norms of the entrenched scotch establishment. In fact, he created Compass Box — a now successful and critically respected scotch blending and barrel-aging operation — to challenge tradition.

“Somebody with a real Scottish accent — not me — plays by the rules,” Glaser said, during his recent visit to San Antonio.

Following the rules, by the way, can result in some exquisite, aged single malts, albeit priced to match their carefully guarded prestige. But Compass Box manages to work around industry regulations while making Scotch whiskies accessible.

About that lack of accent: Glaser, a Midwestern boy and a self-described “heretic with positive intent,” was working in marketing with Johnny Walker when the company sent him to Scotland. Big mistake, as it was during a visit to traditional scotch maker Talisker that he had an epiphany and began making his own blends at home.

He launched Compass Box in 2000 with the still-popular Hedonism, a blended grain whisky. Not to get all geeky, but grain whiskies are largely made with grains other than the malted barley, which characterizes single-malt scotches. Wheat and corn dominate. Creamy, fruity and delicately sweet, Hedonism is just the tip of the Compass Box iceberg. (Yes, you can add ice to your whisky.)

Compass Box has since produced more than 114 unique blends, most of them combinations of malts. But all are almost obsessively transparent in the identification of the individual single malts — defined as whisky from a single distiller — in the blend and the percentage and type of oak barrels used for aging.

You don’t need to know this to enjoy the whiskies. However, it nice to pause from time to time to gently ruminate on what it is you like about the particular grain or malt blend.

Let’s say you picked The Spaniard. It’s part of Compass Box’s Malt Whiskey Collection, and it was poured during Glaser’s visit. It encompasses seven distinct single malts aged in barrels that range from custom French oak to ex-bourbon, used red wine casks and sherry butts. The sherry stood out to me, but it was just one intriguing element in an amazingly complex palette.

Or maybe it was the “monster” moniker that intrigues with The Peat Monster, a blend featuring robust Islay malts softened with 1% Highland malt. Sure, 35% of TPM is made up of malt from Laphroaig, a distillery beloved by smoky malt masochists, but here the monster is tamed, and I love its restrained spice and smoked meat character. You’re even allowed to call it “delicious,” a term infrequently used in the industry.

That deliciousness comes through unexpectedly when pairing scotch with food. A Compass Box dinner at La Cantera Resort and Spa demonstrated not only the kitchen’s prowess but the unexpected affinity scotch has for Texas Akaushi beef — “Mmmm, beef and peat!” enthused Glaser — and, yes, chocolate. Here’s a final tip from Glaser: serve your scotch in a wine glass with a splash of water.
“That way you can get your nose in, and it complements food better,” he explains.

Other Whisky Blends
So, we’ve established that single malts are usually produced by blending different barrels of whiskies produced within a single distillery. What about all those other blends we hear about? There are three types you’ll encounter:

Blended malt Scotch whisky:
Formerly called vatted malts, these are a blend of single malts from two or more distilleries. Companies such as Compass Box purchase whiskies and blend them to create new products with certain characteristics. Peat Monster, for example, is a Compass Box whisky that emphasizes the rich, smoky flavor of peat.

Blended grain Scotch whisky:
A blend of single grains from two or more distilleries. Single grains are usually known for being light and mild, but some distilleries produce exceptional grain whiskies. Compass Box’s Hedonism is a fine example of a blended grain scotch.

Blended Scotch whisky:
What many consumers think of when they hear the word blend, blended scotches comprise 90% of the scotch category in sales. A blended scotch is a mix of both malt whiskies and grain whiskies, sourced from several different distilleries. Brands include Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Cutty Sark, J & B, and Chivas Regal.

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