Like a great dinner party, John Glaser started in wine, but ended in whisky.
After working in France and Napa, the American entrepreneur discovered the pull of Britain – and Johnnie Walker – was too great to pass up.
After cutting his teeth at one of the world’s biggest whisky companies, Glaser decided to go it alone and launch something at the other end of the scale – a blended whisky, yes, but a much more boutique proposition.
Glaser started Compass Box from the kitchen of his West London home in 2000.
More than two decades later, we catch up with the entrepreneur to learn more about his journey and what's next for the Scotch whisky blending house.
You started your career in wine; how did you get into that industry?
I fell in love with wine while I was at university. I was studying for a Humanities Liberal Arts Degree programme and took a course on wine for geography credit. After that, I left with my literature degree not wanting to be a teacher or writer but wanting to make wine and it’s something I followed for several years.
As a career, it took me to places like France and Napa Valley and across a variety of different roles before someone eventually persuaded me that, instead of standing at the end of a long line of people trying to make wine in California, I should try being on the business side of the industry. So, I went back to business school in an effort to do just that.
Where did you work – and what did you learn from that part of your life?
After business school, I didn’t actually get any jobs in the wine industry. Instead, despite not drinking Scotch whisky at that point in my life, I accepted an offer from a little-known brand called Johnnie Walker.
That whole journey from working in the wine industry to then moving into the world of Scotch whisky set me up for what I ultimately did with Compass Box.
Over the course of those years, I worked at wineries and in production, I worked as a distributor and wholesaler selling to bars, restaurants, and in-store on the retail side. I then ended up doing international marketing at one of the biggest spirits companies in the world. I was working with their blenders and production team on creating new whisky products - everything I was doing in my early career gave me the confidence to start my own whisky brand.
What was your first ever experience of whisky?
I hate to say it, but my first whisky experience was probably sneaking some from my father’s bar, probably something like Seagram’s VO Canadian Whisky.
What was the first whisky which really caught your attention?
It would’ve been when I was about 30, when I first joined Johnnie Walker. I was sent to Scotland from New York for a ten-day trip visiting a number of distilleries and the very first was Talisker on the Isle of Skye - that was the moment I fell in love with whisky. It was a Monday morning, the weather was horrendous, and the distillery manager at the time pulled a sample out of this huge sherry cask and poured it into a measuring cylinder for me to have a taste; that’s when this epiphany happened. I look back at that moment and realise it was then that I knew I’d be in the whisky business for a long time.
When did you decide ‘I want to make this stuff’?
I was on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. I was still working for this big brand at the time, and it was around the late 1990s when the Scotch Whisky was kind of in the doldrums.
I’d obviously had this ‘a-ha’ moment where I realised that Scotch Whisky was this extraordinary drink that people my age just didn’t understand and that there’s actually a lot of art and craft to blending – it can be used to make really compelling whiskies. So I’d suggested to this big company that we start new brands, a tiny Scotch whisky blending house, but unfortunately, they said it was just too small.
A few months go by and I’m in Eleuthera, and I think on holiday your mind is freed in a way it isn’t in your daily life, so I thought I can just do this because everything I’ve done up to now has prepared me for it.
What’s been the biggest challenge since starting Compass Box?
The biggest challenges for anyone starting their own business is what I call the dark nights of the entrepreneur. In the early years, you’ll have moments where you’re riding a wave, and everything is fantastic and working and then things change and might not be happening as fast as you thought they would, or you make a huge mistake. So, you start questioning yourself and questioning what’s going on. It’s a rollercoaster which you learn from, and you should learn from and it’s going to sound like a cliché but it makes you stronger.
And what’s been the biggest highlight?
There are several highlights and fortunately they are reasonably frequent. It’s when someone gets in touch with us, perhaps via Instagram or the website or they come up to us at a tasting – it could be France, New York, anywhere in the world. They tell us a story about sharing and enjoying one of our whiskies and how this created an incredible moment for them. That’s why I started the business, to help make whisky a more interesting place and help create these moments of joy for people.
What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
We’re a small company and it’s nice to know you’ve started something that people are interested in joining you in. Those that work here help bring it to life and make it something I could never have done on my own and knowing they’re here by their own choice is pretty satisfying.
Have you noticed whisky tastes changing over your career?
Yes. Peaty whiskies, for example, weren’t nearly as popular as when I first started back in 2000 and now it’s like every year interest in peaty whisky grows and grows – not just in certain markets but internationally.
Another example would be spirit styles as opposed to heavy cask styles, which are becoming more interesting to people today. Whisky tastes are always evolving, similar to any other drinks like wine or beer.
What are you working on next?
We’re always working on something new but the next thing happening for us will be the launch of our limited-edition Peat Monster Cask Strength: Origin Story in April. We wanted to revisit and celebrate the US origins of this smoky blend which first started with The Peat Monster - one of our most popular expressions. Jonathan Goldstein – of Park Avenue Liquors – and I first joined forces on this back in 2003.
On the nose, it has a sooty barbecue smoke, green apple, and punchy aromatic citrus oils. On the palate, there’s tarry and smoked almond with some richness and vanilla notes.
It’s a delicious whisky with a great backstory so we’re really excited about that one.
Do you like whisky cocktails?
I do because I believe you can enjoy whisky any way you like. Far and away my favourite Scotch whisky cocktail is the Penicillin when it’s made by John deBary.
Peat Monster was used for the smoky element, but it was originally also made with Asyla which we no longer make. I actually think that Artist Blend works even better than Asyla used to though.
What’s your death-row bottle?
I would choose the first batch of Compass Box Eleuthera from 2001 and I would like several bottles of it as my death row whisky. I’d also like some Zalto Bordeaux wine glasses to drink it from because they show off whisky so well. They really focus the aromas and they’re such big bowls that they really get the whisky swirling.
For more information, see compassboxwhisky.com