What Makes Compass Box Whiskies Brilliant?
If you wish to understand the unexaggerated uniqueness of Compass Box, then you have to know O. Henry’s humorous story of ‘The Lost Blend’.
It’s a story – written in 1907 – of two haunted men sitting in the back room of a New York bar, desperately trying to recreate a magic elixir – an alcoholic cocktail – that they accidentally blended on a fortune-hunting trip to Nicaragua that made them a pile of money.
“From fifty bottles they drew liquids carefully measured after Riley’s figures, and shook the whole together in a great glass vessel. Then McQuirk would dash it out, with gloomy profanity, and they would begin again.”
In the very same bar is a shy bartender, desperately in love with the landlord’s daughter but unable to confess it to her. She waits expectantly for his declaration of love.
The two fortune hunters solve the puzzle and succeed in recreating the magical elixir: ‘two tablespoonfuls of liquid – a bright golden liquid that seemed to hold the sunshine a prisoner.’
The bashful bartender drinks it, and it gives him the courage to declare his love and sweep the girl, literally, off her feet.
The story in its entirety decorates the wall of John Glaser, Whisky Maker and founder of Compass Box.
The story is about the obsession of two men trying to find a perfect blend. The story is a love story about obsession and the magic of blending, and it’s no wonder it decorates the wall of John Glaser’s office because Compass Box is a company dedicated to obsessively demonstrating that blended whiskies can be better than single malt whiskies.
Compass Box – the Greatest Innovator in Scotch Whisky Today
In this article, I hope to reveal the underlying philosophy of Compass Box – a Scottish whisky blending house and maker – that makes them one of the greatest innovators in Scotch whisky today.
It’s important to understand that Compass Box was founded in 2000, a time when whisky was not considered cool. Whisky shipments were static or declining. The whisky industry wasn’t dynamic.
John Glaser who worked for Diageo, one of the major multinational alcoholic beverage companies, in the late 1990s, was troubled by the lack of ambition in the industry. He was puzzled by the reuse of casks so many times, the addition of colour to whisky and the use of chill filtering.
Most importantly, he came to see blending as a platform for creativity rather than an attempt to dilute quality ingredients by using it sparingly.
He noted that single malts were ultimately blends from very different casks within one distillery. He came to understand that blended whiskies were viewed as inferior because they hadn’t adjusted to the changes in taste. Most importantly, he realised that cask quality was the most important driver of the quality of the whisky.
He set up his company in London, blending distillery casks in his kitchen, packing them in a backpack and waving the bottles at bartenders across London to get their attention. The rest is history – his award-winning whiskies are in demand all over the world.
Compass Box is guided by two principles:
- An obligation to experiment and try new things.
- An obligation to make whisky better for the sake of it.
But if Compass Box has one core belief, it’s the following:
Blended Whisky is the Thing.
First, let’s understand what we mean by blended whisky and single malt whisky. There are three ways to blend a whisky.
- Single malt: separate casks containing malt whiskies from a single distillery are blended together.
- Blended malt: separate casks containing malt whiskies from different distilleries are blended together.
- Blended Scotch: a malt whisky is blended with a grain whisky.
John fervently believes that both blended malt and blended Scotch whiskies can be better than single malt whisky.
The core of his argument is based on the following point: the key ingredient that produces a superior whisky is not the type of grain used, how long the whisky has been aged, or whether the whisky was produced in a single distillery. The key ingredient is the quality of the cask.
Once we have the superior ingredients – whiskies aged in superior casks – then the Whisky Maker steps in and creates that perfectly magic blend. Blending is a platform for creativity, much like a master cook working with the quality ingredients of a recipe.
Did he win the argument?
Taste it and See!
John proves his point by making superior whiskies that break all the rules and has built a fanatical following of whisky enthusiasts who agree. He produces 100% blended grain whiskies that contain not a drop of malt in them. He creates blended whiskies with no age statements on the label. In every experiment of his, the common ingredient is the unusual superiority of the casks.
His formula is as follows: unusually good casks + thoughtfully blended together = create superior and perfectly delicious whiskies.
Compass Box has mastered all the fine details of cask building. Cooperages customise for them casks that meet their exacting and unusual standards.
- They consider the grain of the oak – fine grain versus wide grain. Fine grain gives more concentration of flavour in the oak.
- They consider whether the oak is dried in a kiln or outside – air dried gives more complexity to the oak.
- Most importantly is the heat treatment of the oak – toasting transforms the flavours in the oak. There are three different levels of toasting: light, medium and dark, creating different sets of flavours in the oak.
To get a sense of John’s revolutionary zeal, in 2006, Compass Box got into trouble with the Scottish Whisky Association. They objected to him introducing an inner layer of French oak staves within a cask in the production of Compass Box’s Spice Tree whisky.
Compass box – a Truly Liberated Blending House
Freed from the shackles of overly obsessing over the age of a whisky, the type of grain used and, most importantly, limiting themselves to a single distillery have allowed Compass Box to create some of the most delicious whiskies on the market.
And this comes down to the fact that blended whiskies shine, and that if blending casks within one distillery gives a good whisky, then blending between different distilleries can create something much more special, so long, of course, as the casks are of unusual quality.
Compass Box – True Alchemy
In Compass Box, the initial concept of a whisky’s flavour can come from anywhere – even outside the whisky world. Having formed their concept, they will consider the range of distilleries and the whiskies available to them – the various ages and cask types – and consider which components will help them deliver on the concept. For example, their Flaming Heart whisky was made up of 39 different casks, mixed in varying proportions.
Compass Box – the True Revolutionary
Compass Box has introduced two other major innovations in the whisky industry.
- It has left behind what it considers to be Victorian-style labelling and introduced some of the most innovative, beautiful and poetic labelling on the market.
- On its website, you can find the exact type of whiskies used in its blends, down to the exact proportions and age. In other words, with Compass Box, you get total transparency.
What’s Compass Box All About?
I wish to leave you with an image – an image of the Whisky Makers of Compass Box huddled in their tasting room, blending, sampling and discarding different experimental blends in their continuous, obsessive search for that perfect blend.
And what will that perfect blend do for us?
That perfect blend will sweep us off our feet, and we will fall in love again.
It will sweep us off our feet, and we will fall in love with, ‘a bright golden liquid that seemed to hold the sunshine a prisoner…’
And Before You Go…
Interested in Compass Box? We are proud to offer their beautiful range – their bottle designs are some of the most pleasing from an aesthetic point of view. Please visit us here. Our company prides itself on the quality of its range and its excellent service.
Article by Mayer Abraham of Whisky Kingdom