I was hungry and John Glaser had a giant wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
It sounds like the start of a folk tale, but that’s how I first met the founder of the Scotch Compass Box Whiskey store.
That was almost 20 years ago, at the annual WhiskyFest event. I wandered into the Marriott Marquis hotel ballroom in Times Square and Glaser stood next to a wheel of cheese the size of a truck tire. “The cheese wheel – I kind of forgot that,” he recently told me with a laugh. “It made us popular.”
If memory serves, he wore a new white t-shirt with the gold logo inspired by his company’s art nouveau. He didn’t look like a typical Scotch whiskey ambassador who usually prefers kilts or suits and ties. In fact, Glaser looked classy and studious like someone who ran a gallery specializing in insanely expensive mid-century modern furniture. What was he doing here serving samples to whiskey-hungry geeks?
Nibbling on a large chunk of cheese that he had deftly cut for me, we chatted and I started to taste his whiskey. He explained that he assembled and bottled special barrels that he bought from Scottish distillers. Even in a room filled with the best whiskeys in the world, what he poured really stood out. At the time, the industry was just recovering from nearly three decades of declining sales and its plan was refreshingly innovative and optimistic. Remember, it was so long ago that you could easily find Pappy Van Winkle and Blanton on store shelves for the suggested retail price, and when you asked for rye at most bars you would get a Canadian Club glass.
When we first met, the chances of some of the biggest brands becoming popular again seemed very long, let alone an American upstart selling obscure whiskeys. Glaser was either crazy or a true pioneer. I took his oversized card. Over the next few years, we chatted several times and I tasted more of his whiskey, more and more impressed. By the time I wrote my first book, The Spirits Trade: How Marketers, Innovative Distillers and Entrepreneurs Changed the Way We Drink, which was published in the fall of 2007, I have included a brief profile of Glaser on how he was disrupting Scotch’s business. Even then, he had won numerous awards for his innovations and inspired the biggest brands to follow his example. (He had also had a public disagreement with the Scotch Whiskey Association – the news is that he lost and had to withdraw his whiskey, which only strengthened his reputation.)
The success of Compass Box seems even more unlikely given Glaser’s career path. “I left college and entered the world of wine,” he recently told me. “I wanted to be a winegrower. I did retail, wholesale. I have been to France for two vintages. I went to Napa for a summer. He then graduated with a business degree and began working for the Scottish powerhouse Johnnie Walker, where he trained in spirits and saw the potential to create bespoke blends from unique whiskeys. Two decades ago, liquor companies were focused on building a few global brands and didn’t want barrels that didn’t match their house style. “[My] the desire to make stuff started to come back and I thought, I’m just going to start my own Scotch whiskey business, ”he said.
He was inspired by “the kind of thing I had seen in wine for the past ten years. That is to say small businesses, entrepreneurs, people who get involved out of passion for making objects and for the product.
While he had seen these types of companies successfully produce wine and beer, it was still revolutionary in the spirits world. There were only a small number of craft stills in America, and the craft distillation boom wouldn’t happen for nearly another decade.
He created Hedonism, his signature all grain blended whiskey, at his London home and had it bottled in the Highlands. “I stayed awake the night before at the Highlander Pub numbering the labels,” he recalls. On the morning of October 23, 2000, Glaser and his then pregnant wife Amy drove their Volkswagen Jetta, loaded with bottles, to the Royal Mile Whiskeys Shop in Edinburgh to see if they could sell some of the first batch of Hedonism. (Amy got the urge, so they stopped at a McDonald’s on the way.) The store took two cases of her whiskey, which turned her dream into a real business. “I didn’t expect to sell two cases,” he says. “I was hoping to sell a few bottles.”
To honor its 20 anniversary, Compass Box recently released the Limited Edition Hedonism Felicitas ($ 175), which includes three cereal whiskeys. Glaser’s core portfolio now also includes the brackish and smoky Peat Monster and the Great King Street Glasgow and Artists blends, which are a steal at just $ 40 per bottle.
One of Glaser’s skills is to see the value of things that the rest of the industry has rejected. For example, to make a scotch blend, you take single malts from different distillers and mix it with what the Scots call grain whiskey. This grain whiskey can be made from a variety of grains and is produced on the most efficient column yet as opposed to single malt, which is the production of a single distillery and is made entirely from malted barley distilled in a traditional copper still. While blends still constitute the bulk of Scotch’s sales by volume, single malts are increasing their market share every year. This means that many blenders have started to bottle or sell the aged single malts in their warehouses without mixing them. As a result, they end up with an excess of aged grain whiskey. No one is really talking about this grain whiskey with all the buzz going to the single malt part of the blending equation.
Glaser realized that, contrary to popular belief, these cereal whiskeys could be delicious on their own. It’s no surprise that grain whiskey has become its most famous product, hedonism. Its success prompted other big brands to introduce their own grain whiskeys.
When we recently talked about the evolution of his business, I realized that his bottleneck with hedonism was part of his larger business philosophy. He actually subscribes to Ted Turner’s definition of an entrepreneur. “It’s not just, hey, I’m a player, it’s for some reason that I see things that other people don’t see,” he says. However, he admits that if whiskey drinkers and the industry haven’t embraced his blends, “Don Quixote and the Windmills come to mind.
While Glaser still purchases barrels of finished whiskey from a range of distillers, its core business has started to change over the past eight years. He started working with distilleries to produce whiskey for Compass Box, including specifying the type of barrel the spirits are aged in. “Until then, we always bought everything that was ripe and we still buy most of what we bottle.” Glaser said. “But more and more over time, what is starting to happen is that the things we put down are going to end up in our bottles. It’s really exciting for me. And really understanding ripening better is really exciting. I still love what we do.
Six years ago, Bacardi also became an investor in Compass Box. “Having them as a shareholder has been very useful in allowing us to access significant stocks. It has been a huge advantage, ”said Glaser.
Would he ever consider buying a distillery or building one? Although Glaser admitted to considering this option, he ultimately felt it was not the right decision for the company. “I just like being a blender,” he says. “We have access to so much and Scotch whiskey is so wide in style, from light and delicate to big and smoky.
He still loves, as he puts it, “chasing delicacies” – and wherever it takes him. “I feel like we’re just getting started.”
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