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The Caterer

Whisky's hard cask master

24 August 2004
Whisky's hard cask master

John Glaser is a whisky zealot. His company, Compass Box, has been described as the most progressive in whisky marketing (by Class Magazine), and he has won the title of Innovator of the Year for his products (from Whisky Magazine) - which takes some doing in an industry that is dominated by the big brands.

Glaser is a whisky blender. He makes a range of different Scotch whiskies by taking individual whiskies from different distilleries and blending them in small batches to make distinctive styles that he bottles under the Compass Box name.

There are five blends in the range, and each has an intriguing name: Hedonism, Eleuthera, Asyla, Juveniles, and from 1 September there will be the Peat Monster (known as Monster in the USA, where it's going down a storm).

I'm not usually a whisky drinker, but this is exciting stuff. Rejuvenated casks are the name of the game at Compass Box. "We're very serious about wood casks here - 70% of the flavour comes from the wood," says Glaser.

He explains: "Scotch whisky distilleries generally use casks that have been used many times before - they don't even track how many times. There are too many tired casks being used in the industry. Nobody else has this fixation with wood that we have." Thanks to the rejuvenation of the casks, his whiskies are softer, sweeter, richer and fresher than many I've tasted.

My favourite is Eleuthera (so named because it was on the Bahamian island of the same name that he first got the idea to start the company), a vatted malt and the first in the range to introduce a pronounced peatiness. Glaser says: "I wanted to corral some of the smokiness from Islay malt and mix it with whisky from the northern Highlands."

Why did he start the company? "We wanted to take a fresh approach to whisky," says Glaser, an American who studied winemaking at college but built a passion for whisky after taking a job with Diageo, marketing whisky brands such as Johnnie Walker. "Setting up Compass Box in 2000 was based on intuition and gut feeling," he says. "My real passion is the product, not the politics of big business."

His office, just off Marylebone High Street in London, is crammed with tiny tasting samples, all numbered and labelled, ready for blending (he used to do this in his kitchen at home, before it drove his wife, Amy, mad). "We are not about regionality," he says. "We are about flavour and style." And Glaser is extremely proud that he has managed to hook both the whisky anoraks and the style bars (Match Bars list Asyla as their pouring whisky), opening up the spirit to a new generation of drinkers. "Most people have been very receptive," he says.

There are more than 90 working distilleries in Scotland, and Compass Box works with a dozen of them - prestigious distilleries such as Ardmore, Glen Ord, Caol Ila, Cragganmore and Clynelish. "We work backwards," Glaser says, "going to the distillery to find the product that we are looking for - then we blend."

And no, he doesn't mind if you use his whiskies in cocktails. He says: "I believe whisky can be drunk any way you like."

Shorts

Know your Chablis Popular French white wine Chablis is set to gain even more of a following after a major promotion from the folks at the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne. It will spend the next three years raising our awareness of the region's wines, highlighting the different grades of Chablis - Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. It even gets its own UK press office, handled by McCann Erickson, and with a simultaneous campaign aimed at the on-trade conducted by Kent-based Nexus/H.

To kick off your Chablis education here's one little nugget for you: the Kimmeridgien soil found in the vineyards of Chablis has an English link, because the soil is very similar in composition to the soil found in Kimmeridge, Dorset.

Whoops
We mistakenly gave you the retail price for the delicious 2001 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, stocked by Liberty Wines (020 7720 5350) in the 8 July issue of Caterer. The duty-paid price is £16.83.

In the spirit
William Grant & Sons has launched Sailor Jerry (widely available), a spiced Caribbean rum. Based on an original recipe created by tattoo artist and sailor Jerry Collins, it combines five spices, including ginger, cinnamon, clove and vanilla, with an infusion of natural lime and aged rum.

The company has also launched Armadale Vodka, in association with Roc-A-Fella Records - a triple-distilled two-grain super-premium vodka aimed at "top-end style bars". The vodka is the brainchild of hip-hop entrepreneurs Damon Dash, Kareem Burke and Jay-Z, who decided that rather than endorse other spirits, they would create, produce, package and market their own - with a little help from Grant's (available from Coe Vintners, 020 8551 4966).

Spanish bible
Spain specialist John Radford has updated and revised The New Spain (Mitchell Beazley). First published in 1998, it's the only up-to-date illustrated reference book on Spanish wines. There have been huge alterations in Spain's wine laws since June 2003 and Radford puts you straight on them, taking readers on a region-by-region tour of the country's rapidly changing vineyards and wineries.

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