Wine buff, accidental whisky expert, French speaker and really nice guy!
And my first ever interview which spanned two countries, it our Anglo/polish interview.
Could you tell us a little more about yourself please?
I am of these people who fell into whisky by accident, my background is wine (which I also got into by accident), and I worked for Field’s Wine Merchants in Chelsea who were then brought over by Berry Bros & Rudd, we were ready to sign all the paperwork, and were really excited, but it just so happened that the day we were due to sign was the day Princess Diana died, and it turned London into a really spooky place.
Once taken over, we then went from a small company selling wine to a large company. I moved to dealing with the fine wines in Heathrow, and then I spent some time in Bordeaux on a work placement for a few months. I thought it would be parties and glamour all the way, and the chateau I was staying at was stunning but everyone lived in Bordeaux, and it wasn’t the most glamorous of places. At the end of the day everybody went home for the night and it was a deserted place, the local bar shut at 7, and there was no TV, just a little radio.
When I came back to the UK I joined the marketing team, which was never my intention, a lot of my colleagues became pregnant and I was made Marketing Manager in 2002 (long before I felt ready for it). I still worked on the wine side and moved to a larger place in Basingstoke. I met Doug McIvor who had been brought in to open a whisky shop within their shop.
It was on his suggestion that we started an independent whisky bottling under Berry Bros & Rudd name. Berry Bros & Rudd weren’t sure how well that would work, or if there would be much of a market for it, so they put it under the wine division, which allowed Doug and I to work closely together and really start to move forward. In 2007 I moved to France, I just wanted to do something completely different and I was going to learn French and find a job. Unfortunately there wasn’t any work of any note in the wine market and I was talking to Doug one day, who mentioned their distributor and suggested that I contacted them. This distributor was Maison Du Whisky.
I had an interview, and exaggerated and pretended to love whisky, and in 2008 I was offered the job. A week after that I met John Glaser and this was my second real introduction to whisky. Over the next two years I became market and sales manager for all of the whisky brands, it was a real SAS approach to training. I went from not liking whisky to deciding I must try whisky, and not only try whisky, but love whisky. Fortunately the tasting room was right next to the coffee room and the bathroom. So every time I went to either, I tried a whisky.
Eventually I found a whisky that I loved and it was a real “moment” for me, just like it is for the consumer. I can understand the people who tell me they don’t like whisky, and I can help them find one that they do like. In 2009 I decided to come back to the UK and I decided that I loved the whisky industry, it was so different from the wine industry and so friendly. I could feel that there was a change coming and that whisky was going to be going places.
I asked Thierry Benitah (MD of Maison du Whisky) if he would mind if I contacted John Glaser, not only did he say yes, but he said he was having dinner that weekend with him, and asked if I wanted to go. Even more exciting that that it was in Northern Spain, and Thierry kindly said that he would pay to take me over, it was the most amazing interview ever and great timing as Compass Box were looking for a member of staff, and I joined the company 11th January 2010, which is my birthday!
What’s your role within Compass Box?
I look after sales for the UK and all the marketing, working very closely with Celine, who looks after Holland, Germany, Scandinavia. I also look after Taiwan and South Africa. A large amount of my time is spent looking after the press, emails and social media. It’s my job to oversee how the business operates commercially, which can encompass pretty much everything.
I spend some time in the States with John, meeting with different distributors, and helping with the marketing in the US. I talk to the people on the ground, the distributors, the barmen and the people that are drinking whisky. I get to talk to people. The good thing about being a part of a smaller company is that you always know what’s happening.
Is there such a thing as a “typical day” for you, and if so what does it entail?
No, over the summer we are setting everything up for the big push from September. I will spend a lot of time holding tastings and training for barmen, distributors and shops. We are also trying to launch our products and send them out to distributors.
Once November comes we are doing events, we are going to shows, and helping the retailers out. I have times that are very customer focused and others that are more marketing and product development focused.
I have all the social media side of things as well which are very customer reactive. I like to develop good relationships. We need the retailers, the distributors and the customers to understand Compass Box, and to have the same passion that we have. Turning our customers almost into brand ambassadors. I spend a lot of time travelling around the UK and France (10/12 times a year). I also look after Canada and visit at least once or twice a year.
What’s the favourite part of your role?
It is when someone who has never come across our whiskies before, tastes them and says wow. They tell you that it’s really opened their eyes to whisky. It’s a chance to educate people to something new, and when people come up to you and tell you that your whisky is amazing, and that they love the flavours and that they just “get” it, it just makes you feel amazing and all the hard work is all worth it.
Is it the ambition of Compass Box to create a whole new style of whisky?
It’s always been about doing things differently or having the courage to try different things, things that people didn’t think there was a customer base for. We have been so ground breaking, and innovative.
We were not putting the age on the bottle of whisky at a time when everybody else still was. We knew that customers wanted to know the age, but we wanted people to try the product without getting hung up on everything else. We wanted to let the wood, and the whisky speak for itself. We want to make different styles and let people try more and more flavours.
We want to make flavours that are so different, and to play around with names and styles. We were the first to do this. For the first three or four years of Compass Box there was nobody but us taking this approach. We were trying to make a new contemporary style and keep it fun. Innovation is key, that said however, we do take some inspiration from the past, and a good example of this is our Orangerie. This was a good bit of fun for us, and it’s very much like the way people first started drinking whisky, drinking it like a punch long before they did straight whisky. We want to show everyone that you can experiment, and that you can try different things, and as long as you do it right you can do whatever you want.
Will Compass Box only make blended whisky?
Yes, that’s our style we are a blending house and that’s what we are about. Our core is combining great stuff and trying to make it better. We can’t foresee ourselves ever making a single malt. There are wonderful independents bottlers out there who are the ones that do that already and they do it fantastically well. Companies like Douglas Laing are part of our movement to bring fun and a new approach to whisky, and we help each other. We are both taking away from the belief that single malt is the only whisky to drink.
Do you think the quality (and in some cases, age), of the whiskies blended, are what make Compass Box so unique?
To a certain extent there is no rocket science in what we do, you take great whisky aged in great casks and you use your skills to make something amazing. If your ingredients are already at the very top you can’t fail to make a great blend.
The sourcing of our whiskies is one of the most important things we do. If the products you start with are fantastic quality then it’s very hard to get it wrong. We only select the best ingredients, this role is so important to what we do.
The whiskies have to be good and sometimes age comes in to play. If the young whisky is amazing we use that, and a 7 year old Laphroaig aged in some great oak, which is still lively and spirited is just as good (and sometimes better) than a 20 year old which just isn’t suited to our blend. If the whisky is older and is the flavour profile we are looking for then we use that. We aren’t afraid of using old or young whisky, the age really doesn’t’ matter it’s more of an oak thing.
The blender’s skill comes in to play in all blends, and as much as people might scorn some of the bigger operations, the likes of Johnny Walker etc. do this on a mass scale and have to ensure consistency across the board, that is quite some skill.
What is the greatest challenge Compass Box faces.
The demand for whisky has suddenly got so high that it’s really difficult to keep sourcing good quality whisky. You can’t forecast how the whisky industry will go and that’s where problems have arisen. In 2000 John could source pretty much anything he wanted, but now days the challenge is how to keep getting the stock to do what we need to do.
Brokers don’t want to sell whisky anymore, but they will swap whisky, it’s harder for us to deal with trading whisky as we don’t distil and use most of what we buy for ourselves. We are lucky that John and Dr Alan Rutherford have made such great relationships that we have been able to trade on. We are lucky to have supply agreements with distilleries as we don’t want to run out of stock or panic buy and have whisky that we just aren’t proud of. We were getting close to having a real crisis of stock, but we have been very lucky to have been able to overcome this.
What do you think of the NAS movement?
We are all for NAS whisky, but we would love to see the ages of all of our whiskies and all our cask information on our labels, we would love nothing more than to give percentages of what ages we use etc. but we aren’t allowed to, and we can’t state distillery names or ages unless its 100% of the product, we can’t be as transparent as we would like. We can’t get the story telling of the whisky into it.
Have Compass Box faced any negativity for making blended whisky or have people always been open to the range?
Only every day of our existence. There is a great quote from Joe Gallo “one customer at a time” and that’s how you convert your customers. We are so lucky today for the number of people that are open minded nowadays and who only judge whisky on taste.
Why does blended whisky, still get such a hard time?
It’s still not exciting enough, and as a category there is still more excitement in a good single malt. The blenders need to be skilled and using whisky that is exciting and of a good enough quality. The recipes just aren’t interesting enough at the moment, and there needs to be plenty of malt as the heart, rather than just the grain, the grain is there to soften things down and you can’t use poor quality grain just because it’s cheaper.
There needs to be more companies out there doing exciting things. When people say that single malt is better than a blend, I can’t disagree, but what I will say is that it’s an over simplification. There are just too many poor blends out there in much the same way that not all single malts out there are wonderful. One of my biggest bugbears is people say to me “you only do blends” that in itself is pretty inoffensive but its true meaning is really “you don’t produce exciting, good products”, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
People really don’t understand the difference between single malts and blended malts. Everyone blends malts, most single malts are still blended. There are too many misconceptions about blends still out there.
Tell us about the new releases The Lost Blend and the Glasgow Blend?
The Glasgow Blend, is part of The Great King Street range, and when you have range of one, it feels like something of a one off. A second expression helps us to get the idea of the range out. There have been well over 100 prototypes that were tried and rejected before we found what we needed. The challenge was balancing sherry and peat, with the softness of the grain and even a little bit of spice to put through as well. It was very hard to get those flavours, which can all fight for domination. The Glasgow Blend really relates to the history of the whisky that was made in earlier days for Scottish tastes. It’s a very approachable form of peat. You don’t need the back story, the whisky will stand without it.
The Lost Blend as a title, is from a 1907 book about bartenders trying to make a spirit with supernatural properties. Something about the story just resonated. The packaging was fun, with lots of lost items that are in keeping with the name. We love having three different fun labels, we had them created and instead of just picking one, we decided to use them all. In terms of flavour profile there’s a creaminess and more approachability to this whisky. The artists blend is so different. The Lost Blend is my favourite style, it’s a magical combination of 80% Highland (Cynelish 16 to 19yo in a rejuvenated bourbon cask) and 20% Islay (a Caol Ila) it’s a subtle hint of Islay.
Why do you think Compass Box has such a huge (almost cult) fan base?
We went from a company that nobody came to see at the whisky shows, from a company that was relatively unheard of, didn’t really attract much attention and was often overlooked. It’s our fan’s that have helped us, and word of mouth just grew and grew, the journalists, bloggers etc. have written wonderful things about our products which has carried us on.
It’s really touching to think that people feel that way about us, as John Glaser is so passionate, as are we all, we all want to share the enthusiasm for what we do and enjoy having fun at the same time. John left a really good job because he had the passion and the vision to start up Compass Box, he had the belief to make blends great.
It really helps that people want to champion the underdog, and they love people that have a dream and want to become involved in helping that dream be realised. John was brave enough to do it, he put all his trust in his dream, even though people thought he was crazy.
Now, as time has moved on people are more curious and willing to try new things, John got through the dark times of nobody visiting his stands at festivals when everyone else’s stalls were packed out, but he stayed cheerful and kept believing.
I hope they like our whisky too. We have brought something new to the whisky industry. We want to make the whisky industry a better place. There is a real belief in the smaller producers these days, who have a good story to tell and who have a philosophy they believe in.
What’s your favourite from the Compass Box range and why?
It’s a tie for a first place Hedonism Maximus, which is a combination of a 1965 Invergordon and 1979 Cameron Bridge which is sweet and creamy or the Double Single, it’s so different, it three quarters of a 19yo Glen Elgin and one quarter of 21yo Port Dundas, giving gentle flavours of pears and crème brulee, although it’s like choosing between a red and white wine.
Tell us something that people would be surprised to know about you?
I’m a Pet Shop Boy completest. And up until the age of 21 the only wine or spirit I had ever drunk a Mateus Rose. We hardly ever drunk wine or spirits, oh and Mark Gillespie of Whisky Cast and I share a birthday
What was your first ever whisky?
I remember stealing a whisky from my dad’s cupboard when I was 9, I took it to school and forced everyone to drink it, and got into a lot of trouble! My first proper whisky would have been a 70’s Glenlivet.
Aside from anything from the Compass Box range, what’s your go to whisky?
I don’t tend to drink much out of the Compass Box range, I was given a bottle of a 25yo Caol Ila from Fred Laing which is fantastic and I like to try world whiskies too, like a Hibiki or Nikka from the Barrel or an Evan Williams.
For people that are still to try your range or haven’t heard of Compass Box yet (We’ll just presume they have been living in a cave or something), which expression would you suggest to them and why?
Taste and try something new, you will find lots of blends you don’t like, but you will find companies like ourselves and Douglas Laing, learning how to make something better with blends you do like. there are companies caring about the different style that you can achieve, and are making things that just can’t be achieved in a single malt. If you blend the whisky in the right way with the right ingredients, the product and flavours you can achieve are amazing.
If you are using only the best ingredients and using the right amounts of malt and grain, you can make something incredible, but you are still looking for that different style. The nose of Laphroaig but the body of a Speyside whisky, with its creamy smoothness, this is something you couldn’t find in a single malt. It has to be done beautifully but it is softer and more drinkable. You need to understand that there are different styles and categories of whisky. There really is a whisky for each mood.
You travel the world, holding events, tastings etc, any funny moments to share with us?
I held a masterclass in Canada, and it was the last spot of the day, I did the whole of the tasting and at the end it was pointed out to me that two guys slept through the whole thing, I tried not to take it personally though.
What’s next for Compass Box?
The next stage for us it too try and convert more people to the joys of what we do. We just like to have consumers trying our products, who are loving it and understanding us. We would love to be in every fine whisky shop, fine bar, or hotel anywhere in the world and to not have the hang ups about blends and malts.
We are synonymous with blends, as we are a blender, but it would be nice to be known just as a whisky brand and not be put it a box. We love that whisky enthusiasts know about us and love us, but we also want to bring people into the fold that don’t yet know us.
Thank you so much for your time Chris, it’s been great fun doing one half of this interview in the UK and one half in Poland, being the international jet setter you are. I look forward to reviewing both of the new expressions and catching up for a dram sometime.
If you’ve not tried any of the Compass Box range yet, go out and give it a go. Don’t be put off that they are all blends, blends done right can be fantastic.
Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)