The Thomas Edison of whisky makers

November is Whisky Festival time in South Africa.  I’m not going to rehash the details – they’ve already been put out there by every Tom, Dick, and their uncles.  Safe to say it’s a whisky extravaganza; if you’re even remotely partial to the golden nectar then you shouldn’t miss it.  The participating brands shell out some long dollars to be present, a fair portion of which goes to subsidising the tasting stock that you’ll be imbibing.  So there’s really only one thing for it – make hay whilst the sun shines.

How to approach the Whisky Festival

You’ll be tempted to gravitate to your old favourites, or maybe to the big boys with their flashy stands.  However the single most appealing feature of the Festival, for me anyhow, is that it brings a wide range of whiskies together under one roof, giving you and me, the whisky lovers, a magic opportunity to sample some off-the-beaten track, sparsely available, sometimes obscure but equally worthy, and often superior whiskies.

Top of my list for this year’s Festival is the new Compass Box initiative: the Great King Street range, or if you want to be whisky-hip, just GKS.  They’ve named the first-born “Artist’s Blend” and it’s been making quite the buzz in whisky circles.

GKS takes its name from the address of Compass Box's Edinburgh HQ

If you’re unfamiliar with Compass Box whiskies then this is something that you should remedy at your very soonest convenience.  There tends to be a common thread amongst premium brown spirits the world over – by and large they share a critical success factor: heritage.  It seems that if you want to make it to the big time, you need to have been around for a while.  So when a brand breaks the mould, especially in whisky, you know that there’s got to be something very, very special about it.  Interesting then, compelling even, that Compass Box is barely 10 years’ old…

The home page on their website touts them as “Four-time Whisky Magazine Innovator of the Year”, and this, innovation, is really what sets them apart.  Very simply they do things differently – not just different-different, but better-different.  Whisky has been made in largely the same way for hundreds of years – this is an old, conservative, traditional industry with deeply entrenched interests.  Change is resisted, and true innovation is rare.  Not long ago the guys at Compass Box ran afoul of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) with the production technique used to create their Spice Tree product.  This whisky was given a secondary maturation in casks fitted with new oak staves, judged by the SWA, who exist to make sure that those entrenched interests stay entrenched, to be contrary to the law that stipulates that whisky be produced in “the traditional way”.  The product was forced to be withdrawn but Compass Box later replaced the staves with barrel heads – made from the same new oak – to even better effect.  In whisky this is innovation of Apple-like proportions.

Why was I wasting my time with light bulbs?

The man behind Compass Box, John Glaser, has, like most whisky makers, emphasised the importance of wood in creating great whisky.  Unlike many others he’s backed up the talk with hard facts, which gives me some serious confidence in his products.   My default assumption when a whisky brand is secretive is either that disclosure is unflattering, or that the bar is likely to be lowered on occasion.  Compass Box is entirely, refreshingly transparent.  When Glaser claims that they use better wood than the majority of the Scotch whisky industry, I’m inclined to believe him.  Specifically Compass Box eschews the use of older, tired casks, which are commonplace, instead ageing whisky exclusively in either first-fill oak, or in a wood style that it has effectively pioneered: superior quality, slow growth, air-dried (as opposed to kiln dried), virgin French oak.

The only Scotch whisky blend aged in new wood

Here are the wood specifications for the GKS Artist’s Blend:

WOOD (Flavour Impact)

1             First Fill American Oak Barrel (vanilla)        62.3%

2             New French Oak Finish {New-Headed Barrel}         27.7%

(Grilled Marshmallow, toastiness, roasted coffee)

3             First Fill Sherry Butt (wine, dried fruits)      10.0%

I was fortunate enough to get a sneak-preview – a tasting at the Bascule last week.  It was a quick in-and-out which didn’t give me the time to study the whisky at length and compose detailed tasting notes (which I find somewhat tedious anyhow), so I’m only able to share general impressions.

Firstly, in appearance the whisky is satisfyingly hazy – no ice or cold water needed.  It is out-of-the-closet, proud-as-you-like, riding-on-a-float non-chill filtered.  This may not seem, in this enlightened whisky era, like something particularly distinguishing, but bear in mind that this is a blend, and that it is significantly aged in new wood.  In either case, never mind both, how many others can make this same claim?  Very few I’ll warrant.

I'm Scottish, I'm non-chill filtered and I want everbody to know it

Secondly, it is without a doubt the creamiest whisky I’ve ever tasted, a feature attributable, according Compass Box Tweetmeister Chris Maybin, to the quality of the grain whisky used (their grain is fully aged in first fill American oak), but I’d venture that my first point also plays a big role.  Well worth drinking for the luxuriant mouth-feel alone.

Thirdly it is a gunslinger of a whisky.  Probably not the most complex or sophisticated, but with flavours that are big, bold, and well-balanced.  I picked out vanilla, biscuit (paste of chewed up Maries), fruit, spicy wood and nut as they came thundering past.

Compass Box have heralded the GKS range as the “Rebirth of the Blend”, on the premise that the reputation of blended whisky has been tainted by low-quality, inferior products.  This makes for great copy but I’m not sure if blended whisky in the price range at which GKS is certain to be bracketed particularly needs a rebirth.  Regardless, the wordplay aside, this is an unusual, vastly interesting, hugely enjoyable whisky that carries forth with great aplomb the mantle of innovation established by its predecessors.  I’ll be seeking it out and so should you.

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16 responses to “The Thomas Edison of whisky makers

  1. A great read, as always. Entertaining and knowledgeable writing.

  2. Great post – really enjoy your insight and how you chose to focus on one products vs the entire festival. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Well done Patrick! The buzz about the GKS has been very very positive, so it’s a whisky that I hope to try very very soon (only one ho-hum review from Dr. Whisky). I may have to ask a friend to pick me up a bottle on his next trip to NYC.

    As you said, Compass Box is definitely bringing respect back to blends. I have had the Asyla, Oak Cross, Peat Monster, and Spice Tree from Compass Box. All are excellent!

    Cheers!
    G-LO

    • Thanks G-LO. Mine was just a quick tasting. I didn’t have the opportunity to extensively study the whisky as Dr. Whisky seems to have done, but I disagree with him, and I was impressed enough to want to go back for more. Taste is subjective, I guess. Incidentally I wonder how one manages to be both a brand ambassador, and an “independent” blogger. I’m not saying that Dr. Whisky doesn’t pull it off, I haven’t read enough of him to comment, but it seems like a difficult (if not near impossible) proposition. Interesting too that he makes the point of recommending Grant’s (same stable as Balvenie), above GKS.

  4. Great blog Pat. Looking forward to trying this whiskey at the festival in Johannesburg this week!

  5. Hmmm very interesting, innovation what innovation. Glaser was schooled as the Global Ambassador for Johnnie Walker so spin artist and genuine smooth dealer of smoke and mirrors seems more fitting. As his previous bosses he has made an enormous success of convincing us that only the highest quality will do. Wood finishes and quality barrels form part of every successful blenders armoury not only his , so lets break the rules to get the headlines then revoke our work only to re invent it the legal way whilst still in the news. What do I think of his work ( not the marketing par exellence but rather the whisky) very good but overpriced with BS on wood quality. Innovation may be his game but he would do well to look at getting results using 2nd and 3rd fill barrells that way he will have more sustainability and affordability or is he not talented enough to produce results with cheaper not inferior wood??

    • Thanks for the thought-provoking comment Mark. We’re going to mostly disagree but that’s what makes for compelling debate.

      I think you’ll find – at the risk of splitting hairs – that John Glaser was Global Marketing Director for JW, not Global Ambassador. All the more to your point he clearly knows his way around all things marketing, but then that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is an industry in which it’s exceptionally difficult to break in as a newcomer, so I don’t for a moment begrudge him the use of every talent and resource at his disposal. I would suggest however that the success of Compass Box is beholden more to the quality and distinctiveness of the product offering, than to any branding bamboozlement.

      You may not find his innovation convincing but in the context of the industry there’s no doubt that it’s significant. His use of new wood, French oak, extended air seasoning, composite barrels, and, with this recent blended offering, his avoidance of chill filtration, are all novel techniques, if not alone then certainly in combination. And there’s no arguing with the results – as you’ve said his work is very good.

      With regards to the SWA showdown I’d be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think it can reasonably be argued that, whilst he may have pushed the envelope (always a good thing, someone should be doing it), he didn’t set out to break any rules – the ruling on the staves was a marginal (one might be forgiven for saying dubious) call on a vague regulation. These types of innovations threaten the cosy club that is Scotch whisky – so the more pertinent questions to be asking might be whether the ruling was (a) fair and impartial, and (b) in the best interests of the whisky consumer. He rode the publicity but who wouldn’t. And he reacted skilfully when the ruling went against him. I can only applaud him for it.

      I’m also of the opinion that all things being equal older casks are inferior. There are obviously other factors needing to be taken in account – the type of wood, the duration of each fill, the quality of the impregnation, the incidence of re-seasoning – and I’ll concede that in small proportions and in certain instances these casks can and do offer some balance. Prevailing wisdom would probably support my view: I’ve seen products loudly claim to be made from first fill casks, but they tend to be quieter about any third fill and older casks involved. Your point about cost effectiveness and sustainability is a good one, but on the whole the Compass Box wood policy seems sensible to me. He’s making a small-batch boutique whisky and at this stage his volume aspirations are probably limited – why mess around with older casks, challenge though it may be?

      I may sound like his cheerleader, but I don’t agree with everything he does – for instance I believe that it’s important to disclose the age of a whisky in one form or another (although not necessarily with an age statement). He seems to feel otherwise, which I reckon is at odds with the rest of his philosophy on transparency, and which may well be self-serving rather than altruistic. But on the whole I think he has been a positive force for whisky lovers.

  6. Hi Patrick I love the fact that Glaser exists within whisky circles and do not begrudge him any success at all.
    I have over the last 2 years started to understand the unforunate reality that even I am guilty of treading on eggshells around marketing genius such as him and his previous boss, such is there tremendous influence on us.
    His quality is there, he is a self confessed whisky Zealot and that is great what’s not so great, is you and I shelling out R600 a litre on whisky which whilst good is only wood finished for who knows how long. I have defended him and his products and probably will in the future, as I too see him as a positive force. My fear is that he influences us beyond our own understanding. I guess what I am trying to say (I do not have your gift of writing) is simply that for all the work he does he is effectively only finishing other peoples whisky in wood good or bad, and he has yet to deliver a whisky that I believe will standout as clearly superior to what is out there already. Especially not at his price point.

    • I’m with you. He is to be admired but that admiration should be tempered. Perhaps it’s too unrestrained as things stand, because he cuts such a righteous polemic figure. The (non)disclosure of age is my single biggest gripe with the whisky industry. Age is probably the most material element to consumers – rightly or wrongly – in the purchase of a whisky, as borne out by the recent Chivas “Age Matters” campaign, so, to my mind, it should be compulsorily disclosed. The fact that it isn’t is problematic for me. I wonder how this would hold up if tested against the new Consumer Protection Act… If the age of his products was disclosed I’d be quite happy for Glaser to charge whatever. Then at least we’d be spending that money more consciously, should we choose to do so. Post to follow on this subject when I get my arse in gear.

      In terms of his products, I’d say that the selection of casks is part of his skill, which shouldn’t be seen as limited to just the finishing (and the marketing :)). I’m generally a big fan of independent bottlers and blenders because it’s so much more impressive, given that they’ve got limited scope for experimentation, when they do something interesting. I’d be excited to see what he could do if he ever invested in a distillery.

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