On the walls of Compass Box Whisky's London offices is inscribed a very simple motto: "Above all, share and enjoy." On the surface it doesn't seem to be a particularly controversial philosophy, but it's one that's gotten Compass Box and its founder, John Glaser, into more than their fair share of trouble over the years.
Glaser and his six-person firm are on a serious if enjoyable mission: to make people reconsider what they think they know about Scotch whisky.* A spirit best sipped neat in a tulip-shaped glass in front of a fireplace? Perhaps. But why not at the dinner table, too, paired with elegant gourmet dishes?
That's the concept behind the upcoming Compass Box Whisky Dinner on Wed. May 23 at the Old Village Post House in Mt. Pleasant. Chef de Cuisine Forrest Parker and Executive Chef Frank Lee have created a menu consisting of five courses, each of them paired with a different whisky from Compass Box's Signature Range. Mark Pruckner, a Compass Box rep, will be on hand to help pour the whisky and talk about the craft behind the spirits.
I caught up with John Glaser, by phone from London, and he explained a little more about his firm and what diners might expect from the Old Village Post House event. Glaser predicts they'll be surprised by several things. One is the whole concept of a Scotch-paired dinner in the first place. "We've been doing them since 1984," Glaser told me. "But they're still not that common, even in the U.K."
And then there are the pairings themselves. "Scotch whisky has more of a range of flavors and styles than any other spirit type in the world," he says, "owing to the large number of distilleries in Scotland, all making different styles of whisky. From light and delicate to big and smoky, you've got this wide palette of styles you can really match with food."
It's not just the whisky itself but also how it's served — the different shapes of glasses, whether it is diluted with water or not — that determine the effect on the palate.
"We love to pair smoky whiskies like our Peat Monster with smoked salmon," Glaser says. "You can serve it straight, and the fattiness of the salmon is perfect for the smokiness of the whisky." For something more straightforward like a grilled steak, he recommends Spice Tree, a rich, oaky blend, diluted down to about 35 percent alcohol to dampen the burn and not overwhelm the flavor of the meat.
At the Old Village Post House dinner, Parker and Lee will be taking full advantage of that range. The first and lightest course of fried oysters and smoked trout, for instance, will be paired with the soft, vanilla-tinged Asyla, while they pick up on the whisky's base ingredient with a "malted dry-rubbed duo" of baby back ribs and pork belly that are matched with the bold Peat Monster for a big fourth course.
Hosting Scotch-paired dinners is just a small part of Compass Box's mission to bring the enjoyment of malt whisky to a whole new demographic of drinkers.
Two decades ago, more than 90 percent of the Scotch whisky on the market was blends, and most of it was highly standardized, mass-produced stuff from a small group of large Scottish distilleries. At the same time, the Scotch world managed to be defined by an overbearing stuffiness: the ultimate connoisseur's whisky, with a stern set of rules about how to drink it ("nose" before you taste, and no ice, please) and the sort of intense flavor that takes years to acquire a taste for.
That's starting to change thanks to a new breed of Scotch makers like Glaser. Within the tradition-bound Scotch world, he is something of a maverick.
For starters, he's an American. Glaser grew up in Minnesota, and while attending college at Miami of Ohio, he developed a passion for fine wine and decided to pursue a career in winemaking. After stints with wineries in Burgundy and Napa Valley, he ended up on the business side of the wine industry, which ultimately led him to Scotch. After he took a job in the global marketing department of Johnnie Walker, he moved to London and started spending a lot of time in Scotland working with blenders and distillers on new product development.
"That's when it really got under my skin," he says. In 2000 he branched out on his own and, in his home kitchen, started Compass Box, a firm dedicated to blending boutique Scotch whiskies. Glaser purchases single malt and single grain whiskies from distillers in different regions of Scotland and creates high-end blends from them. He and his team are fanatical about the oak barrels in which they age their spirits, using first-fill American oak casks (like bourbon distillers do) for some and high-quality French cooperage oak for others. Each has a different effect on the taste of the end product.
Glaser's experimentation has sometimes upset the more conservative members of a tradition-bound industry. In 2005, Compass Box released the first version of its Spice Tree whisky, which borrowed a technique from French winemakers and inserted new oak staves into used whisky barrels to give them a burst of new flavor. Those staves drew the ire of the Scotch Whisky Association, who threatened to take Compass Box to court for one simple reason: It had never been done before. (Glaser, in response, switched to using heavily toasted French oak cask heads for the current Spice Tree version.)
But shaking things up might be a good thing for the Scotch industry. For a long time, Glaser explains, Scotch was too confusing to most people. "It's intimidating," he says. "People have this perception that there are all these rules around how you drink it and enjoy it. Scotch whisky doesn't deserve to have all this baggage."
And that means you should feel free to sip it on the rocks or mix it into cocktails if you choose. "We don't advocate any rules," Glaser says. "Drink it any way you like."
The flourishing of small, creative companies like Glaser's has had a big impact on this most traditional of spirits. "It's far more interesting now than it used to be," he says. "Since I got started in the business, more and more people are coming to Scotch whisky, especially younger people and women."
He expects that these new, more innovative approaches will continue to win converts. Ultimately, that's the motivating force behind events like the one at the Old Village Post House.
"These kind of dinners," Glaser says, "this is what it's all about, why we do what we do. To get people around the table to enjoy great company, great dinners, and great drinks, too. "
*Note on spelling: Scotch is usually spelled "whisky" while American versions are spelled "whiskey."