There are things that I love and there are things that I intellectually love. There’s a Venn Diagram where these two worlds merge but the edges are blurry and unscientific. Compass Box falls squarely in the grey area of these circles.
Over the past 17 years Compass Box has certainly marketed themselves as the hip, bad boys of the Scotch world while simultaneously pushing for greater education, transparency, and innovation in the category. As in so many things these days, the nerds have become the cool kids.
Founded in 2000 by former Johnie Walker marketing director and fellow American, John Glasser, Compass Box labels themselves as ‘whiskymakers’ a term the fully admit they made up. To them a whiskymaker is someone who “feels a need and an obligation to make things better – to ask questions, to challenge, to experiment.” In a traditional sense what they are is a blending house, not dissimilar to Johnnie Walker. They source whisky, both grain and single malt, from various distilleries throughout Scotland and then blend them together to create something, hopefully, unique and larger than the sum of its parts. Where Compass Box excels though is putting their own spin on the process. However, this personal spin often causes friction with the Scotch powers that be.
In 2005 they were forced to discontinue one of their “Signature Range” blends, the Oak Cross because of the aging process used to create it. Compass box was aging the blend with flat, French Oak staves placed inside the barrel to produce a different flavor, not dissimilar to what Maker’s Mark is doing with Maker’s 46. The Scotch Whisky Association, the trade organization that functions as the defacto Scotch whisky government, felt that this aging process
violated the Scotch Whisky Regulations and in the face of legal action the Spice Tree was discontinued. It was later revived by aging the blend in barrels that had be recoopered to included French Oak barrel heads, instead of barrel inserts. This helped give them an early reputation for innovation, and for standing up to the traditional, closed of Scotch makers.
This reputation was solidified in 2015 when they locked horns with the ScotchWhisky Association again, this time over transparency. Compass Box had been shipping informational cards with their blends fully disclosing the source, style, age, and percentages of all of the component whiskies for their blends. The SWA felt that this violated both UK and EU laws, which state that a whisky may only list the age of the youngest whisky in the blend no matter the proportions. According to the SWA if you add a cupful of three year old whisky to a barrel of 50 year old whisky you now must label that as a three year old whisky. This is why blends like Johnnie Walker Blue will hint that there is 30 year old whisky in the bottle but you’ll never find that number actually on the packaging. Compass Box and John Glasser said, that fine will call it three year old whisky but drinkers want transparency and we want to be able to tell them exactly what makes up our bottle.
In another compromise, Compass Box has backed down from mailing out these inserts, but still makes them available online and they started the Scotch Whisky Transparency Campaign, which outlines their goals and what exactly they would like to see changed in the regulations.
None of this would be possible with out the whisky though. And John Glasser and Compass Box are excellent blenders. Take the Compass Box Asyla from their Signature Range. “Asyla” is plural for asylum and is a blended whisky, comprised of both grain and malt whiskey. Specifically, 50% Grain Whisky from Cameron bridge aged in first fill bourbon barrels, 5 % Malt whisky from Glen Elgin aged in refill hogshead, 23% malt from Teaninich aged in first fill American and 22% malt from Linkwood aged in First Fill American. Can you see how much the nerd it me loves having that information to pick apart?! The final product ends up leading with a light vanilla fruit from the predominant grain whisky with a floral, grassy, and stone fruit character added from the supporting malts. It’s an immensely approachable everyday whisky that I personally recommend for drinkers of Johnnie Walker almost every time I’m behind the bar and I have been for years. That’s part of the problem though, as I see it at least.
Despite years of bartenders recommending the product, and the whisky nerds geeking out I don’t know who’s actually drinking the whiskey. I can’t recall anyone ever calling for it by name. I often wonder if I’ve bought into what amounts to a marketing gimmick of transparency and rebel attitude. It comes into starker focus when you look at their limited releases. They’re clearly thumbing their noses at the SWA with their “Three Year Extravaganza” release which feature less than 1% of a three year old whisky blended into a malt whisky of “undisclosed age” and their recent “Double Single” flips the traditional blenders script of including only a single rain whisky and a single malt whisky blended together. They’re interesting experiments, and clearly push at limitations but it still feels like they’re exploiting the system.
They get to be the white night. Championing for greater transparency and new regulations while a vat amount of the whiskies for their blends from Diageo, the largest liquor conglomerate in the world who has a vested interest in the status quo. Brag to your customers that you’re fighting for their interests, knowing that it’ll probably never happen, and then thumb your nose at the establishment with cheeky releases while charging establishment specialty prices.
But none of this takes away from the fact that I genuinely enjoy their blends. But I’m still not sure where they fall on the Venn Diagram. Because when there’s so much to be said about a whisky company and a mere 5% of it is about the actual liquid in the bottle maybe that’s why I don’t experience calls for specific Compass Box whiskies. Maybe we’re having the wrong conversation.