The Roots of Blended Whisky in London
London was and continues to be a city of fine culture, filled with majestic buildings within which one can have a number of dignified libations. Renowned for its cocktail culture, its Champagne bars, and its general good taste in all things alcoholic, London is also where one of the most regal blended whisky companies calls home: Compass Box, a small, boutique-oriented brand started by my friend John Glaser back in the year 2000. Looking to adapt the traditional “house” model passed down by current industry giants like Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Courvoiser, Hennessy, and Möet, John’s goal was to improve on that blueprint by taking a more modern and creative approach to a somewhat outdated concept. "Houses" in the booze world are large companies that purchase wines and spirits from various small producers, store them, and blend them into larger scale brands. While branded Scotch whisky and big house Cognac have suffered over the last decade from declining sales and a more forward-thinking consumer base, small-batch single malts and “craft” spirits have made huge gains in the market. The both nebulous and ubiquitous nature of nondescript blends stands in stark contrast to the current demand for unique, interesting, and artisanal whiskies made by small producers and rustic distillers. Today’s younger customers are looking to make a connection with their whisky, rather than define themselves by it. They want bold new flavors, assertive attacks, and powerful, long-lasting finishes. They want clear-cut stories, details, and specifics. In the midst of this generational shift, former blended whisky stalwarts have watched their market share crumble in the wake of new desires like Bourbon and Japanese whisky. With a number of Scottish whisky houses in complete collapse, looking to sell their remaining stocks to the bustling single cask market, what in the hell is John Glaser doing looking to resurrect a relic in the middle of London?
To understand the market’s reaction to blended whisky, you first need to understand how the term “smooth” became a four-letter word amongst its most passionate drinkers. Blended whisky is meant to be mellow, soft, integrated, and smooth by nature. At its best, it’s a perfectly-balanced whisky cocktail pre-mixed and prepared for you in a bottle. Once “smooth” became the ultimate giveaway of the uneducated palate, things began to change. Drinking became an exercise in understanding alcohol, rather than an attempt to mask it. People stopped avoiding “the bite” of a whisky and began seeking it out in order to tame it. Cask strength selections became the norm; single barrel or small batch expressions more highly-valued. The more concentrated and intense a whisky could be, the more people wanted to experience it. The more selective and exclusive the dram, the more highly-prized that experience became. Today it's perfectly normal to hear someone brag about only drinking "the very best," never settling for a drinking experience that wasn't the utmost. I’ve watched the evolution of this market development unfold since 2007 and now—almost ten years later—I’ve realized the consequence: drinking whisky simply for the sake of it isn’t all that cool anymore. That’s why late last night I decided to grab my bottle of Compass Box Great King Street, pour myself a quick Scotch on the rocks, and contemplate this issue. To be honest, I’d been drinking nothing but blended whisky all month long. December is a stressful month in the retail—one that’s meant for drinking whisky, not “experiencing” it. I decided to send my old friend John an email as I partook in that soft elixir.
I’ve spent a good amount of time drinking whisky with John in London—he’s incredibly passionate about blending and he loves taking the time to explain the subtle nuances to anyone who will listen. While Compass Box has a number of blended malts in its lineup (meaning blends of pure single malt whiskies rather than a combination of malt and grain), it’s clear where his allegiance lies in the whisky realm and he wants to clear up any misunderstandings. Part of the reason behind blended whisky’s fall from grace lies in the misunderstanding of its second ingredient: grain whisky. What is grain whisky exactly? In a sense, it's Scotland’s version of Bourbon, made from various grains like corn, wheat, barley, and rye, but aged in used barrels rather than new charred oak casks and rectified to a higher proof. Distilled on a massive column still, grain whisky is a soft spirit that has a more simple and straightforward character than malt whisky does. In other words, it’s less complicated, and that’s where the backlash against grain whisky began: in its simplicity. Today’s market wants complexity (or at least it thinks it does). People want to ponder over a glass of booze, to sip it slowly and enjoy the nuance rather than just slam it down. As we’ve proven over time with our grain whisky barrel program, however; Scotland’s maligned spirit tastes pretty damn good on its own, despite our pretenses and prejudices. It's a guilty pleasure for some. It’s like the US Weekly magazine that’s secretly hiding underneath the New Yorker that the person next to you on the subway wants you to think they’re reading. “Are we as a whisky society too pretentious for grain whisky and therefore blended Scotch today?” I asked John in my message. “Are we too cool to actually drink because it's fun anymore?”
Because of the popularity of unique, bespoke, and limited edition whiskies in today’s market, John and I have collaborated over the years on a few special projects. Our partnership in a recent K&L exclusive “5th & Harrison” Compass Box special release was a huge success among our local customers who still clammer about it six months later hoping I’ll be able to dig up another bottle or two. The problem with specializing in specialized whiskies, however, is that you’re constantly under more pressure to outdo the previous batch. You become pigeonholed. No one wants to drink the regular stuff when there’s another once-in-a-lifetime bottle waiting just around the corner. Another problem is consumption. When a whisky is so rare and limited that it can’t be replaced, it tends to dissuade the consumer from actually drinking it. In essence, with so many singular experiences dominating the market right now, it’s created an entire genre of whisky too precious to drink! “I don’t know if people are actually drinking the whiskies we’re selling them anymore,” I wrote to John. “I feel like maybe we’re inhibiting connoisseurship rather than promoting it.” In London, there’s a lot less legal restriction when it comes to distilled spirits, and more freedom to do interesting and creative projects that involve actual consumption; like in-house blends for local bars and restaurants. One of the last times I went around town with John we stopped by a place called the Hix Bar where two private blends of Compass Box were available by the glass for local drinkers. They were delicious and dynamic. Most importantly, they were just plain fun to drink.
As a distinguished drinker of Scotch and a historian of fine blended whisky, maybe John already understands this dilemma. In fact, it may be the reason he cares so much about carrying on the tradition of a storied drink in the middle of the world’s most storied drinking city. Easy going, simple-drinking blended whisky isn’t just the foundation of Scotch, it’s also the namesake spirit’s most agreeable form. It’s what I started drinking back in the college dorms at nineteen. It’s what many of us remember fondly from our glory days of early adulthood, back when we drank to be social, to meet people, and to enjoy our youth with friends. In essence, it’s not really the mantle for blended whisky John’s carrying almost single-handedly at this point, but rather the entire reason we drink whisky in the first place: because it tastes good and it makes us happy. He understands the function and the place that blended whisky carries in our daily existence. As I finished composing my letter to John, I went back to my liquor cabinet and grabbed a bottle of the Compass Box Asyla from the blended whisky selection. I took in the light, lean, and playful aromatics over ice and continued to read the back label for the first time in a while. I noticed John had written: “This is a blended Scotch whisky that makes an ideal aperitif. It’s a gentle whisky, soft on the palate, approachable. An ideal Sunday afternoon whisky, if you will.” There’s a time and place for everything, isn’t there? I'm going to make more time for blends in 2017.