In my article ‘What Is Happening at Compass Box?’, I tried to mention some of the important concerns that fans of Compass Box had in mind. Compass Box team was incredibly open-minded with all the concerns and comments, and finally, we decided that John Glaser should fill in the answer sheet to the questions coming from me and the fans. I do want to thank Elif Yontucu and John Glaser for all their help and answers.
KO: Koray Ozdemir
JG: John Glaser
KO: How can you describe the current mission of Compass Box in the whisky world?
JG: Our mission – the reason Compass Box exists as a company – is to make the world of Scotch whisky a more interesting place. And in doing so, we hope to bring more people to appreciate the joys of what we think is one of the world’s great drinks.
KO: Do you think anything has changed in Compass Box’s mission over the years? If so, what?
JG: Our mission has not changed in the 20 years since I founded Compass Box. However, in the last several years, our focus has drifted more toward limited editions than our core whiskies. When it comes to helping make the world of Scotch whisky a more interesting place, this drift has arguably helped. When it comes to bringing more people into the joys of Scotch whisky, you could say this isn’t the most effective path because not everyone can access all the limited editions. We’ve been talking about this within the company for a year now, and you’ll see us shift the balance in the coming 12 months.
We’ll be putting more focus on our core whiskies, even introducing a new malt whisky to our core range. We’ll be putting more emphasis on the joys of drinking blended Scotch whisky through revitalized efforts behind Artist’s Blend and Glasgow Blend. And we’ll complete the rollout around the world of our “painting label” Peat Monster with its tweaked recipe.
We will, of course, continue to produce limited editions. The creative need these fulfill for me and the team is too strong and it’s part of our DNA as a business.
KO: In Bozzy’s article, his main point, as I also talked to him personally about it, was simply “I cannot afford Compass Box anymore”. How do you feel about it?
JG: I was sorry to hear this, and I wrote Bozzy to thank him for his comments because inherent in our mission is the desire to democratize Scotch whisky. We believe that our Malt Whisky Collection, Hedonism, and the Artist’s and Glasgow Blends continue to fulfill this ambition, offering compelling quality at affordable prices. Perhaps in recent times, we have not been consistent enough in championing our core line-up, with limited editions taking more of the limelight. And given that, Bozzy made a valid point.
Yes, we have produced more limited editions each year recently. And yes, we have produced more expensive limited editions in some cases. Yet one thing I am proud of is that we have always tried to charge what we feel is a fair price for the work we put into creating our whiskies. We are not in the business of gouging people or charging “whatever the market will bear.” Our whisky named “This is Not a Luxury Whisky” is a testament to that.
When we’ve created limited-edition whiskies over the years, usually we haven’t thought about price until the end of the process. We focus on the character and the complexity and the deliciousness of what we’re creating. Then, when we have something we love, something we feel is compelling and we want to share with the world, we do the numbers and determine the price we need to charge. We haven’t thought about it in, you could say, a strategic way. We are in the process of changing how we develop and release whiskies in order to prevent scenarios in which a number of quite expensive products can appear within a short space of time.
At the same time—and this may sound surprising–we didn’t realize the passion that people around the world were developing to buy everything we produce.
So, you could say we lost our way a bit. But now we are hearing the message. And while we love creating new things because we’re a creative business, we realize we need to release our limited editions in a more measured way. We’re more conscious of this now. We won’t stop producing limited editions, but we’ll be more mindful of how we go about it. We don’t believe a Compass Box limited edition has to be over $100 – expect to see us carrying on trying ‘to create the best blends in the world’ (to quote Bozzy), but at a variety of price points.
KO: In the last 17 months, Compass Box came up with 11 limited edition expressions (to my count) in the US, even more in the UK.
- Even though the bottles were appreciated by us, they were over $100. They averaged a solid $180, whereas your core range whiskies average $60. Some hardcore fans of Compass Box referred to this as Dalmorization, which is a term used for numerous brands showing a similar path in the past. Do you agree with this?
- I honestly think that bringing 11 limited editions in a short amount of time shadowed the quality and availability of the core range. It made people somewhat forget about your core range and divert their money to the limited editions, I included. What do you think?
- I know from my own experience that the release of a new expression can be tough, in means of operation, sales and marketing. The amount of focus given to that release is quite hefty. How did you feel about releasing this many whiskies?
JG: I think my answer above addresses some of the key issues in these questions. Concerning the number of limited editions released in a relatively short period of time, we acknowledge that seven to ten in one year is a lot for our supporters to accommodate. I would hope a Compass Box limited edition would always be something special and we are working to get the balance right. All I would add is that $180 or even $450 is a lot less than what some other brands charge for whiskies of similar ages (and not necessarily, in our opinion, of similar compelling quality). When we released This is Not a Luxury Whisky, we were trying to make this point.
KO: Another issue that has been questioned was Compass Box’s partnership with Bacardi. Can you please explain your partnership as stakeholders? Is there any part in the business that Bacardi has full control of?
JG: Just over five years ago, we took on Bacardi as a minority shareholder in Compass Box. They bought shares from one of my founding strategic shareholders. What Bacardi brought to the table was long-term Scotch whisky supply through their John Dewar & Sons business in Scotland. In terms of the management of our business, nothing changed. We have continued to manage and operate our business autonomously.
As a blending house, this is how I have wanted it. As I have always said, our business needs strategic business partners who are distillers and who are willing to supply us with our raw materials. I decided many years ago that I didn’t want to go into distilling. I love and appreciate distilling. But it’s a different business to ours. What I love doing is what whisky blenders have done in Scotland for over a century and a half: source your component whiskies from different distilleries and use them to make products that are uniquely yours, products that no single distillery can create. We are blenders, rather than distillers, so we need distilling partners.
To complete my answer to your question: every business by definition needs investment and businesses like ours need strategic partners. Usually, as in our case, the investors and partners are behind the scenes and let the people running the business get on with things. This is business. What’s more important is what the people running the business do with the capital they have access to—in our case, that means following our passion for Scotch whisky and making compelling products that bring more people to Scotch whisky and therefore a little bit more joy to their lives.
What About Transparency?
KO: Last question! We all know that Compass Box led a transparency move in 2016 for 6 months or so, then it was blocked by SWA. What happened since then?
JG: We closed our Transparency Campaign shortly after the Brexit referendum in 2016. We were told at that time by the Scotch Whisky Association, with whom we were discussing the issue, that their members were not interested in change at that time. Personally, I think they felt there were more pressing issues to consider at the time, like what the future relationship would be between the United Kingdom and the EU, and how that might affect the Scotch whisky industry.
In any case, we are planning to rekindle our efforts at getting the industry to address the issue around transparency in age statements for whisky bottlings. The regulations prohibit spirits producers from disclosing anything expect the age of the youngest component of a blend. Until 2016, we would disclose the age of every component of our blends, with corresponding percentages.
We still confidently believe that a change to the regulation is in the best interests of the industry. Otherwise, in an age of increasing transparency in all consumer products, the risk is that Scotch whisky producers will appear to have something to hide when they tell consumers: “We can’t tell you all the details of our products because it’s illegal to do so.”
Watch this space.