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Pointing the way

Published:  18 January, 2007

A few weeks ago, a new whisky called The Spice Tree slipped quietly on to the market. It is the latest offering from John Glaser's Compass Box in London. With total annual sales approaching 7,000 cases, this bespoke whisky company is unlikely to have big Johnnie Walker quaking in his boots. But in his small way, through independent specialists and top-end on-trade accounts, Glaser is doing his bit to reinvigorate premium Scotch in the UK. And for once, this is not a story about single malts.

Compass Box is one of a handful of independent bottlers that buy in carefully selected casks to sell under their own label. What sets Glaser apart is his belief in blending, be it of malts, malts and grains, or even just grains, as in the sweetly seductive Hedonism. This flies in the face of received wisdom, which states that single malts are the pinnacle and blended Scotch the base in the whisky hierarchy of quality. This is not always true, of course. There are blends where the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts, just as there are malt-whisky distilleries that should have never been allowed to bottle their own spirit. But blended whisky does have an image problem, being seen as staid, unimaginative and, at worst, a somewhat industrialised commodity compared to single malts.

The truth is that blended Scotch does appear boring in the UK, certainly in the mainstream, where the same old Bell's, Grouse and Teacher's stare out from the supermarket shelves. Below them are the ranks of own-label and unbranded Scotch, while

those in between are being progressively squeezed out. The big brands get the occasional face-lift and sometimes have a bit of money thrown their way. They keep their prices up as best they can when not on promotion and then drop their pants for Father's Day and Christmas.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why the blended-whisky sector is not exactly booming in the UK. This is a mature - some would say post-mature - market, where the distillers are simultaneously squeezed by price-slashing retailers and a tax-hungry government. It is hard to be imaginative when margins are cut to the bone, and it is easy to look abroad to younger markets where Scotch carries far less baggage. Glaser knows all about baggage, having spent much of the '90s marketing Dewars and Johhnie Walker in the States. His mission to revitalise these mega-brands was only partially successful despite having a huge stash of advertising dollars to lavish on them. The experience left him convinced that if people perceive Scotch as an old man's drink, you cannot tackle such ingrained prejudice through image alone.

Deciding it was easier to start afresh, he floated the idea of Compass Box passed his old bosses at Diageo to see if they would back the project. The thought of having to build awareness and distribution from scratch did not appeal, and they politely declined. By all accounts, Glaser has been grateful ever since, though it cannot have been easy starting up in the basement of a hairdresser's in Marylebone. Compared to the bright lights of Johnnie Walker in New York, it must have felt like another world. The company, with its staff of four, is now based in a more spacious office in Chiswick.

With the exception of Waitrose, which lists his Peat Monster, Glaser has never been near a supermarket. Beyond the high street there are signs of a consumer backlash against big brands. People have grown tired of being heavily marketed to; and somehow, premium-priced vodkas like Grey Goose, which have been so successful in the States, will find the UK

a much tougher and more sceptical market to win over. Spirits with real flavour and genuine core values are in, so we are told.

In the UK on-trade, both blends and malts have been suffering badly. Sales are falling in the average pub, and next year's smoking ban in Scotland is hardly going to help. But rejuvenating Scotch and restoring its reputation is never going to happen here anymore than it can on Asda's shelves. Yet in the sort of top-end bars where you might find Compass Box, it could start to happen, if only there were more people like John Glaser. Sales through such bars will never compensate for those lost in pubs, but it could be just what the category needs to restore its self-esteem. It might even - if one could just get that image of Teacher's or Bell's out of one's head - make blends hip!