John Glaser, the self-titled “whiskymaker” at Compass Box in London, made his name with blended Scotch whisky. Many of Compass Box’s offerings have become cult items, like the super smoky Peat Monster, rich Hedonism and aptly named Spice Tree.
Why, then, would he mess with success and roll out new whiskies that aren’t actually Scotch?
“Because we’re curious,” says Glaser. “And because what we are trying to do is make the world of Scotch whisky a more interesting place. To do that, we need to question things.”
That includes questioning the traditional definition of Scotch.
What makes a Scotch?
Traditional Scotch whisky must be distilled and aged in Scotland, using only grain, water and yeast, and aged at least three years. Some are Scotch in every way except location, while others deviate deliberately for creative or other reasons.
Compass Box isn’t the only producer to buck the legal constraints of Scotch whisky. Distillers around the world are highlighting local malted barley and importing barrels or repurposing their own from nearby wine regions. While the results can never technically be called “Scotch,” they provide curious drinkers (and those reeling from recent tariffs) a worthy alternative.
Scotch-adjacent bottlings from Starward Whisky borrow inspiration from Scotland, but firmly showcases the terroir of its native Australia. It was never intended to be “Speyside down under,” says David Vitale, Starward’s founder. Instead, he compares it to Aussie wine.
“Australian wine isn’t imitating French wine, they’re coming at it in a New World fashion,” he says. “My mindset was, if we can do it with wine, why not whiskey?” To that end, he sources local malted barley and ages the whiskey in former wine barrels that held predominately high-quality Shiraz and Cabernet from South Australia and Victoria. Australia’s warmer climate also means that the whisky ages for much less time than Scotch requires.
“Starward, in a way, is more Australian than Scotch is Scottish,” says Vitale. He points out that barley distilled into Scotch is often grown outside of Scotland, and barrels used for aging can be sourced from elsewhere as well. “We’re taking the things that are in abundance and interpreting them as our own.”
The Nova bottling’s robust, distinct fruit-forward character will remind some of Glenmorangie’s Quinta Ruban, a Port-finished single malt Scotch.
Other excellent examples are Michel Couvreur’s Candid and Overaged Malt Whisky bottlings. Couvreur, who died in 2013, was noted for his dedication to “cross-fertilization” between the worlds of whisky and wine. He brought distillate made in Scotland that otherwise would be categorized as Scotch to his adopted homeland in France’s Burgundy region. There, it aged in wine caves, usually in rare Sherry casks. Sherry casks have long been part of the toolbox to help flavor Scotch, but never in France. The end result are remarkably complex spirits that intertwine dried fruit, subtle peat smoke and caramel.
Each of these bottles are made in the tradition of Scotch, but they can’t use the designation because they deviate from the stringent rules outlined by the Scotch Whisky Association, a trade group that stipulates rules for whisky in Scotland.
Tariffs applied in October 2019 to single malt Scotch and Irish whiskies provide another reason to keep these bottlings in mind. While noteworthy on their own merits, they can also be a nontraditional option for those in need of a substitute for single malt Scotch.
Scotland’s single malts are iconic, even though most people forget that “single malt” means a whisky distilled at a single distillery. For Scotland, long dotted with distilleries, whiskies were shared as a survival technique, a way to build distinctive flavors into blends. Scotland’s single malts weren’t much valued for their own unique properties until the 1960s.
Most whiskies made outside Scotland are single malts, but that term is rarely printed on the label unless the producer seeks to deliberately evoke Scotch.
Consider, for example, Compass Box’s Affinity, a blend of Scotch and Calvados that’s reminiscent of caramel apples. Since Calvados is made in the Normandy region of France, that nixes the bottle’s Scotch designation. So why stretch in this particular direction?
“We’ve been blending Calvados with Scotch whisky at home and in our blending room for years, simply because we love the way the flavors complement one another,” says Glaser. “We felt it was time to share it with the world.”
Compass Box blended Scotch with other spirits over the years, which included Irish whisky, American whiskeys and mezcal. This was the first version compelling enough for public release, Glaser adds.
Similarly, an experimental bottling called Stranger & Stranger, doesn’t qualify as Scotch because part of the blend doesn’t meet the three-year aging requirement. The limited-edition bottling blends old single malts with an experimental one-year-old wheat and barley spirit. Call it what you want, but it drinks like a Scotch that combines fresh pear with vanilla and plenty of spice.
The comparison to single malt Scotch is particularly apt for Hellyers Distillery’s Original Roaring Forty Single Malt, a bold, earthy single malt from Tasmania with a smoky note that suggests s’mores around a campfire rather than Islay’s peat smoke. Similarly, the Cotswolds Single Malt Whisky, from the Cotswolds region of England (Not Scotland! Not Scotch!), has the fresh red apple and honey tones of a good Scotch from Speyside.
Glaser’s stated goal for his unorthodox Compass Box blends, “to make the world of Scotch whisky a more interesting place,” is accomplished through these non-traditional bottlings. They may not be Scotch, but they’re definitely thought-provoking pours.