Founded by US entrepreneur John Glaser from his kitchen in 2000, Compass Box Whisky is a blending house for the modern era, constantly innovating a range of unusual blended Scotch, blended malt and blended grain whiskies. We get to know one of its whisky makers, Jill Boyd, as the brands turns 20 years old…

How time flies, eh? We can barely believe it, but Compass Box Whisky turns 20 this year. Over the last two decades, the indie bottler and blender has transcended its kitchen operation origins and evolved into an office and blending room in Chiswick, London, with its own stocks of maturing whiskies in Scotland. 

John Glaser, looking serious

To mark the milestone, the experimental brand is hosting a series of whisky events in partnership with London bar Bull in a China Shop, so we dropped by for a workshop with whisky maker Jill Boyd. Hailing from the north-east of Scotland, Boyd works on the brand’s blends, purchasing new-make spirit from distilleries and filling it into casks, as well as buying ready-matured barrels. Here, she shares her musings on mismatched pairings, her favourite Old Fashioned, and why ageing whisky is just like baking a cake…

Jill Boyd on… tasting for work

“I’m really lucky,” she says. “It’s one of my favourite things I get to do, just sample and taste and learn. While I get to taste beautiful whiskies, I do get to taste awful whiskies as well. And sometimes casks aren’t bad, they’re just not the right profile. I have a love-hate relationship with sherried whisky, because sometimes it can have a really weird funk to it, almost like a Stilton blue cheese flavour. Sometimes I’m super in the mood for that, and other times I’m like, ‘no, this is not the flavour I’m looking for’.”

Jill Boyd on… batch bottling 

“A batch is usually around 40 to 50 casks and that’s how much we’ll use for the course of most of the year,” she says. “We try and do one vatting every single year, where we blend all the casks together, check that we’re happy with the flavour, and then fill back into the casks that we empty from. After we’ve done that, we sit very content for up to nine months while we slowly bottle over a period of time. It gives the whisky more time to rest, which is nice.”

Jill Boyd on… developing new drams

“In Chiswick, we will make a 200ml prototype on a Friday and leave it till the Monday before we taste it, just to give it a chance to rest,” she says. “Then we’ll taste it maybe two or three weeks later again. I spit when I do whisky tastings in the office, because we’re sampling 100 to 150 whiskies over the course of a week. I drink a lot of water – on days we’re doing a lot of tasting, I can drink six to eight litres.”

The Compass Box range

Jill Boyd on… grain whisky

“Beautifully mature grain whiskies like Hedonism let you understand the nuance of something that’s quite maligned in Scotch whisky,” she says. “Grain is usually seen as a filler whisky because it’s usually in blends. People assume that all blended whiskies are the same, but single malts are considered of their own merits,” she says. “It’s a bit like female superhero movies, which are all apparently ‘rubbish’. But if there’s a bad male superhero movie, people go, ‘well, that was just one bad one’ – that is the single malt equivalent. Grain whiskies are the female superhero origin stories of the whisky world.”

Jill Boyd on… Whisky Sours

“I love them, they are genuinely one of my favourite cocktails,” she says. “I’m also super into New York Sours, which are whisky sours with a red wine float on the top. If you use something really delicate like Oak Cross, which has loads of vanilla and lemon, and then you float a red wine on top of that, it tastes like strawberry Opal Fruits. I love egg white in a cocktail.”

Jill Boyd on…over-oaked casks

“My preference leans to lighter oak flavours, because I like to taste what the distillery’s produced,” she says. “My sweet spot for whiskey is probably from twelve to 25. Outwith that, I find that it’s got to have something else – younger whiskies have got to have the oomph of smoke or a red wine or sherry or Port pipe to really add that background flavour that takes away from the fresh new-make. After 25 years, for me the wood begins to mask all that beautiful whisky character.”


Jill Boyd, hard at work at CB HQ

Jill Boyd on… being flexible

“Blending doesn’t always go the way you plan, and I quite like that,” she says. “Sometimes you’ll put two things together that you don’t think will work, and they are the best. Sometimes you put two incredible things together and they are the worst. When I started with the company, I tasted this beautiful Caol Ila from 1984. We had a cask of 1984 blended grain, and I was like, ‘If I put these together, it’s going to be the best thing in the world, because this grain is incredible and the Caol Ila is immense’. It ended up being one of the most disgusting things anyone had ever tasted in the office. It’s like: I love hot smoked salmon, I also really love vanilla ice cream, but I don’t want to put them together. And that was essentially what I did.”

Jill Boyd on… current projects

“I’m working on a whisky called Burning Desire with James, our assistant blender. We want it to have a smooth, earthy, smoky kind of flavour, more mellow than Pete Monster and a bit more tarry than No-Name Number Two. In a Disney film where someone drinks poison and you can see them slowly changing over time as it works its way down – I want that scene visual, but deliciousness not death. Just like when Snow White bites into that apple, I want someone to bite into it and it just to completely change how they feel about what they’re drinking and have a turnover of flavour.”

Jill Boyd on… timing it right

“The whole purpose of blending is to make something truly exceptional that didn’t exist in the past,” she says. “It’s all about the taste. The worst thing is when you taste a whisky that someone’s been holding onto for a long time, and you realise it’s gone too far. It’s like pricking the center of a cake to make sure it’s baked – you want to make sure you hit that sweet spot where the cake is just baked but not over-baked and it’s the same with casks.”

Jill Boyd on… the ultimate Old Fashioned

“For me, Spice Tree is one of my absolute favourite whiskies to use in cocktails,” she says. “I love it in an Old Fashioned. It’s bold enough to hold its own against Angostura bitters, but it’s delicate enough to taste the sweetness of a brown sugar or a sugar syrup. It really all comes together to make a beautiful, light, sweet, perfect Old Fashioned.”