American's whisper whisky revolution riles the Scotch masters

CBS News’ Jonathan Vigliotti blends a custom “whisper whisky” for “CBS This Morning” at John Glaser’s London business.


LONDON -- Its amber tones and smoky notes have seduced for centuries, and given birth to one of the U.K.’s most lucrative industries.

As CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti reports, in the rolling hills of Scotland, making Scotch whisky is an ancient and revered art.

The grains are mashed, fermented and then distilled, before finally being aged in wooden casks. The bold-tasting scotch inside is then bottled and sold around the world.

It’s a 500-year-old spirit, and the tenets of its production are enshrined in law. Even drinking it can come with a lot of rules, as master distiller Richard Paterson’s online tutorial makes clear.

“This is the way you hold it, not this way, definitely not warming it this way,” he admonishes drinkers. “But if I ever see you nosing it, nosing it like this, I’ll kill you.”

But hundreds of miles from the traditional home of the tipple, in a small London loft, whisky blender John Glaser is dropping the pretense -- and adding a new range of flavors.

“You know, a lot of people think Scotch whisky is high-handed, they think there are rules, you have to drink it a certain way,” he says. “There are so many different Scotch whiskies, and how do I choose, so it is intimidating and we try to break all that down.”

His blends are to whisky, what craft beer is to lager.

“We’re making whiskies that now have a big richness, sweetness, softness that’s more in tune with the tastes of the day, we think,” Glaser says.

It has been dubbed “whisper whisky” -- mellower and lighter, for the millennial palate -- but the production process borrows from tradition.

Glaser buys single malts from Scottish distilleries and then, like the blenders of the past, he then mixes them. But he goes one step further; maturing the blend again in specially crafted casks that add more flavor.

The technique has won the Michigan expat international praise -- and Scottish scorn.

“We’ve had a few run-ins with the authorities, because we like to do things differently as a business,” he says.

His innovative casks led to one of his whiskies being banned by the Scotch Whisky Association, the industry’s old guard.

The association’s Rosemary Gallagher laid down the law for us.

“It has to be made in Scotland from water, yeast, and cereals, and has to be matured for three years in oak casks, and that makes sure when people buy Scotch whisky they know exactly what they’re getting,” she says. “So we’re not trying to stop innovation, we’re trying to encourage it within those guidelines.”

Gallagher admits that innovation is needed.

In 2015, for the first time ever, not a single Scotch whisky appeared in the prestigious Whisky Bible’s top three list. A Japanese whisky ranked first. This year, scotch is back on the list -- but with a lighter caramel-vanilla blend.

The whisper whiskies are even welcomed in cocktails, once openly frowned upon by scotch purists.

“If you’re just doing things the way you’ve always done, eventually you’re going to fall behind,” Glaser says.

He hopes his more customized blends are part of the mondernizing equation, and, he adds, “we can blend whatever you want.”

Presented with that opportunity, Vigliotti suggested formulating a special “CBS This Morning” blend.

To see what went into the mix, and how it came out, watch the video above.