Meet The Maker: Woven Whisky
Whisky production in Scotland dates back hundreds of years. Today, the spirit is synonymous with the bonnie land, with the industry dominated by big players like Glenmorangie, Laphroaig, and Talisker.
We love working with these established brands, and we’re also thrilled to see new, innovative whisky distilleries trying new things, and pushing the envelope
Woven Whisky certainly fits the bill. With many larger distilleries releasing product lines featuring malt and grain whisky, Woven makes blended whisky “experiences” by combining flavours from different areas.
We caught up with founder Duncan McRae to talk about their approach to blending.
Tell us a little about Woven Whisky and the team behind it?
Woven is a start-up blending house in Leith.
We launched just last month, so it’s early days – but our mission is to weave a strand of humanity back into blended whisky.
We’re creating flavour forward blends that explore what blends can be, rather than focus on what they are now. We’ve all been friends for a very long time but drifted in different directions whilst working in different parts of the drinks industry.
We had talked on and off for about 12 years about doing something together in whisky – but it was one of those conversations that comes up after a few drinks and never goes anywhere. Then one day it did!
What first got you interested in Whisky?
We all met behind bars (as bartenders, not prisoners!) and bonded over a shared love of whisky.
It was strange, because Edinburgh has an incredible, thriving hospitality scene – but at the time everyone was interested in the drinks from almost anywhere but Scotland.
I suppose one of the reasons we found each other was that we felt that was strange, as whisky geeks we were in the minority – so we stuck together!
What made you interested in blended Whisky, as opposed to a more traditional Whisky distilling process?
Honestly, I think as bartenders we were lucky to have so much education thrown at us by brands that we never really fell into the malt = good, blend = bad mindset.
You also approach flavour in quite an open minded way as a bartender.
Because you’re educating and creating experiences for guests it’s your job to understand everything without necessarily layering your own preferences onto it.
But right from the off, blending appealed to us as an idea. It felt like part of the category that wasn’t bogged down as much with pretence or fluff.
But there’s also encounters with folk like the whisky writer, Dave Broom.
I once watched him put a Johnnie Walker Black Label into a single malt (blind) tasting line-up at a whisky festival.
A table full of malt enthusiasts were blown away by it – then at the end he revealed to everyone it was a blend it was quite remarkable the response. I was young when I saw that tasting, and it stuck with me.
When did you decide to start Woven Whisky?
In our first ‘proper’ meeting, we talked about a distillery project.
The truth is there’s been so many exciting new distillery projects kick off in Scotland over the past few years.
Each are doing boundary pushing, flavour first things. In many ways the problem of the industrial, monopolistic, homogenisation of Scotch whisky is already en route to being solved in malt whisky production.
Blends however, have had no love of late.
Compass Box (who we love love love) were celebrating their 20th anniversary around the time we were having lots of conversations.
That surprised us as they’re still the new kids on the block – the ‘enfant terrible’. We felt, with our desire to be experimental and prolific, there was more to be done in blending.
Provided we could get access to the incredible whiskies other people are already making – we could get started a hell of a lot quicker than if we decided to build a distillery, with way less debt!
Tell us about the term Gypsy Blender and what this means for your Whisky production?
Essentially, it’s a term we use to describe our production status, borrowed from the craft beer world. Some craft brewers don’t have all their own brewing kit or their own brewery – so they’ll book some time in another person’s facility and make their product, then pack it up and move on.
We have our tiny blending studio, which is a lab style space in an old biscuit factory in Leith – but we don’t have our own warehousing or bottling facilities so we piggyback on other people’s!
Because we’re small, this really, really helps us with costs.
We currently have our inventory of casks out at Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh who are super cool people, and have been so wonderfully supportive to us in our early days.
They have incredible facilities and expertise that we’re able to lean on, and as whisky geeks it’s fun to share ideas whilst we’re using the space. It’s a super collaborative, very positive vibe.
And whilst we do have ambition to grow into our own space – we’re not going to rush it.
What are the steps in your Whisky blending process?
Quite simply – we track down the most interesting whiskies we can (this is the fun part).
We’re living hand to mouth right now so we’re doing this in batches / collections.
The three c’s of blending are ‘consistency, consistency and consistency’. Right now, we’re too small to even think about that right now so everything we do is currently a one off, limited edition.
This means that we don’t have to worry about sourcing stocks that we can get again – we can just find the very best, and most interesting whiskies we can and then see what happens.
Once we get the whiskies we draw samples and get them to our studio in Leith. We spend about a fortnight getting to know our inventory like the back of our hands. Multiple tastings, really understanding all of it’s their characteristics. Then we blend!
The 4 Gradient Whisky Blending System
We use a pretty systematic approach to creating blends rather than rely on intuition or flashes of genius creativity.
In truth there’s a bit of both in what we do, but we also know enough to know that if we simply rely on hunches then we’re likely to miss incredible combinations.
The first stage of our blending process is multiple (quite crude) grid tastings searching for interesting combinations.
Once we find one, we’ll set up 4 ‘gradient” tastings to explore it.
This is a really interesting part of the process. Once we’ve got a few interesting ideas – we start introducing other elements, riffing on ideas – and have a bit more of a structured creative process that should (in theory) lead us to a recipe that upholds our values of what we think a good blend should be.
In summary; Yummy.
How do you find the best Whisky to feature in your blends?
We’re really fortunate to have worked in the industry for most of our careers so have a few contacts.
Whisky has this weird, opaque part of the industry called brokers. Because whisky stocks need to be planned a decade or more in advance, there’s always stock available to blenders on the secondary market.
Most of it is bulk blending stock, but we sift through the lists looking for oddities, gems or go direct to distillers and ask for freakishly interesting one offs that either don’t fit what they look for, or are not plentiful enough for them to do much with.
We’re sort of feeding off the really tasty scraps right now – but that’s brilliant for us.
We’re also making connections with the raft of new craft distillers, who are all busy making a myriad of new whisky flavours that, if we’re honest, have probably never been blended with.
By combining the two, we’re able to create things that have never been done before, which is exciting.
Lastly, although everything we own and have released to date is Scotch, I’m writing this from Australia.
Suffice to say that nearly every country in the world that drinks Scotch Whisky is now making their own local whisky spirit. Australia’s got 30+ whisky distilleries, and some of them are producing truly world class spirits.
We’re going to blend across borders, and take blending into other whisky producing countries in a bid to celebrate (and contribute to) the new world whisky movement which is sweeping the world from Australia to the Nordics!
But in summary – lots of ‘we’re huge fans’ email subject lines – and reaching out to people who we think might be interested in talking to us!
You’re a relatively new brand; what obstacles have you had to overcome during your journey so far?
Where do we start? A Global Pandemic? Cardboard shortages? The ‘Ever Given’ getting stuck in the Suez Canal?
We went from reading about these things in the news to having them essentially controlling our lives over the past year -which has been interesting.
We’re fortunate to have a fair bit of experience in most of the stages leading up to launching brands – but that was always for other people in big companies, with loads of support.
Doing everything ourselves has been a different sort of challenge, and I think the complexity surprised all of us. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
We’ve had some sketchy moments, but we wouldn’t change it for the world. Despite the dramas of the past year, we’re feeling very lucky to be doing what we’re doing – and we’re rolling with the start-up chaos as best we can.
I think because we’re all so driven toward making this work – we don’t even see the things that come up as problems anymore – it’s just stuff that needs to be sorted, somehow.
Although we’re just a couple of people in our tiny studio in Leith, we’re fortunate to have a wealth of experience in our other founders we can call on, and a network of mentors, old colleagues or partners who we can drop an SOS message out to. It’s incredible how supporting people are, we’re very lucky!
Where do you want to see the brand in the next 5 years?
We’ll launch our second collection in the run up to Christmas, and our third early next year.
By then we want to be looking at least one continuous liquid that we can replicate from batch to batch. We’re also expanding our blending house to be able to host people for experiences, maybe have a bar. We want to offer a bespoke service too.
But the big thing is getting at least one satellite blending house open somewhere else.
That’s the big, disruptive, model changing thing that takes Woven out of just being another Scotch whisky blender and makes us something quite different.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start out in the Whisky business?
Everyone will tell you it is impossible. 5 companies make up 85% of the industry, it’s one of the most regulated and opaque on earth.
All the relationships required are closed door, invitation only affairs – many companies dealings with each other go back multiple generations!
We were shut out, ignored, not called back, told we were idiots for trying – and yet here we are with a bottle, four liquids and a website. It almost killed us at times, but we at least made it to the start line!
And if we can do it, anyone can. That’s the message.
We’re five friends and we own the entire business. The cash cycle is killer, but I think people get put off when they hear the figures associated with whisky. It can be done.
I think if you want something enough, and can convince people of your purpose and passion – your deepest ‘why’… if you can sell them on that, people will do things to help you.
Woven was made possible by people choosing to think differently about their own businesses. Whether it was making an exception to a longstanding rule about who they’d supply, or minimum order quantities… if you find the right people to work with you can make it happen. You must!
Apart from Woven (of course!), what are you drinking at present?
We have a fridge in the studio that we keep filled with Lucky Saint Non Alcoholic Lager and Rapscallion Soda’s – an awesome Glaswegian soda company who make fresh, only natural, dangerously tasty sodas.
We’re based in a co-working studio space and on the ground floor there’s a café bar. We put pressure on them to get Guinness in so that we could have a Guinness after work! But now we feel the pressure to make sure they go through it. So, lots of that. We love Guinness.
Whisky – Bramble Bar in Edinburgh bottle casks of whisky that the owners have picked up over the years. If you can find a bottle of their Lochindaal 13 Year old – it’s one of the most pleasingly unusual whiskies I’ve ever tasted.
Gin – Our pals at Holyrood distillery just launched a new gin. We laughed at them because the last thing the world needs is another new gin – but this one is an absolute must try.
One botanical (Juniper) plus sea salt, and beeswax. It’s absolutely incredible. I can’t even describe it. Mouthfeel, texture and dry freshness. It’s called Height of Arrows, and if you like martinis – or any proper gin drinks – it’s a genuine game changer.
Woven Whisky’s Go To Easy Recipe
Almost any ratio of the three following ingredients:
Whisky (any style)
Chartreuse yellow or green
Either served straight up, or on the rocks depending on mood, along with Orange or lemon zest (discarded).
We’re not really drinking a huge amount at present because, well, we’re always tasting stuff. But the power of a good super cold, stirred down and brown drink to mark the end of a big week can’t be surpassed!