When Duncan McRae, Peter Allison, Nick Ravenhall, Ed Harvey-Jamieson and Alastair Fiddes met at 10am above London's Milroy's whisky bar in January 2020, it was with one goal in mind: to redefine blended whisky. ‘We sat down and instantly knew this feeling we had was a sense of possibility,’ says Duncan, describing the meeting between the alumni of some of the drinks industry's biggest players. ‘We might have been naive, but we knew this was the feeling people get when they do something themselves… It was just this adrenaline rush.’
That rush has driven the creation of Woven Whisky, their whisky-blending house in Leith, Edinburgh, out of which the brand has just launched its first collection. Named Experience N1, Experience N2, Experience N3 and, yes, Experience N4 (the last of which is made up of only 27 bottles and has already sold out), the blends marry together a variety of Scotch whiskies aged between five and 42 years.
Using their individual experience and know-how – Duncan for gin brands like Tanqueray and Hendrick's, Peter for The Macallan and Atom Brands, and Nick's current position as managing director of Holyrood Distillery – and all their own money (‘There aren't any whisky startups,’ says Duncan), Woven is out to reinvent a traditional process with a history dating back to the 1860s, in the very city in Scotland where it was invented.
For starters, Woven looks very different from most whisky brands coming out of Scotland. ‘We wanted people to think beyond their current perceptions of whisky, so we wrote a creative brief and had mood boards… We looked at the definition of luxury and how it's changing. We wanted the liquid to be the hero, so we were drawn to minimalism and packaging that arouses curiosity… The designers then had the arduous task of picking our brains.’
Those designers were Daniel Freytag and Greig Anderson, the two-man show behind 2020's Scottish Design Agency of the Year, Freytag Anderson, who created what looks more like a medicine bottle or a premium toiletry brand. Dark and opaque, each bottle has a simple label with the whisky's name, some tasting guidelines – and not much else. While not disclosing the individual whiskies is common practice in blended whisky, stripping it this far back is not.
‘We wanted to strip everything away, so you have to taste it,’ explains Duncan of the decision. ‘Lots of whiskies are judged by reputation. We have all this stuff that we could tell you but, ultimately, it isn't important for us; the only thing that matters is how it tastes.’
There's also the name of the whiskies as ‘experiences’. For the Woven founders, things like tasting notes, while helpful to explain the flavors, are mostly hyperbole. So, they wanted to see what other ways they could express flavor, working with Dutch visual artist, creative coder and motion graphic designer Loïc Schwaller to create the artwork that accompanies each whisky, developing visual flavor aids rather than words, and creating a playlist for people to enjoy while drinking them.
Pete and Duncan on the woven way of blending
Pete: ‘Because we aren't fifth-generation blenders, we built a huge tasting grid with 100 glasses of whisky and just worked through it. We quickly found that some combinations were amazing, really powerful or bridged a gap, and with other combinations we just went: no, it's not going to work. Through that process, we got five or six combinations that we were confident were really beautiful; then it was a task of finessing them. For example, Experience N1 is based around a sherry-seasoned Islay whisky. It started with a smoky whisky that had lost some of its spirit character, and we brought out its sweet, dry and smoke [flavors] with some grain whisky and another single malt.’
Duncan: ‘It sounds ridiculous, but we just wanted one word: “yummy”. We push each other, we get to yummy, but then we think we can make it yummier, and we end up coming back to it. With each blend we finish, we try to improve it for a week. When you make a blend, you need to leave it for a couple of days. So, you calm down and have this moment of waiting. Then you come back in with a fresh palate – if it delivers, then your work is done.’
The language of whisky
Talk confidently about whisky with this knowledge.
• Blended whisky. The product of combining one whisky with another, from a selection of casks.
• Scotch whisky. A whisky produced entirely in Scotland, matured in oak for a minimum of three years and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
• Age. The amount of time a whisky has spent in a cask, during which it develops flavor, color and texture.
• Cask. The vessel used to age a whisky, which can range from the likes of a 200-liter bourbon barrel to a huge 400-liter Madeira drum.
• Seasoning. If a cask is seasoned – for example, with sherry – this means that sherry was once inside that barrel. It will have an effect on the flavor of the whisky you put inside it.
Getting hold of whisky casks from distillers isn't an easy task, but once Woven did, it threw to the wind the age and origin and focused instead on technique, borrowing methods from the likes of cognac and bourbon production to set its whiskies apart from traditional Scotch blends.
While the current casks it's playing with are Scotch, the team is keen to add more international liquors into the mix: ‘What will really differentiate us is if we can start blending with other countries as well,’ says Duncan, who at the time of this interview was dialing in from Australia, where he's in talks to do just that.
Another point of difference is consistency. While a lot of the bigger blending houses focus their time on consistently replicating their flagship whisky (and a lot of it), Woven is making one-off blends in much more limited quantities.
Most importantly, though, the Woven team wants to bring people together around whisky, creating a sense of conviviality, and build on its current location, community and physical space. They invited bartenders to help with the bottling (something that was a huge event in Leith when blending houses first popped up) to ‘bring that community aspect back in a modern way’. There are plans to move from its current space to a standalone production hub, complete with a bar and a co-working space for other small businesses. Not to mention a subscription service and ‘blend-your-own’ masterclasses.
‘We joke that we're a connections company,’ says Duncan. ‘Our purpose is to inspire people and connect through shared moments of enjoyment. We're a whisky-blending house that tries to not take itself seriously, despite being super geeky about the whisky – we just want to make those moments of connection.’