Exploring connections between flavour and place.
We miss travel. There, we said it.
Selfishly, some of our favourite drinks rituals are baked into journeying to other places. A moment of reflection at altitude staring out a small window at clouds with a (Gordons @ Export Strength) G&T in hand is just the sort of obscure holy grail drinks 'moment' (serve+occassion+ritual) that can not be replicated at home.
A solitary late night nightcap of a familiar dram in a for away hotel bar is another. Whisky perhaps more than other drinks has an uncanny ability to transport us Scots home, or to another moment previously shared over the same dram. Why is this?
One idea to consider is terroir. There's discussion in the whisky world about Terroir, and whether or not it can exist in Whisky. It's a term that is the subject of much debate.
Several players within the Scotch industry in particular claim (when asked if where barley used to make whisky comes from is important) that terroir does not exist. The practice of importing barley from England, Europe or even Canada has gone on for a long, long time. But a raft of new players are challenging that narrative, and their arguments are becoming increasingly hard to ignore.
Does the culture of a place effect its creation and the ultimate product? Undoubtably. So we would suggest that there's a cultural Terroir at play alongside the technical factors. It maybe harder to prove, but it's more difficult to doubt, as the decisions of the makers are surely influenced by their surrounding culture, the way they perceive quality or flavour.
Our view is that both a physical and cultural sort of terroir seeps into us through the food and drink of places. Whether whisky can have terroir in the true sense of the word is I think, almost beyond doubt, but whatever side of the fence you're on it is hard to deny the ability of food and drink rituals to transport you someplace else. If we accept a definition of terroir as sense of place, then it leaves it open for a broad definition and avoids some of the technical issues that seem to bog down the debate. Perhaps it is a subjective ingredient, like passion. Impossible to measure, unless you fully understand the motivation behind the product's creation. Liquids with the same DNA, conceived with a completely different mindset by different people, with different motivations could 'feel' different, despite being the same thing - but then, is it the same thing any more? We're beginning to understand the complexities of the craft spirits debate.
Scotch has traded off its ability to provide 'a taste of Scotland' for decades. And the romance associated with Scotch is partly due to the industries consistent success is marketing the product as something from somewhere special. And that place was important. The logic is perplexing.
That the fact it's from Scotland with it's unique water and climate, perfect of maturation is all very very important when making Scotch famous around the world... and giving Scotland the edge over anywhere else that decides to make whisky. How then, that where the barley comes from, where it is matured is unimportant? The logic doesn't makes sense.
We've no issues per sé with these things, so long as there is transparency and the image being cultivated is consistent with the truth. Hearing brand ambassadors for certain dynastic, huge Island distilleries talk of maritime flavours deriving from the warehouses location next to the rugged Atlantic coast, when 99% of the distilleries output is matured in a warehouse complex of the central belt is divisive rhetoric, and deceptive toward consumers.
NEW LANDS = NEW FLAVOURS + NEW IDEAS
If Scotch offers people a taste of Scotland from anywhere in the world - can the same be true in reverse when we consider a raft of New World Whisky producers?
It is surprising to some people to learn that almost every country that drinks Scotch Whisky, is now, at least on some scale producing whisky of their own. Is it Scotch? Legally, no. But are there producers making world class whiskies all over the world? The answer is a resounding yes. People have heard of Japanese Whisky, the category has gone so mainstream that it is accepted now. Despite the recent scandal, The Japanese have taken the techniques from Scotland and thoroughly made them their own. Commentators can now eloquently describe 'a certain restraint, layered, chiselled profile' commonly associated with Japanese Whisky that sets it apart as something different from Scotch within the wider whisky category. What made the uncovering of the fact that many Japanese Whiskies were importing Scotch from Scotland to include in their products to meet surging demand globally so hard to get one's head around was the fact that even though the idea of physical terroir (at least in some cases) had been completely shredded in front of our eyes - they still had something different about them. This, then, is an argument for a cultural terroir - the outlook and decisions of a maker - having an impact on the product, and the product capturing a sense of place in a different way.
As Blenders based in Leith, we buy into this idea - and in truth we think that the answer, like many things is a blend of the two sides of the coin. We source whiskies from all across Scotland that may or may not have their own terroir. But once they're in our studio for blending - it's our decisions, inspired by our surrounds, influences and tastes that then frame them. Being in Leith mean's there's a lot of cultural terroir in the world of whisky to consider. Is it important? Well, in some ways that's up to us, and how much we consider it so during the creation process. If we decided to be inspired by a vintage bottle of VAT 69 from Leith - then yes - we'd be inserting something from the local history, even if we were trying to do something quite different. Do all of our blends have a connection to Leith? Of course they do - it's where we're based, the community in which we operate. But we also intentionally influences within our processes from elsewhere, including the blending practices from Japan, marrying and proofing techniques borrowed from Cognac producers in France or Bourbon production in the USA. It certainly doesn't feel like a simple concept to crack.
We've long charted the rise of whisky from further afield than Scotland, and as blenders our interest is first and foremost in what they taste like, but increasingly we're seeing 'new world' whisky producers not simply follow the Scotch model, but explore in new ways what whisky can be, and how making whisky in their country can evolve to reflect the place they are making it in.
We want our blends to represent the entire world of whisky, and not just blend with whiskies from Scotland. When we started the project, blending across borders was a key part of the vision. However, the restrictions on travel associated with the Pandemic made travel very difficult, so sourcing stocks for our early collections became a purely Scottish affair. But two things found their way into the studio last week that reminded us of the Nordics in particular, and what a breath of fresh air blowing into the world of whisky they are.
New World Whisky is a small, but growing category. But it is one that should be taken seriously by whisky lovers. A positive sign that that is starting to happen is the announcement last week of some bottlings from Nordic Distillers by Berry Brothers & Rudd.
Reminded by the online chatter about the virtues of the Nordic whisky making scene, and the fact that we'd not left Scotland for a very long time (and the fact that maybe we need a holiday!?) - We took a moment to visit the Nordics in liquid form, from the comfort of our studio.
Having sampled almost exclusively Scotch for the past six months - it felt like a holiday. We were excited, everything felt new once more. And it made us start talking about places we hadn't seen or thought about. We went back to our work with fresh perspectives and ideas. It felt wonderful to experience just a drop of some of the joys travelling. And if you're reading this because you're a whisky fan, we wholeheartedly encourage you to think wider than Scotland for your whisky experiences. There are wonderful things happening all over the world.
As the ultimate introduction to the scope of this emerging area of new world whisky, Mark Jennings has written a fantastic overview of the Nordic whisky producers in this article over on Whisky Magazine. In it he explores the idea of regionality, and looks for the similar traits that might help us define or identify the Nordics as a new world region in their own right. This is something that many other potential regions are grappling with, and a fascination idea.
Three inspiring Nordic distilleries that we can absolutely say you will not be disappointed by are:
KYRO Distillery Company
Kyro was conceived by friends in a Sauna, of course. Everything produced is Rye based. They've an incredible distillery, a beautiful aesthetic and are making really, really fantastic spirits. What we love about KYRO is the dry (rye?) sense of humour that we found on visits to Finland is baked into their brand. They don't take themselves too seriously and it shows, but that doesn't mean they don't make awesome spirit. Other products outside whisky include a rather indulgent dairy cream liquor. It sounds ridiculous, but their distillery was an old dairy building, so it sort of makes sense, especially when you taste it.
Making enough of anything they do to meet the growing global demand is the main challenge, which says something when you hear about the hoops they had to jump through to build their warehouses, how hard it is to make whisky from Rye to start with, or the lengths they went to to get the required licences to start. To top it off - they're wonderful humans and have captured the hearts and minds of bartenders and are helping build a community of new rye enthusiasts around the world.
Mackmyra was one of the early pioneers in the category. They emerged from an unknown land in terms of whisky making, spent a good time cultivating a reputation for quality spirit and have now scaled up with a stunning distillery - designed as a gravity fed process.
The building is a masterpiece of architecture in concrete and glass. Surrounded by tall trees it sits as a beacon of innovation within a pine forest. Bold, striking designs compliment an ambitious approach to whisky making.
From the west coast of Denmark comes an incredible distillery that has popped onto the scene in recent years to international acclaim. As well as being crowned brand innovator for the year and developing a cult following in the international bar scene - Stunning are fusing the best of traditional approaches as they see them with innovation and bold design. Their still house is a collection of copper ware to marvel at - a dozen or more tiny copper pot stills (direct fired- the old school way) compliment local grains that are traditionally floor malted. What we've tasted (their standard releases) to date only wet our appetite about what's to come, and what might be possible from these guys.
Imaginative combinations taking us to unexplored ideas and spaces.
And finally, what do New York, Champagne and Ice Cream have in common?
The answer is absolutely nothing. But the three came together by way of an inspired collaboration between award-winning architect Stephanie Goto and Nicholas Morgenstern, the chef and owner of Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream. The result was an experiential, seven course Omaskae presented in collaboration with Dom Perignon Champagne that explored texture, material and the spatial arrangement of dishes as part of the experience.
This last inclusion rounded out a wanderlust week, and reminded us that the power of imagination means you can venture well beyond the beaten path.
As to where this sort of boundary breaking, blend of previously uncharted combinations as sensory experience might take you? We can only imagine. And that's what makes it exciting.By thinking differently about unusual combinations and experiences we can find new, previously unimagined spaces to inhabit, even if just in our own heads. It's this idea that we're excited about exploring in future collections of Woven.
What ties all of this together is that new world whisky isn't about recreating Scotch. Untethered by traditions and the status quo that pervades any established industry, they're forging an exciting new path. As flavour obsessed whisky geeks we find this exciting. As whisky makers we find this hugely inspiring. We can't wait for the world to open up just enough to let us start exploring outside our own horizons again in the real world. We're reaching out to the four corners of the world in search of incredible whiskies that might find their way into future Woven collections. Watch this space.