The Making of Collection #1
For a while in our start up journey, we were a whisky company with no money, and no whisky. So it was a pretty big day when we managed to track and eventually complete the purchase of the small parcels of stock that would find their way into collection #1. Read on to discover how our first collection went from long term pipe dream to bottle in around 18 months.
Woven is a collective of friends that came together through a shared love of whisky. After years of talking about it, but always being too busy, or too embroiled in whatever work we were doing at the time we found ourselves in a blending room having a familiar conversation about what might be. Then, soon after, we decided to make it happen.
We went into this wondering why the blended whisky space was so devoid of new entrants. At the same time as we were founding the company from a legal perspective, we were surrounded by the Compass Box 20th anniversary celebrations. It seemed everywhere we looked the inimitable John Glazer was doing interviews, podcast appearances, live streams or on line tastings. Compass Box are still the new kids on the block, the main challenger brand in the blended space, even after 20 years. And they do a very fine job with exquisite liquids and brilliant packaging. But only now, do we truly understand why there are so few startups in whisky world. It’s so hard to get started! We want to share as much of our journey as possible, and hopefully inspire others to follow. We believe in blending, and that a rising tide lifts all ships.
Collection #1 is comprised of whiskies ranging from 5 - 42 years of age. Whilst all the whiskies hail from Scotland, we are aiming to build an inventory that extends to more than the output of Scotland’s distilleries. It was important to us to find whiskies of a quality that blenders wouldn’t normally use. But selecting “specialist” whiskies for blending added its own sort of pressure. We had to do right by the liquids, and we knew that these whiskies would happily sell on the independent bottling scene for good money.
Sourcing the raw ingredients
There’s a lot of distrust at the supply end of Scotch Whisky, and so new players in the market are treated with the highest levels of scepticism by those that control stocks. The emergence and rapid growth of "cask investment schemes" mean that lots of whisky is trading hands as it normally has, but less and less of it is being consumed. Where as brokers used to be integral to feeding a plethora of blenders - now the biggest companies are aiming for self reliance to lessen the need for trading stocks. There are record numbers of indie bottlers, and a brewing issue of private cask ownership pyramid schemes. Supply to non distillers is carefully regulated, and often involves relationships that have been nurtured over literally hundreds of years. We have no track record, a mere handful of contacts. We are grateful to the handful of people that took the time to hear us out, understand our mission and in many cases help us to unpick the locks to access the stocks we so desperately searched for.
We took a trip out to the warehouse, we are lucky enough to be piggy backing on the lavish warehouse facilities operated by The Holyrood DIstillery, and we took a trip out to visit the delivery before it was put away for storage. Nothing prepares you for seeing your life savings laid out on a few palates in a mixture of dusty casks, drums and jerry cans.
The pressure of purchasing incredible whiskies with the idea of blending them in some ways subsided as soon as we got the samples back to the lab. We knew that we’d invested in some stunning stocks, but we didn’t know exactly how each tasted until we got them back to our studio and set up a very exciting tasting. But from the moment you set up that tasting - they become liquids. We disregard the origin, price, story and just focus on getting to know the liquid for what it is, what it might offer. These tastings took us weeks, and by the time we’d finished they were more than merely samples to us - each a fully formed personality with individual traits, quirks and its own distinct narrative.
Our modus operandi is to make the very best whiskies that we can, every time. We prioritise the creation of flavour at all costs. If we can’t replicate a whisky more than once, so be it. A defining factor in us deciding to make Woven a reality was spending time in labs with whisky makers tasting incredible things, then watching them get literally poured down the sink with a wry “of course, we could never actually do that” - the economics, the category dynamics, the micro scale required… In those moments it appeared very clear to us that in every big whisky company, there were frustrated blenders with their hands tied behind their backs by some invisible corporate reality of conventions, processes or simply an outdated status quo. As students and avid consumers of the craft spirits boom around the world - our values had shifted, and looking at the whisky category, it suddenly felt somewhat behind the times.
Our training was not in large whisky blending houses, in many ways it’s in other categories or even behind the bar. We don’t start with “benchmark formulas or ratios. We disregard origin, age, distillery reputation - everything in fact, except flavour. This in itself doesn’t feel all that groundbreaking, but once we start looking at the decisions we end up making, the processes we end up adding, it becomes quite a mish mash of traditional (lost techniques) and new, innovative ones or those borrowed from parallel industries, notably cognac and bourbon production. Scotland's whisky industry is set in its ways. There are traditions, ways of doing things so ingrained that they've bypassed any reappraisal. We're fortunate to work with one of the most open minded distilleries in the industry. If we can say anything about the team at Holyrood it is that they are as curious and open minded to trying new things as we could have hoped for. And they're very patient.
We set out to make whisky experiences. They’re liquid poems, designed to move the drinker in one way or another. We can’t control that, but we can build liquids that we believe are capable of that. We don’t expect everyone to like everything. There will be discussion, debate, disdain! But we have only good intentions, we aim do right by the drinker in every decision we make. That was a key reason for us wanting to create Woven.
Some techniques we use, others we lose
We refuse to use the permitted artificial colouring, and we opt not to chill filter our blends to preserve the full natural flavours within the whiskies. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with those practices, and we respect those that choose to do them - but it's simply not true that they don't affect flavour. They’re just a few on the list that we don’t think we need or serve our overall purpose. There are loads of things we do do though that subtly enhance the experiences we create - After blending we marry our liquids in wood for as long as we can before bottling - allowing flavours to integrate and harmonise before bottling. We reduce our liquids to bottling strength in small steps, a technique borrowed from Cognac production where the upmost care is taken to try and preserve the liquid’s integrity.
We’ll have more on these techniques and others in subsequent journal posts. Suffice to stay the learning curve is steep, our curiosity is high and we’re excited by the possibilities and some incredible early findings in small lab scale trials.