Talking Blended Excellence with… Duncan McRae

Talking Blended Excellence with… Duncan McRae

We sat down with Duncan McRae, co-founder of Woven Whisky, to talk about the increasingly popular category of premium blends

News | 04 Nov 2021 | By Christopher Coates

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After working as a bartender, as a brand ambassador and in marketing, Duncan McRae became part of the founding team of Woven Whisky, an independent blending house based in the Biscuit Factory in Leith, Scotland. Woven seeks to put Leith, once Edinburgh’s thriving whisky district with over a hundred bonded warehouses, back on the blending map.

Why did you decide to launch a range of premium blends?
It felt like the right thing to do! As bartenders who got way too geeky about whisky way too early in our careers, we’d never subscribed to the idea of malts equals good and blends equals bad. Of course, we loved malts, but we were being educated by brands and mentors within the Edinburgh drinks scene, and the idea of blending never had any shame attached to it in our minds. Far from it — we were amateur blenders for friends. It was the ideal last-minute birthday gift, using whiskies from our own collections. It was crude, but it showed us the power of blending as a creative platform, and was our first taste of creating liquids with stories attached to them that weren’t cocktails!

People like Dave Broom had always advocated for the enjoyment to be found in good blends. We were Bailie Nicol Jarvie superfans (RIP), and right after LVMH said they were killing the brand, we toyed with starting a real Leith blend. We have a presentation from 2010 (after we’d had success with Whisky Picnic) that mapped out the idea of putting whisky back into Leith, and a bit of Leith, community and soul, back into whisky. We didn’t feel the brands were doing a great job of connecting with the next generation of whisky drinkers, or really representing the communities they were from.

It took ten years for us doing other things for other people before we finally had anything more than a dram-fuelled discussion of a shared dream, but — one day, Pete, who had always talked of starting his own whisky business, pitched up with a business plan. Of course, we talked about a distillery, but it became clear that there are already a heap of new wave distillers fixing the problems in that area of homogenisation and over-commodification, whereas blending has been relatively stagnant as a category, the problems of which seem largely to be ignored by the big drinks companies.

Compass Box, a brand we love, were gearing up to celebrate their 20-year anniversary — and if we’re honest, that shocked us! They’re still the new kids on the block, the ‘enfant terrible’. If there’s a craft spirits revolution happening in the production sphere, it’s not trickled through to blends, that’s for sure. We sat in Leith and talked, and it all just sort of came out on the page.

Having grown up amidst the rise of Japanese whisky, reading books like Dave Broom’s The Way of Whisky, and also working inside big drinks companies, I suppose we were fortunate to have realised from the inside that the thing that makes these big single malt brands so ubiquitous is precisely their mastery of blending. People like Brian Kinsman at Glenfiddich, Andrew Rankin of Bowmore, now Ardross, fame: they’re the poster boys for single malt, and their skill is blending. Yes, it’s all from one distillery — but, for us, it’s not the idea of blending that’s broken, just the status quo that presides in the majority of the industry.

How do you approach the creation of a premium blend?
The creation bit is fun. It starts with curation: we source from anywhere we can find interesting stocks, and try to speak to people who wouldn’t normally supply blenders. We’re after super interesting, alternative or niche finds from the more experimental end of the spectrum. We realised really early on that if we wanted to do things differently, we just had to focus on making the best whiskies we could, and that maybe that meant doing away with lots of the conventional blending wisdom.

First on the list was consistency. We’re self-funded, so we simply don’t have the cash to buy on a large scale. But that has been a total blessing for us. It’s set us free to try different things, following the craft beer model of experimentation and discovery. Everything we’re realising is a one-of-a-kind, limited-edition run that is unlikely to be replicated again. This means we can simply concentrate on sourcing the very best whiskies we can find, and then put them together in a way that we feel elevates and celebrates them. If we looked at a target price, or were worried about whether we could repeat everything, we would be forced to compromise — so we keep it simple for ourselves and just focus on trying to make the yummiest whisky experiences that we can.

We’re hand-to-mouth at the moment, but as we build stocks, it will become a bit easier for us. Once we’ve established ourselves, we do plan on creating liquids that we will be able to repeat. Although that doesn’t mean we’ll be aiming at consistency — a continuous evolution is more likely. Taste some vintage blends alongside their modern counterparts and you’ll see: the idea of consistency is a myth.

Essentially, we assemble all of our possible samples into our tiny blending studio in Leith and get to work. Once they hit the table, all samples are equal. We don’t focus on whether they’re malt or grain, old or young, from a prestigious distillery or a workhorse. We only focus on the profile of the liquid and its ability to contribute to the experience that we’re creating. This is liberating, and allows us to think freely without our subconscious whisky geek biases becoming involved.

We aren’t classically trained blenders, so our approach relies less on intuitive, inspired hunches (though there are some), and is, probably far less sexily, a bit more scientific. We make crude flavour combinations on big grids on our tasting table, and then spend a few days working through them, searching for combinations that have potential — there’s a post-it note colour-coding system! And then we progress to a bunch of interesting flavours, and go through a process of trying to figure out that one combination that works.

What is the target demographic for these blends?
Anyone who wants flavour-forward whisky experiences that, on the one hand, aim to spark a connection to the story of the liquid, but, on the other hand, don’t want you to overthink a good time. I think that’s a mindset rather than a demographic, so how about: 18-65 year old humans of every sort, but especially those with curious palates! While we want everything we bottle to be yummy, we also want to make things that are interesting — not necessarily in the chin-stroking intellectual way, but from a flavour perspective. Some people might find that a challenge, especially if they’ve found us because they’ve been told that blends are ideal for beginners, or made to be super accessible. While both those things are potentially true about some of our releases, it won’t be universally the case.

Are these blends for sipping neat, mixing, or both?
Definitely both. We intend them to taste good neat, but almost as that process is unfolding, our minds start going to cocktails and mixed drinks. People should drink whisky any way they want, especially if they’re paying for it. We firmly believe in the power of a well-placed ritual or well-made cocktail serve to elevate the experience of drinking whisky — it’s all part of the same thing. While we want to make sure that our whiskies are of award-winning quality right out of the bottle, we as a brand will always think end-to-end. People love discovering not just new things to drink, but new ways to drink those things. And so it’s a brand’s duty to help them understand what you’ve done, and show them how to get the best out of it.

During this ‘age of single malt’, do you think die-hard whisky fans are coming back around to the idea of blends as premium and desirable products?
Yes — it’s the bell curve of whisky education. You start with no knowledge, then you learn what you then know, then you learn what you don’t know, before finally realising you know nothing! I think that the further into the journey people get, the more open-minded they become. The fact that all the supergeek whisky writers are currently obsessed with the vintage blends definitely helps the cause. People like Dave Broom have been singing the praises of good blends forever. The Japanese whisky industry is built on the power of blending. Lastly, the excellent work over the past two decades of Bacardi’s Compass Box and even some of the indie bottlers is demonstrating the delights of blending to even the most die-hard malt geeks.

People are waking up to the idea that simply mixing two exquisite things together doesn’t automatically render the whole thing inferior. Grain whisky isn’t sneered at in the same way it was a decade ago. Again, the indie bottlers and Compass Box should be celebrated for that. Lastly, the rise of New World whisky is blowing apart the established order. If people are into whisky, and they’re only drinking single malt Scotch whisky, then the truth is that they’re missing out big time on a number of fronts.

What makes your blends special or unique?
Our sourcing, blending, marrying and proofing philosophies combine to create Woven, and it’s the blend of all of those things that matters. We’re free to source what we want, and that opens up quite a lot of potential for us. Once the samples hit the blending table, … we don’t let batch size, cost, origin or anything else determine the final liquid, just flavour. That’s probably quite unusual in the industry, and stems from us not being trained by an established blending house but being flavour-obsessed whisky geeks!

We bring a bartender’s mindset; our palates were trained in innovation labs on the fringes of the whisky industry. We don’t have blending conventions or the status quo hardwired into us. We’re also digging out old blending techniques that have been deemed obsolete (or were scrapped from processes in drives for efficiency). Things like a proper marrying period were shelved by most blenders before they were truly understood — the claim was that it didn’t make any difference … They were wrong, and we’re working on proving it. Dewar’s have just reinstated marrying. William Grant & Sons swear by it. They’re not mad — they’re making better quality liquids than those that don’t.

So, we do those things, and are constantly searching for other things we can do to maximise the experience of our liquids. We want to make the user experience as good as it can be, not as profitable or as efficient as it can be. We’re cutting our liquids down to bottling strength in small steps, a technique borrowed from Cognac. It’s a hassle, and it’s harder, but our lab tests showed us that it had a positive impact, so we’re doing it.

We’re at the stage where this is all just fascinating, and fun. We don’t have anyone putting pressure on us ... And yeah, no chill filtering or artificial colouring here. Because both of those do matter. Our first collection was comprised of only Scotch whisky, but we hope to blend across borders as soon as we can, as there are fun flavours of whisky being produced in almost every country that has consumed Scotch, and that’s only a good thing.

What do you think a premium blend can bring to the table that a single malt can’t?
Interesting new flavours, and a broader spectrum of experimentation. When you make a distillery, you have to ‘dial in’ a flavour profile that you know will sell in 10+ years’ time. You can mess around with cask finishing, but you have to be pretty gutsy to be full-on experimenting with your spirit. Thankfully, there are people like Holyrood Distillery coming on stream, who are pushing the boundaries. But in short: blending allows you to take mature spirits, put them together, and create new things all the time. Things that have never been made before. Then, you can do things like finishing, to create even more ‘out there’ products. In blending, experiments take place in 10ml sample glasses — not 5000-litre spirit stills. You can take bigger gambles, faster, with less risk. What’s not to love?

Also, in single malts (which themselves are often blends of different spirit styles or cask types from one distillery), the palate you’re choosing from is limited — limited by inventory and by law. Blenders have no restrictions … If something would benefit hugely from the inclusion of a few per cent of a certain character, we have the freedom to make that happen.

What proportion of grain to malt do you usually work to when blending?
We don’t really think like this — not because we’re trying to be maverick, but just because … we’re looking for flavour combinations … rather than starting with base recipes or ratios. In our first collection, two of the blends read like upside down recipes: one was mainly malt with a touch of grain, and the other, our most expensive, was 95% grain with a touch of malt. We employ a pretty scientific method when blending — big grids of spirit combinations. Then we find ‘ideas’ we like, and spend time optimising them — think ‘gradient’ tastings — and then there’s a sort of creative round where we introduce other ideas, flourishes, punctuation marks or statements … We record every move, like in chess, so we can go back and see what happened in the process that led to one thing or another. We’re slow. It takes us a long time, but we absolutely love this part of the puzzle.

Is there one specific make (e.g. North British), or style of spirit (e.g. green-grassy) which you particularly like working with? Why is this?
I mean, we’re a collective of five and, as whisky lovers, we each have quite different tastes. From a blending perspective, however, we’ve discovered so many absolute new favourites as samples have come through the lab. And when you blend with a malt or grain, you start to develop a whole new definition of it in your mind. The role it plays evolves … as you discover what it can add to other things, not just what it does by itself. Two of us (Pete and Ed) especially, had been big Campbeltown fans, but blending with malts from there has given us a whole new appreciation for the region.

And as to grain as a category: our experience of grain had only really been the commercial releases … But there’s a spectrum of brilliant flavour in there, especially in very old grain expressions, which is just incredible to work with, providing buttery textures, and the ability to manipulate mouthfeel and the pace at which flavour unfolds on your palate. We’re so lucky that at the scale we’re at — we’re not building blends out of ‘flavour blocks’ or the entire output of a distillery, but out of individual casks of stock. … Nick loves Islay so much he bought an old distiller’s cottage at Caol Ila, and Alastair’s currently obsessed with a couple of ‘meaty’ Speysiders that use worm tub condensers. We were familiar with these sorts of drams via the indie bottling scene, but now we’re understanding what they do ‘in their natural habitat’ — so it is a process of us relearning the world of whisky, which is fun.


Read Christopher's article on six of the best blended whiskies of 2021 here. We're talking to each of the palates behind these whiskies — read more 'Talking Blended Excellence with...' features as they come out here.
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