The five founders (Duncan McRae, Peter Allison, Nick Ravenhall, Ed Harvey-Jamieson and Alastair Fiddes) met back in the early 2000’s bonding over their affection for the liquid. 20 years later, it would be their worldly expertise that would blend them into WOVEN. They launched their first whisky experience in August 2021.
Here are 5 Minutes/ 5 Questions with Duncan McRae, a co-founder of WOVEN:
As part of your brand ethos, you acknowledge that “Blending is a fundamental human trait. A human need.” How does this speak to the way you collaborate as 5 men with varied experiences?
DM: Blending is our medium in whisky but it has also become the lens we look at the world through. When we started, we realised that this wasn’t about us, it was far bigger. That fission of excitement you get when disparate things, ideas, people, concepts start working together in harmony – it’s addictive. We got it the day we started talking about doing something together, and it’s a feeling we now aim to create through everything we do.
We wanted to create something bigger than the sum of its parts, something better than us as individuals. Woven has the potential to be a platform for the passionate craft producers that we admire and respect so much. It celebrates collaborative and connected definitions of success, in part as a remedy for the individualistic definitions of success that seem to dominate western culture. We are about bringing people together with a positive message that celebrates the magic of disparate ideas and new connections converging. Life is better blended!
There is a noted link between senses and memories. Describe how the four Experiences of the collection help draw out these memories.
DM: Our senses of taste and smell are hard wired into memory – historically your survival essentially depended on the fact to remember what you could or couldn’t eat, so I suppose it’s baked into our evolutionary success story. It is through their innate nature that people are able to get so much from their experience of sensorial pleasures like taste and smell.
Whisky can be quite academic – which, as drinkers we found off putting. There’s a perception that enjoyment of whisky is reliant on a high level of knowledge and ‘tasting notes’, which to the uninitiated, can seem quite intimidating. Firstly, there is no right or wrong way to enjoy something. And secondly, in our own experiences, tasting notes simply did not do justice to the memory of the experience we had. When you recall a great meal, you don’t pull out a notebook that lists the flavours you experienced – you recall the setting, the atmosphere and the food as part of a wider experience. We want it to be the same in whisky. We found that our memory of a great whisky is often mixed up with a combination of what was in the glass and outside of the glass. Who we were with, why we were there – what was said etc. And it was this idea that informed the naming of Woven. Our experiences aren’t binary – there are always other factors at play, shaping our perception and memory. We call our whiskies ‘experiences’. For some people it’s a bit much, but we wanted people to stop worrying about how they were drinking it, if they were ‘getting it right’ and just enjoy the experience.
We want to make whiskies that take people places, allow them to connect with memories, or ideas, or people because the liquid brings a reaction within them that they can connect with. It’s universal, but I think social conventions make people worry they’re not ‘doing it right’. It’s very personal, how we perceive experience.
Then it’s about interpretation. Experience N.2 was a great example. We were so carried away with the technical stuff. Whisky from Campbeltown, married in an ancient Cognac cask – but the taste? It just made us smile. What’s important – the technical stuff, or the fact that this is whisky for happy moments with friends? The answer, for us at least, is a blend of both! Through the experiences on our website, we try to give people the option to engage with the technical side, or not.
Your original blending studio is housed in The Biscuit Factory, an old biscuit warehouse in Leith, Scotland. Your idea is to create satellite blending studios around the world creating blends with local people. What city/town/place serves as your next inspiration for your next collection of experiences?
DM: The truth is, nearly every country that drinks scotch now makes their own whiskies – and so many of them are incredible. We love Scotch, but we don’t buy the idea that Scotch is the best, just because it’s from Scotland. The mindset is shifting. American, Japanese and Canadian have been around for a while but now from Finland to New Zealand and everywhere in between there are incredible whiskies being produced by passionate distillers. As blenders, that’s exciting.
Additionally, we think the world is going to tire of huge, global brands that are exporting containers from one end of the world to the other. If it doesn’t change through people wanting to choose more locally produced brands, the climate crisis might force it to. Our model is untested, possibly foolhardy – but the idea is to replicate our blending houses in interesting whisky producing hubs. It’s a new model for global spirits. A global brand, Sourcing, Blending and bottling locally. Working with local people and celebrating the local producers to create something new as a result of collaboration.
Our purpose is about connection and trying to add something positive to the communities we operate in, rather than simply extracting. If we can make it work here, then we’d love to look at other cities – there are so many exciting possibilities from the Nordics to Asia, The USA, Canada – we’ll go where the whisky takes us! Spoiler alert! I’ve just relocated with my family to Adelaide, South Australia. There are about 30 distilleries here and many producing really, really interesting things.
Launching a business in the midst of a pandemic is no small feat, what are three lessons learned.
DM: We had committed to doing the project before the pandemic struck, but as everything started unravelling the pandemic definitely ended up shaping much of what ended up becoming Woven. It forced us to articulate more effectively what we wanted to do, and importantly why we wanted to do it. We were all quite isolated, with more time than normal for reflection – and I think what emerged for us through Woven was much more authentic as a result, so oddly and rather selfishly, we’ve a lot to be grateful for, despite the horrific human cost of the pandemic.
Three quick things that we learned this year are:
- The power of the subconscious to problem solve and make connections is remarkable. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver things immediately. But this year, with lots of forced gaps in between work due to childcare, lockdowns and leaving London – I’ve enjoyed understanding that deep thinking can’t be forced, and often letting something ferment for a while at the start saves you time in the long run. It seems loads of people know this, but it’s hard to practice.
- People’s default setting is wanting to help if they can. Being quite isolated, we reached out to old contacts, asked friends to introduce us to people that we hoped to speak to – and we found that most people are only too happy to offer help, advice or have a quick chat. So many people were generous with their time, and as a result we try to be now too. It was surprising and uplifting. Maybe it was a pandemic thing, but it was lovely, and it seems that the more you reach out, the more flows back.
- We are all human and we are all connected. Sounds obvious, right? But I think in the pandemic we all got a sense of our connectedness to each other either through a lack of it, or through recognition of collective responsibility at times. Our normal societal barriers of work-life / home life suddenly broke down. There were good bits and bad bits – but I hope that things don’t go all the way back to normal, because there’s a lot I want to remember and learn/grow from. In some way, Woven is the articulation of that.
My book, The Love List changed my life. What are the top three characteristics on your Love List (characteristics or qualities you are looking for in a potential mate or current mate)?
DM: I love a list! The challenge for me is getting it down to three. My wife and I have been together for eight years and have two young children aged four and one. The top three on my love list, (my wife ticks all the boxes) is:
Patience: I walk around in a daze most of the time, especially when working from home. My wife is incredibly patient, as it takes me a while to change modes and that leads to general chaos in our household.
Integrity: You can lose everything, but still win in life if you have integrity. I’m a firm believer that if you strip everything away – good humans go far, and the basic, fundamental traits will endure as values. What led to the creation of Woven was a realisation that we’d all rather fail trying to make something genuinely human and positive than continue to toil on behalf of huge, global corporations who lacked integrity. It was then I realised one of the things that I love so much about my wife. She has lived her life like this all along.
Perspective: I am mostly a really positive person internally, but when I fall, I fall hard. I need someone who can help me bounce. Farah and I have a good ability to give each other the right level of perspective. I love her for that.
I think my list would have looked really different before we got together, got married, and now that we have kids. I think the influence of someone else to teach you about yourself is underrated, but also in a relationship, you learn so much more about the person you’ve fallen in love with through these new shared experiences as you progress. It’s an ever-evolving Blend!