It seems that the whisky industry isn’t slowing down any time soon.
This general trend might initially not seem to bode well for the future of whisky, especially with memories of the whisky crisis in the 1980s. However, many would argue that the industry has substantially learned from that crisis and that companies are now better at keeping their ears on the ground and in creating measures to prevent another crisis from happening again.
Currently, there is a consistent supply of new whisky producers emerging, intent on occupying spaces in the industry that respond to specific market needs or trends. Just last year, 14 new whisky distilleries were reported in Scotland. Aside from new distillers, new Independent Bottlers also continue to emerge. FABLE Whisky is one of them.
FABLE Whisky is a new brand of independently bottled single malt whisky that was created in 2020 by Calum Lawrie and Andrew Torrance. Lawrie and Torrance are directors of Pendulum Spirits Ltd., a Scotland-based company involved in the sales of grocery-related products like food, beverages, and tobacco. Compared to other independent bottlers, FABLE strongly utilizes the creative arts for their marketing, with branding strategies that involve the use of animation, artwork, music, and even pottery.
Last month, I attended a Burns Night Celebration and FABLE Whisky tasting held by a local retailer who also serves as FABLE’s distributor in the Philippines. I got to try five samples of FABLE’s first set of releases in the Philippines. After the event, I corresponded with Andrew and had the pleasure of speaking in depth with Calum, both of whom were generous with their time. Instead of chopping up the conversation at the expense of the rich information provided by Calum, this article will be the first of two parts about FABLE Whisky, focusing on my chat with Calum, followed by my review of Chapters 1 and 2 of FABLE’s first volume. The second part, to be published tomorrow, will continue my and Calum’s conversation, and will conclude with my review of Chapters 3-5 of the same volume.
Malt: How was FABLE started?
Calum: Andrew and I have worked together over the years, in different periods of our lives; we’ve known each other for about 20 years. He was one of my drinks representatives when I used to run a bar in Edinburgh. Since then, we’ve both gone off to different things; I’ve worked for Diageo and have worked for myself, while Andrew has worked for Morrison Bowmore and other companies.
After getting together on the brand side of launching Copper Dog whisky, we had an idea to start a business together, and we first started with SipWell, which is essentially a distribution agency for on-trade, off-trade, and travel retail.
At the same time, we were thinking about forming something in the whisky space because that’s our heartland; it’s what we know, it’s where our connections are, and it’s where our passions lie. Obviously, we don’t have a distillery. We’ve been in the industry a long time, but we’re not a family name with heritage and provenance.
So, our thinking was quite loose to begin with: We thought that we could potentially do some single casks if we could get hold of any, bottle them, and see where we go. We knew that if we were on to something, we could probably grow. Given our distribution network and channels, I’m more on the marketing side of the business while Andrew is on the commercial side, so we have this good platform to build a brand.
Malt: Why did you decide to take a branding approach that uses Scottish fables? What purpose does FABLE seek to fulfill as an independent bottler?
Calum: We worked with a design agency in London called gpstudio, who does a lot of high-end retail in Europe and Asia. They also do a lot of brand identity work, so we met up with them and thought about what we could do. We told them that we wanted to come up with a brand that was highly “giftable” and something that’s a break from the norm, essentially.
Because if you look at the subcategory of single cask bottlings – and there’s a lot of new players in the market now, which is refreshing – I would say 90 percent are very traditional in the way that they are presented. They have the family names, the heritage, crests on the bottles, and that sells the liquid.
We, on the other hand, wanted to introduce people to this category, so we thought we’d make something a little more disruptive, something more “giftable.” Andrew’s experience in travel retail helped him understand the value of packaging in attracting consumers.
Scotch packaging can be similar – quite beige – at times, but there could be another side that’s quite beautifully executed. You feel like you want to be part of those brands, and that’s what we wanted to achieve. Gpstudio came back to us with a few ideas around fables and storytelling, which was not new in whisky, so we expanded the idea by talking about the creative arts: illustration, animation, spoken word – all of these things could be introduced into a brand.
We were really conscious about wanting to create a brand first with liquid credentials behind it. This is so that when someone, even if they’re completely new to that category, picks up a bottle, they can get bought in by the packaging, and then we can help them and educate them on whisky.
Malt: As you were creating FABLE Whisky, I’m sure you were also aware of the rising costs of casks and whisky. What led you to continue with your plans with starting FABLE despite that trend?
Calum: It’s a very hard segment to enter. There are people who trade stock, but actually having the connections with the right people and distilleries is the hardest part. You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have the contacts and the supply, it’ll be very difficult.
Fortunately, we have those connections, so we have those guaranteed supplies. With that said, there’s certainly a tightening up across the whole industry, so we’re very conscious that we need to future-proof. Part of that involves releasing our blended malt as a core bottling, which gives us a lot more scale, and the production isn’t as challenging as single cask releases.
It’s hard work, but that just means that we can draw whisky from a lot of different places if we need to. The fact that it’s designed to be mixed is great – it plays well into our branding with creative arts, and it’s more accessible in terms of price, which can help people up that ladder into checking out single casks.
Malt: I understand that there are many ways that you can acquire the whisky that you bottle for FABLE. Is there any specific method or channel that you at FABLE prefer to acquire your whiskies?
Calum: Wherever it comes from and at a good price, really. All joking aside, we’ve cast a wide net, and sometimes, the prices that come to us are laughable because people are trying to take advantage of the whisky boom. For us, it’s just not viable, so we just have to be very smart about our approach to buying.
We have some regular supply from a couple of the big guys, and that helps us forecast and plan, but we also sometimes get some nice little parcels here and there. We don’t tend to go through brokers and traders; if we do that, it’s because we know them very well. We want to make sure that the liquid we pay for is pretty much sound.
Malt: How do you choose what distilleries to contact or get stocks from?
Calum: For the first volume, we’ve attributed a distillery type to each Chapter, so we’ve handpicked distilleries from which we have a regular supply of particular casks that fit those types.
It depends with brokers as well because sometimes, you’re not allowed to sample, and that’s risky. Sampling is essential because it’s not enough to just know about what distillery the whisky came from. I’ve tried some whisky made by well-liked distilleries like Bunnahabhain, which you’d expect to be stellar, but aren’t as good as you hoped. It’s part of the business of independent bottling, really. There’s a need to take calculated risks with those samples, and we’ve been pretty wise with our selections and which contacts we prefer going to.
The rest of the conversation will be provided in the next part of this article. Stay tuned!
Now, I’ll review FABLE Whisky Volume 1, Chapters 1 and 2. This volume is centered on a Scottish fable called “The Ghost Piper of Clanyard Bay.” Clanyard Bay is a relatively unexplored area in the Southwest of Scotland. Each Chapter is named after a single aspect of that story.
FABLE Chapter 1: Clanyard Bay – Review
Caol Ila aged 10 years. Charged from an ex-Bourbon hogshead. 57.5% ABV. Sold locally for $156
Color: Pale straw.
On the nose: Baked ham that was cured in Sprite, honey, and citrus; imagine the smell of pork fat filling the room. Peppercorn and anise being crushed using a mortar and pestle. Touches of old dry olives, singed kindling, and grilled asparagus. Generally, it’s phenol-forward and does not have much of anything else. Medium-bodied. Water introduces aromas of salted crackers and oatmeal.
In the mouth: Charcoal smoke takes over and cascades into burnt meat, deep-fried kangkong (water spinach) leaves, and a mix of honey and toasted chili flakes. Over-salted brioche. Water mutes the phenols and injects only a little freshness in the form of salmon, baked pears, and grilled eggplants. The finish is short and peaty. The singed kindling is there along with some glazed barbecue.
Not bad. It has lots of vivid flavors and aromas but, to me, lacks much complexity and development. This leads me to think that it could benefit from at least a few more years of aging. The nose is much better than the palate, which is almost nothing else other than a parade of phenol-related flavors. I initially gave this a 4, but unfortunately, it’s too expensive for what it offers, so I’m bumping that score down by 1.
FABLE Chapter 2: Folk – Review
Linkwood aged 12 years. Charged from an ex-Bourbon hogshead. 59.4% ABV. Sold locally for $127.
Color: Vegetable oil.
On the nose: The arrival is malt-forward and has aromas of crisp pear, apples, and almonds. It’s quite effervescent and brings to mind a Japanese highball. Light butter on sandalwood. Over time, there are very subtle hints of ginger and onion powder that add some depth. Water mutes the umami nuances, focusing the spotlight on the stone fruits while making it a little hotter.
In the mouth: The effervescence translates immediately, leading to the same malt-forward stone fruit flavors surrounded by a light creaminess. It doesn’t develop much beyond the arrival. It has a medium-bodied texture and a little sharp. With water, it isn’t that much different other than introducing a restrained flower tisane flavor. As if to follow through with the generally easy flavors, the finish is quite short; apple skins and dusty paper before it drops off. Water extends the finish a little and injects new flavors of peeled grapes.
The nose is also better than the palate and finish, both of which do not follow through on the clean yet rich impression provided by the nose. Water doesn’t change it significantly. It’s almost like a nondescript high-ABV Speyside that, I think, makes the case for why Linkwood is mostly a component for blends. However, I do adore the crispness and clarity that the nose offers, and if I had a whole bottle, I’d very much enjoy this as a warm-up dram or in a highball. Similar to Chapter 1, the price prevents me from wanting to get a whole bottle, resulting in bumping this down from 5 to a 4.
Photos are courtesy of FABLE Whisky.