In my recent review for FABLE‘s Dailuaine 12 Years Old I claimed that “both [FABLE‘s] visuals and storytelling [were] pretty much unparalleled in the whisky world.“ That statement gets even more weight, I think, when you know that I have mad appreciation for captivating narratives, creative approaches, and eye-catching labels or boxes. And yet, I can hardly think of another Scotch brand displaying a similar amount of dedication, consistency, uniqueness, and ingenuity in that area … eager to delve deeper into the matter, I reached out to FABLE’s co-founder and managing director Andrew Torrance with a wee interview request. Luckily, he was as happy to talk about FABLE as I was to learn more about it!
BarleyMania: Cheers, Andrew and thanks for joining in. So far, FABLE has released eleven single cask Scotch whisky bottlings, all of ‘em spanning across your first outturn or, as you call it, story: “The Ghost Piper of Clanyard Bay“. In addition, you have also launched the first two batches of your new Blended Malt. So I think it is safe to say that FABLE, which is still a very young company, has “arrived“ in the scene. If you now reflect on the business and brand you’ve co-created with your partner-in-crime Calum Lawrie and your team, how do you feel about the way it has fleshed out and developed?
Andrew Torrance: Well, in general, let me start by saying that the last two years were very challenging not just for us, but for any business. Just think of COVID, Brexit, and now the crisis in Ukraine. Against this background, it’s safe to say that we could have chosen an easier period to launch and start a business. However, Calum and I have both worked in the whisky and spirits industry for 25 years. And during all that time, it’s always been our dream and our passion to own our own brand.
I, for example, started at Morrison Bowmore in the mid-90s when I was 16. Back then, I worked with brands like Bowmore, Auchentoshan, or Yamazaki. Afterwards, I joined William Grant & Sons. And then I became a whisky retailer. Calum, on the other hand, was with Diageo and Copper Dog for several years and he also has a long history in drinks advertising. With FABLE, we have now taken all the experience we’ve gained in the different companies we’ve worked for – good and bad – to do something simple yet meaningful: To allow our customers to discover, taste, and sample really great whisky. ‘Cause ultimately, that’s what every whisky fan out there longs for the most.
As said before, getting the ball rolling was tough for us, especially in regard to business set-up and logisitics. But we’ve made good and quick progress nevertheless. Just recently, we‘ve opened Italy as a new market, which means that FABLE has made it to a total of fifteen countries in its first year. We’re kind of going from America down to Australia … and everywhere in between. So yeah, our start was demanding and time passed quickly. But it’s been great fun, too. And it’s going good.
BM: One thing I find especially impressive about FABLE is this: In everything you do, there seems to be absolutely no chance or leeway. Be it the bottles, the flyers, the website, the social media feeds, or the real-world appreances at fairs and festivals – everything is 100 per cent in tune with the brand identity. I could imagine that it’s not always easy to stick that closely to the principle of a totally wholesome, attuned brand experience. But I suppose you can tell from experience that in FABLE‘s case it’s worth to go that extra mile, right?
AT: Absolutely. When you get the opportunity of owning your own business and having your own brand, it allows you to do things in the long term. Of course, Calum and I want to run and develop FABLE for many, many years to come. And obviously, we also want to be successful as quickly as we can. But we’re not in a rush. For a company like FABLE, it’s elemental to do things in the right way – be it the selection of the casks, be it the companies we work with, be it the materials we use, or be it the products we create …
As you know, for example, whisky must be matured for a minimum of three years. But we’re releasing malts that are seven or even ten, twelve, or fourteen years old. That’s a huge amount of time! And I think putting that extra care and attention into it definitely pays off! Whether it’s the wax seal or the art prints or the glassware or the videos or the social media presence – to make the most out of the brand, it’s really important to be consistent right across every single touchpoint!
There’s one more thing: We have found that our product caters to the likes of a rather broad and diverse community. In a vibrant city – like your hometown of Hamburg – it could sit in a very nice 5-star hotel or in a high-end whisky bar like Whisky Plaza or Bar Le Lion. But it would also cut a great figure in a place that’s a bit more common and down to earth. That’s one of the things I like best about whisky, by the way: It’s very democratic. You don’t need to be “X“ or “Y“. You can be both and then some, depending on how you feel in a certain moment. The way we have conceived FABLE, it fully goes along with that.
BM: The haunting tale of “The Ghost Piper of Clanyard Bay“ provides the stage for your first outturn to appear upon. It is full of mysterious characters (the piper, the town folks, the fairies), strange creatures (the hound, the ghost, the crows), eerie places (the village, the bay, the labyrinth), and supernatural forces (the moon, the storm). All of them are brought to life, among others, via the powerful words of Des Wardy and the stunning art of Hugo Cuellar. I know it’s a tough pick, but do you have a personal fave? If so, which one is it and why?
AT: Actually, I am looking at the labels right now. So let me see … first off, I have to point out that it is pretty difficult to design a strong label. And we decided not only to do one, but eleven! Yet, there was no way around it. Because ultimately, the whole brand centers around storytelling; hence the name FABLE. And while the limited edition bottlings of “The Ghost Piper of Clanyard Bay“ are readily available now, they will probably be gone in a year’s time, when we’ll start telling our next story. But the tale will echo on whenever someone takes one of the old bottles off the shelf and enjoys a dram …
Anyway, on to my personal favorites. Whisky-wise, I am a big fan of our Caol Ila. That’s because I have developed such a strong connection with Islay during my time at Morrison Bowmore. And I am also very fond of the casks we have sourced from Mannochmore. Character-wise, my favorites are the two protagonists – Piper and Hound – as well as the Fairies. And I also really like the labels of the Blended Malts on which we’re using two or three different characters in a pretty stylish and smart way, if I may say so.
BM: Could you tell us a bit more about the legend of “The Ghost Piper of Clanyard Bay“? Why did you choose this folk tale as your first story to tell? And what makes it such a great supplement to your whisky releases?
AT: With FABLE, we try to bring the stories and the myths of Scotland to life via our national drink. In doing so, we might also shift attention to areas that tend to get overlooked. The story of “The Ghost Piper of Clanyard Bay“, for example, comes from quite an unvisited part of the country, which is the South-West corner. When you look at the UK on a map, you sometimes think that this region is actually lower down than parts of England because of the way the two nations split. Anyway … with our first story, we pay hommage to this piece of land; to its people; to its history; to its lore.
When we divided the narrative into eleven chapters and assigned each to one of our bottlings, we tried to link the flow of the story – and the key moments in it – to the styles of the corresponding whiskies. Take our Caol Ila nicknamed “Chapter One: Clanyard“, for instance. Its label is pretty gloomy with the skull and everything. The artwork and presentation highlight the dark, peaty nature of this classic Islay malt very well, in my opinion. And the same can be said about the other elements of the story and their liquid counterparts, too.
BM: Regarding the whiskies you’ve either bottled already or amessed as part of your stock, is there a common thread? Or in other words: What characteristics must a whisky have to be considered as a FABLE release?
AT: The way Calum and I see it, independent bottlings do in no way compete with the main distillery releases. Rather, they allow the drammers to taste whiskies from these distilleries which are not “formally released“. One thing that is very important to us is keeping the liquid in its original form: Every single cask by FABLE comes in natural color and full cask strength without chill-filtration. When we buy stock, we always try to keep it as raw to the main spirit as we possibly can. However, we also have some releases being launched at the moment where we have experimented with European oak. One such bottle is our amazing Blair Athol that has an utterly fantastic color profile. I think, that particular whisky is also available in Germany via our distributor Prineus GmbH. It’s worth looking out for!
BM: Before we bring our interview to a close, can you grant us a little gaze into the future? What can we expect next from FABLE?
AT: Calum, who leads the creative work, has already started working on story two. In regard to the narrative, I can’t give away too much at this point. But whisky-wise, there will be some experimentation with finishing, so you will see a lot more different styles coming through. And presentation-wise, we might add some color to the labels.
As for “The Ghost Piper of Clanyard Bay“, that story has come to a close now that all eleven chapters are released. Yet, there could still be something special at the end, like a hidden chapter. Let’s wait and see. Apart from that, we will definitely do more Blended Malts. We are currently working on Batch Three; and we have some really cool stuff planned to come along with it, such as t-shirts with the characters on them. Stay tuned for more… after all, we’ve only just started telling this FABLE to the whisky world!
*** Images provided by FABLE and used with permisson. ***