Nc'Nean Distillery - Annabel Thomas

Meet the founder leading the sustainability charge within the Scotch industry.

Nc'Nean founder and CEO Annabel Thomas is a person in high demand and a name that's fast crossing over into the world beyond drinks.

Not only did her organic Single Malt Whisky break records when it was released, it is now one of the hottest up and coming brands within the category.

Whisky expressions aside, Thomas' vision and approach to sustainability is creating waves of additional interest around the distillery and has catapulted her to the forefront of a movement towards a more environmentally conscious and inclusive industry.

We dropped in to find out more...

Nc'Nean Whisky founder Annabel Thomas
Nc'Nean Whisky founder Annabel Thomas

Hello! Let's rewind a bit and start off when you left a management consulting career to follow your dream of establishing a Scotch Whisky distillery. What inspired you to make the change of direction?

I was inspired really by two things – firstly the location on my family’s farm – you can’t be on the west coast of Scotland without thinking about whisky. But this went from a vague dream to something I felt really needed to be done after I spent some time on Islay at various whisky distilleries and felt there was room for a distillery with a greater focus on sustainability and a more modern approach – looking forwards rather than taking the traditional approach. (I think the traditional approach is brilliant and essential, but I think there is room, and a need, for both). 

Completely agree with you about the room for both to flourish and that the two are not mutually exclusive. At what point did you decide to go from idea to taking the leap?

I did some research whilst taking some time off work and for a while tried to push things along whilst working in my old job full time but it quickly became clear we were missing deadlines and someone needed to focus on it full time. 

I figured I was probably never going to get the opportunity to start a distillery again so I rather blindly took the leap! 

Annabel Thomas enjoying a dram of Nc'Nean
Annabel Thomas enjoying a dram of Nc'Nean

The Nc’Nean Distillery is located on your family’s farm – did it take a lot of repurposing to convert into a distillery and what was the build process like to manage?

Yes and no. The distillery actually fits quite neatly into the old farm buildings, but it’s hard working with old buildings, and we also had to construct a new boiler barn and warehouse. The build was not fun to manage! I am not a fan of building programmes in general, but when it’s very remote it’s very hard. Hard to retain good project managers, hard to fix things quickly when things are forgotten. And complex when you are putting an old building together with quite complicated equipment. 

Having said that, our partners were fantastic, in particular LH Stainless who fabricated and installed all our distilling equipment. 

Nc'Nean Organic Whisky bottle
Nc'Nean Organic Whisky bottle

You have one foot in London and the other at the distillery. How do you manage juggling what is a long commute, time away and finding the right balance as a family?

It’s hard, I’m not going to lie! 

I don’t think you ever feel like you have the balance right, but you just have to try to juggle as best you can in the moment. I am at least lucky that the distillery is in a beautiful area and we have a fantastic team there, so I have that to look forward to when I go up.  

Talking of which, a big struggle for any distillery is to find the right team. This is even more difficult in remote areas such as the Morvern coast. Skilled technical distilling jobs, general jobs, ‘front of house’ work for Whisky tourism – there are so many gaps to fill! How have you found the recruitment process and what do you feel your strength has been in attracting the right kind of people?

When we were starting out and didn’t even have a website, we were asking people to take a real leap of faith that we were the real deal! From the beginning we’ve only ever had one person with the distilling experience and everyone else we have trained up from other professions. 

We were very lucky that Gordon Wood who is our distillery manager, agreed to join us from Oban Distillery, and took that leap of faith! But beyond that, we have found that as long as people are enthusiastic about what we do, then we can train people up internally. More recently as we’ve been expanding our bottling operations, we’ve been able to recruit more local people and that has been a real joy, to expand our team on site. 

Nc'Nean estate in Scotland
Nc'Nean estate in Scotland

As a new founder, one of the hardest parts can often be the cash needed to get started and then to fund long-term maturation. You’ve raised such an impressive amount, how have you found that side of the booze business and do you enjoy it?

The first phase of fundraising – which was really the first 2 years after I left Bain – was tough, because until we’d closed the round, you can never be absolutely sure you’re going to make it. And I was worried I’d feel like I’d wasted 2 years of my life. Having said that, I do enjoy having those conversations, having ideas about the business challenged by smart people and learning along the way. 

Now, we are extremely lucky to have a very supportive group of investors who are a real asset to the business. 

Nc'Nean Organic Whisky on a barrel
Nc'Nean Organic Whisky on a barrel

Nc’Nean whisky has been many years in the making. Was it always part of the plan to release a relatively young Scotch to start with, or was that a decision based on how the liquid matured and you feeling able to release earlier than intended?

It was always the hope but we only made a final decision once we’d seen how the liquid developed!

We believed from the beginning, and supported by Dr Jim Swan, that if we made the right liquid and matured it in great quality casks, then we would create something that did not need to be aged for a long time. And initial feedback on the new make was excellent, so we had positive signs from day one. 

Annabel Thomas in the Nc'Nean Distillery
Annabel Thomas in the Nc'Nean Distillery

Using organic barley is a fundamental cornerstone of your whisky. Was that based on flavour, on sustainability or something else?

To begin with it was 100% based on sustainability. The principles of organic farming, though not perfect, do contribute massively to biodiversity and water quality on the farms. It was really important to me that we took care of the environment not just at our distillery but all the way down the supply chain. 

What we did not expect was the impact on flavour and this has been a very welcome surprise, especially given how much more expensive organic barley is! We find that it gives the liquid a richness and texture – driven by the concentration of goodness in each grain of barley. 

Sustainability is a core part of the Nc’Nean identity. How much work was it to implement a zero waste, renewable energy and recycled water operation when it comes to Scotch? 

Some parts are harder than others. Renewable energy is tough as a biomass boiler is expensive to install, expensive to maintain, much harder to run, and much harder to supply (we dry and chip our own timber on site). 

Zero waste also requires a lot of effort and vigilance to minimise things like packaging. Recycled water on the other hand just required us to dig an enormous pond and, relatively speaking, that is simpler to operate than alternatives. 

Nc'Nean Organic Barley
Nc'Nean Organic Barley

In your opinion, what’s the biggest obstacle facing the Scotch industry in following suit and improving its sustainability credentials?

It varies company to company. I think most companies are on board now with de-carbonisation, but I feel this could have been started earlier (and as a result there are still many years ahead for the industry to achieve it). 

I think there is still further to go in things like packaging, which can be changed much more quickly than large capital investments like boilers, especially if the big companies put the right pressure on their supply chains. 

Annabel Thomas in the distillery
Annabel Thomas in the distillery

Do you think there is a need for government to impose legislation on the Scotch industry to move the sustainable agenda forward faster, or are producers ahead of the curve?

To impose legislation for Scotch alone, no. In general I would say the industry is ahead of the average. 

Bigger picture, as a planet if we are to solve the climate crisis, then yes I think we do need regulation, but that needs to be accompanied by appropriate support. 

You are releasing 5,000 bottle batches at the moment due to stock capacity – making your Whisky a fiercely sought-after bottling. How long do you think it’ll take before you are in a position to increase that a little? 

Our batch size at the moment is limited by the blending tank we have, but we are in the process at the moment of building a new bottling building with a bigger blending tank, so that will allow us to increase batch sizes a little. 

But we’ll keep the batch transparency, as that is something we are keen on – to give our drinkers as much info as we are allowed to about what is in their bottle! 

Probably the hardest question for any enthusiast to answer, let alone a maker but... last and certainly not least - what’s your most memorable whisky drinking experience in the past two years?

Well, the last two years have been slightly devoid of great drinking moments (lockdown and being pregnant ruled out many occasions!), but here are two that really stand out.

Tasting our first official single malt! Matt and I worked on blending this together and tasting our first ‘kitchen blend’ of this, and then I was at the distillery as it started to be bottled. 

Seeing our whisky and botanical spirit served at the Scottish Pavilion opening at COP26.

Thanks for talking with us Annabel! You can follow the Nc’Nean journey via their Insta page here: Nc’Nean

Nc'Nean Organic Whisky in the woods
Nc'Nean Organic Whisky in the woods
Spirits Kiosk
Nc'nean Organic Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Nc'nean Organic Single Malt Scotch Whisky

22 November 2021