A sustainable future for the drinks industry
Meet Annabel Thomas, the pioneering distiller and member who’s championing renewed energy, organic produce, and rigorous recycling at Nc’nean
By Louis Wise Images courtesy of Nc’nean Monday 26 October, 2020 Short read
It’s impossible to call Thomas’ distillery, Nc’nean, built on her parents’ farm, anything other than a passion project – with the emphasis on passion. Built between 2015 and 2017, Nc’nean has already made huge waves thanks to its rigorously sustainable approach. This year it launched the first 100% organic Single Malt Whisky – an achievement that was emphasised when a first bottle was sold for £41,000 at a charity auction in August. Indeed, the Nc’nean project is 360° bio-minded, from the site on the Drimnin Estate on the Morvern Peninsula running on renewed energy and using organic Scottish barley, to rigorously recycling all its waste and relying on fresh water from a local spring. The bottles are made from 100% recycled clear glass (another first) and the packaging is nearly all recycled, too.
Having gone on holiday to Scotland several times a year since she was a baby (one grandmother is Scottish), English-born Thomas had a huge love of the country, only reinforced when her parents bought a farm there 20 years ago. She and her lawyer husband always dreamt of creating a distillery, but she got the idea for Nc’nean’s distinct USP when she noticed that none of the other Scottish distilleries were catering to the sustainability boom. ‘It felt like a shame, because it’s made in a naturally beautiful place, so it seemed like an obvious thing to do.’
Thomas took the plunge in 2013, ditching her job at the prestigious Bain & Company to go it alone, mostly at her kitchen desk (although it must be said her father helped her at the beginning and remains involved in the business now). Did she bring any skills from her previous job? ‘I think I was able to apply some skills, but no knowledge,’ she says drily. The process to get the distillery built wasn’t easy at all; everyone seems to buzz about being an entrepreneur these days, but it’s actually very hard, she sighs. It was tough to find the right investors who properly understood Nc’nean’s sustainable ethos – over five years ago, this was much less of a sexy thing. ‘They didn’t care, and I don’t think they saw it as an important part of the business, which is interesting,’ she says. ‘It’s a reflection of how attitudes have changed in the last five years, really.’
As Thomas also admits, whisky is now often viewed as male and traditional – ‘It’s proof of how effective the Scotch marketing in the 1980s was’. In fact, back in the 1960s, her grandmother would regularly drink it ‘and no one thought that was weird, and she wasn’t some kind of out-there feminist. It was just normal. Then it became this older-man, drinking-it-neat thing.’
Nc’nean’s Single Malt appeared this year in the footsteps of their Botanical Spirit, which is essentially a gin by any other name (just not according to the EU, which has very strict rules on what is a ‘gin’, and so on). As usual, the bog myrtle, the wild thyme, the sorrel and the heather that infuse the spirit were picked nearby. With the whisky having made such a resounding splash, Thomas has plans for more, but is planning to be prudent as well, considering the world we are currently living in. Then again, Nc’nean does seem to have a knack of being radical even when it doesn’t mean to be. ‘It didn’t really occur to me to begin with at all, that it was a big deal that I was female [in this industry],’ she says – the majority of her 10-person team are female, too. ‘It honestly didn’t. Then people started asking me these questions like: “Do you actually like whisky?”’
What will Nc’nean get known for first? For its intensely sustainable approach, or for also managing to finally lug whisky into the 21st century? You wouldn’t bet against either – it’ll just be a very fun race to watch.