A sustainable future for the drinks industry

Two women chatting in front of some wooden barrels

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

Whenever Annabel Thomas tells people she gave up her job as a strategy consultant to found her own distillery – by which I mean actually build a distillery on the west coast of Scotland and produce her own 100% organic whiskies and spirits – she often gets the same response. ‘“Do you actually like whisky?”’, she relays, highly amused. ‘What a ridiculous question – of course I do. Why would I have spent seven years of my life on something I don’t like?’

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.
A hand in a wheat field
A Scottish village from above
And there is also the fact that all this pioneering is being done by a woman in what has been, traditionally, a very male industry. As Thomas points out, on that question of whether she herself likes Scotch, ‘You would never ask that of a man.’ It’s no fluke that the brand name has a feminist edge: ‘Nc’ is the female equivalent of ‘Mc’, meaning ‘daughter of’ as opposed to ‘son’. And Nean is a handy abbreviation of the wildly Gaelic name of the goddess Neachneohain. ‘She was known as a protector of nature and for walking her own path, so we chose her to represent everything we do,’ says Thomas from her home office in London, where she is bound due to COVID-19 restrictions. ‘But we tried to make the name a little easier!’

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.’ 
Wheat being dropped onto a tray
It also seemed indicative of a general fustiness within the industry. ‘Industries like Scotch have to move with the times and make sure they continue to attract the next generation of consumers – and these are really focused on things like sustainability,’ reasons Thomas. ‘It’s important to remain relevant. And it’s the right 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.’ 
A bottle of whiskey in a green setting
A cocktail on a marble surface
Thomas herself is a huge champion of a classic Scotch and soda: ‘It doesn’t hide the whisky at all, it enhances it; it’s refreshing and it’s savoury, not sweet. It’s an amazing drink. More people need to drink it.’ Otherwise, she does fear that whisky could go the way of Cognac, which was much more of a staple once than it is now. Drinks trends can be vicious. ‘Aperol can come from nowhere, and Cognac can just kind of disappear.’

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.
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