Nc’nean founder and CEO Annabel Thomas has had a busy few weeks. In addition to the first ever bottle released from her Scotch whisky distillery selling for over £40,000 ($53,000) in a recent charity auction, she is also is overseeing the public release of Nc’nean’s first ever whisky, which launched yesterday.
It’s safe to say that for someone without a whisky background who left a management consulting career to follow a dream of establishing a Scotch whisky distillery, she’s doing very well these days.
Here, she discusses the importance of sustainability in Nc’nean’s operations, the record-breaking auction, and working with industry legend Jim Swan.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why did you decide to start a distillery in an isolated area of the west Scottish highlands?
Annabel Thomas: Nc’nean is actually located on my family’s farm! That was the original inspiration, but it became more of a reality after a trip to Islay. I visited lots of distilleries, and I thought it was amazing as I loved my Scotch. However, at the time a lot of those distilleries seemed to be doing things pretty much the same way, without much of a focus on sustainability. I thought there was an opportunity there to maybe look at creating Scotch that was more oriented towards these principles, and looking at doing other things in a different way as well.
I know Dr. Jim Swan was important to the distillery as you got everything set up and running. What has been his influence?
Annabel Thomas: We started working with him in 2011 or 2012, someone had said that if you want to start a distillery in Scotland, this is the man you have to talk to.
He was unbelievably influential on everything we did until he died in 2017. Primarily he’s about flavor and recipes, but he helped with everything including the design of the distillery. He helped us also with sourcing our casks, and he wrote up the recipe that we use in the distillery including mash times, yeasts, fermentation times, cut points, all of it.
However, we haven’t necessarily followed everything that he recommended. He wasn’t a big believer in using organic barley, for example. He saw it as pointless, and I see it as fundamental, so we went our own way on that one. I really wish he was around now to try this first whisky and let us know what he thought because I really wonder if some of the flavor that we’re getting is from using organic barley.
Nc’nean has prioritized sustainability as an important part of operations. How does this translate to whisky production?
Annabel Thomas: Sustainability is a core part of our identity, and how we approach it is always evolving. We started by looking at the barley and how it’s grown, the energy we use onsite (because distillation is energy-intensive), site design in terms of waste, recycling our cooling water, and other related issues.
We are certified organic, which is required for us to put ‘organic’ on the label, and it’s all about the barley. For distilleries that want to do organic releases, the headaches come when you have to separate organic and non-organic batches and prepare all your equipment accordingly. For us it’s easier as organic is everything that we do. We’re certified by the Biodynamic Association, we went with them because they have experience with whisky and have been great to work with.
More recently, we’ve been taking on bottling and packaging materials. The bottle is an important part of our sustainability agenda. It’s got a bit of a green tinge on it, but that’s because it’s 100% recycled materials, you can’t get the purity that you would get with clear glass, and it reduces the carbon footprint compared to using a new bottle by 40%. The gift boxes are also made of 95% recycled material as well.
You sold your first official whisky bottle for a record-breaking $53,000 in a charity auction, and the other bottles from that auction did very well too. Will that event change how you produce or market your whisky?
Annabel Thomas: We never in our wildest dreams thought that something like this would happen. We had no intention to auction it originally. The idea came about when Covid hit and we thought that we would really like as part of our first release to give something back. It never, ever occurred to me that we would set any records. It didn’t seem very likely but it also wasn’t the point of the auction anyway.
It obviously captured a few people’s imaginations!
The recognition that it got us has been brilliant. I don’t think it really changes anything because part of our philosophy is to get people into whisky that don’t drink it already and £50, which is what our first whisky will cost, is already a pretty high price, so we won’t change our plans. Part of the reason we’re doing what we’re doing is to get new people into whisky so it wouldn’t make sense for us to shift things. The auction results give us some confidence and are a sign that we’re on the right track.
Tell me more about your upcoming first release.
Annabel Thomas: This is our ‘core expression’, if you like, bottled at 46% ABV. We think it’s a lovely expression of what we make, and not only does the distillery character really come through nicely but it also makes for a really nice whisky soda, which was actually part of the reasoning behind the casks that we chose for it, which are 65% STR (Shaved, Toasted, Recharred) ex-red wine and 35% ex-bourbon.
All our allocated presale bottles have sold out, and the reaction from retailers has also been great.
We divide the flavor profile into three different elements. We like to describe it as tasting like lemon posset, which describes both the citrusy character and also the almondy-barley notes. It’s only 3 years old so you do still get some of that maltiness coming through. It’s quite fruity, we describe it as ‘stone-fruit’, which I think emerges mostly from the underlying new-make spirit. Then there’s some spice. If you want to be pretentious you could say it’s something like caraway rye bread, though just the term ‘spices’ is fine with us. A lot of that comes from the STR casks. I think it’s also got a good body and weight to it. Our theory, which is completely unproven, is that this might be due to the organic barley we’re using.
We’re doing 5,000 bottle batches at the moment because that’s simply the stock capacity that we have at the distillery. However, there’s lots more to come from us, and future batches will be arriving soon.
Originally published on Forbes.com