Annabel Thomas is the Founder and CEO at Nc’nean; a young, independent, organic and female-led distillery located on the west coast of Scotland. In 2013, she left her job in London to set the distillery up from scratch. An unfamiliar face, Annabel admits that she previously had no links to the whisky industry, but lots of connections to Scotland, a love for the golden dram and the foresight that Nc’nean could bring something new to the conversation.
We were thrilled to speak with Annabel to find out more about her story so far with Nc'nean, their ethos and distillery character. We also got the inside scoop on their maiden whisky release, Ainnir - the first ten bottles of which will be exclusively offered at auction with all proceeds going to charity.
What led you to choose the remote Morvern peninsula as the location for Nc’nean distillery?
That bit was easy. It was in fact this that was the original inspiration – Nc’nean is situated on my parents farm and we’d been having this family dreams about a distillery for years. It was only when I took a trip to Islay to do some research, and it kind of coincided with me thinking about leaving my previous job anyway that I took the leap to set it up.
Can you tell us about the Nc’nean ethos? What do you hope to offer whisky lovers around the globe?
Our ethos is focused on just two things: a) sustainability and b) experimentation and creativity in how we make our spirits. Sustainability is critical to me personally and has been a core part of how we operate at Nc’nean from the get go – partly driven by the desire to fit in with the remote and wild corner of Morvern that we are located on. Experimentation and creativity is also really important to me as I feel this is what is missing in the industry at the moment – there are too many distilleries focused on ‘doing things the way they’ve always been done’. And there is absolutely a place for tradition, but there is also a place for exploration and development.
Nc’nean is the leading organic whisky distillery in Scotland, can you tell us a bit more about what this means both in terms of production and the impact this has on the spirit produced?
In terms of production, the most important part is sourcing our certified organic, Scottish barley. Once we have done that, it has little impact on the actual production process, but we do also have to go through a rigorous certification once a year.
The impact on the spirit is an interesting question. We don’t have any empirical evidence for the impact, because we don’t have a proper non-organic comparison from our own distillery, but we believe that the rich soils and low yields of organic farms contribute to the depth and flavour of our whisky – in essence fewer grains are produced from richer soils and so that concentrates more flavour in each grain of malted barley that we mash.
What was the vision for Nc’nean’s distillery character and style of spirit that you produce at the distillery and did this change or evolve in anyway once production commenced?
Well, we have multiple types of spirit that we produce, but of our main recipe, I would say light and fruity are the defining features. Our vision for that has remained pretty consistent from the start – we were lucky to have Dr Jim Swan assist us with both distillery design and recipe development and this style is what he was an absolute expert in. We chose unpeated partly for environmental reasons and partly because I am not such a fan of peated whisky!
There has been a focus on experimentation with barley varietals in the whisky industry over recent times. At Nc’nean you have put your focus on experimentation with yeast. Can you tell us about this experimentation; the reasoning for it, the process and the results so far?
The background before we get into yeast specifically is that I want to focus on the spirit, not the maturation. Maturation has been done to death in Scotland, with every cask and cask finish under the sun. And whilst it is of course critically important to our final whisky, it is not such an interesting area to explore. So when you start looking at the spirit there are really not that many components and yeast is the ingredient that has the most influence over flavour. Before we distil we are essentially making beer and there isn’t a brewer out there that doesn’t care passionately about yeast. But I could see no one was thinking about this in Scottish whisky. Everyone is basically using a similar yeast strain optimised for yield and a single flavour profile and I just thought ‘how boring’!
The process is fairly simple – each week we set aside at least 6 weeks of production to distil using new and different yeasts. Normally 2 weeks on each yeast. We spend the preceding 6 months sourcing various options and try them on a very very small scale. We test the result (i.e. wash) for aroma, taste and alcohol yield and pick the best options. Then we scale those 3 options up to the distillery.
So far, we have done 3 years worth and we absolutely love the results – the spirit really changes character and produces interesting flavours. A red wine yeast produces blackberry flavours, a rum yeast, pineapple flavours. We can’t wait to see how these develop as they mature.
Ainnir is your ‘maiden’ bottling from Nc’nean. Can you provide any insight into the production techniques used to create Ainnir? What are the defining characteristics of the liquid?
Ainnir is 100% our core spirit recipe, which is focused on this pure but fruity and flavourful spirit. So long mash, long fermentations with two yeasts, slow distillations, high cut points. It has been put together from a mix of five casks – 3 STRs and 2 bourbons which we felt were individually brilliant but more importantly sang harmoniously together and we feel reflect the best of the distillery’s character. Rich, elegant, stone fruity characters, but with a nice hint of spice as well.
Where were the casks sourced and how were they selected?
The casks are STR red wine casks which we source from a cooperage in Spain (the are all ex-Spanish red wine casks that have been shaved, toasted and re-charred) and the ex-bourbons are sourced from Kentucky Bourbon Barrel in the US.
The process began with our distillery manager, Gordon, and his team selecting a range of the best casks from our warehouse, based on distillery notes, cask variety and position. Samples were taken from each of the casks to be tasted by me and the team.
Each cask had developed its own unique balance and flavour which meant that a couple were ready as single casks, and some were earmarked for longer maturation, but the majority were suitable for blending trials. For Ainnir, we were looking for a good representation of distillery character and complexity of flavours, as well as balance and approachability, even at cask strength. The casks we chose with their tasting notes were:
Cask 66 - STR-Red Wine Cask
Toffee, toast and jam with drying spice. Complexity.
Cask 92 - STR-Red Wine Cask
Caraway rye bread and blackcurrant. Body and sweetness.
Cask 120 - STR-Red Wine Cask
Apricots and porridge. Richness.
Cask 128 - Ex-Bourbon Cask
Really clean, sharp lemon and a little sandalwood. Brightness.
Cask 130 - Ex-Bourbon Cask
Creamy lemon and stone fruit, with a herbal complexity. Perfect example of distillery character.
Are there any particular distilleries, or distillers, that you admire and have inspired your work at Nc’nean?
Lots! I love the work Bruichladdich did, especially in the early days, redefining what whisky from Scotland could look like. We have also taken lots of inspiration from distilleries around the world and their approach to challenging tradition whilst making awesome whiskies – Kavalan in Taiwan, Starward in Australia.
What’s been your best moment so far in the Nc’nean journey?
Well, there have been loads of highlights, but honestly it was probably Friday when we launched Ainnir to our newsletter and also came to Whisky Auctioneer and dropped our first ever 10 bottles off with you for auction. The reaction from our investors, cask owners and newsletter subscribers has been amazing – both because it has sold out but also the lovely messages people have been sending. It really is the culmination of 7 years work for me and to actually have whisky in a bottle seems very surreal. But seriously, there have been plenty of other highlights too – our first spirit runs when we had just built the distillery, the release of our first product – a Botanical Spirit – and especially when it was featured on Sunday Brunch. (Though also a low-light as our website crashed!).
And how about your biggest challenge?
I don’t know if I can keep this just to one… Fundraising probably comes top as that is tough for a capital intensive, long term business. But it’s a challenge running a business in a remote location – from getting things fixed when they break to figuring out how we are going to get things delivered.
Now that Ainnir has launched, what’s your next focus? Can you give us any insight into future releases?
Our next focus is getting our ‘core expression’ (I hate that word, but we haven’t found a better one yet) out there. A 5,000 bottle batch will be released in September and will be available via more traditional channels (I.e. retailers and bars) and will also go to Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and France. The logistics of doing all this bottling, selling and exporting for the first time I think will take our focus for the next few months!
This release will be at 46% and we have designed it to make the most delicious whisky soda, which we’re calling Whisky Six. More on that to come in September / October.
And then after that we have lots of exciting releases up our sleeves for 2021 – watch this space!
Where would you like to see Nc’nean distillery in 5 and 10 years time?
I would like to see Nc’nean sold in great retailers and bars across Europe and possibly in a few countries further afield – perhaps Canada and Japan. I’d like to be spreading the sustainability word and hopefully having a broader impact than just whisky – I’d like to use our platform to influence the rest of the industry for the better and also consumers to make better choices. I hope there is a movement coming which will encourage businesses to be ‘better’ businesses and I’d like Nc’nean to be at the forefront of that.