We spoke to Annabel Thomas, founder of Nc’nean, UK’s first net zero whisky distillery
How did Nc’nean get started, and how would you best summarise what you offer?
I started Nc’nean to change the way the world thinks about whisky from Scotland. To create light and delicious spirits and pioneer sustainable production—and that still sums up what we do.
The distillery is on my parents’ farm on the west coast of Scotland and I think the place itself was my very first inspiration—it is pretty hard to sit and look out at the islands there and not think about whisky!
But if that was the first spark of interest, it was really when I looked at what other Scottish distilleries were doing things that I was really converted—it seemed to me that whilst there were many distilleries in Scotland following traditional methods, there were not enough focusing on sustainability or treating whisky in a more creative way.
What career trajectory led you to opening your own business? Have you undergone any formal training/ previous roles that have helped with what you do for work now?
Before I started Nc’nean I was a strategy consultant for Bain & Co in London. I worked on retail and consumer product businesses, but much of what I did was not directly relevant to the nitty gritty of starting your own business.
That said, it was great experience in the "soft skills"—writing a clear presentation, public speaking, business forecasting—that sort of thing. But how to build a distillery, how to make a great spirit, how to design packaging…I had to learn all of that from scratch!
"The distillery is on my parents’ farm on the west coast of Scotland"
How does your work compliment your personality?
Well, one of the things about a new business is that it is all encompassing and very wide ranging. No one’s job description is exactly what they end up doing and everyone mucks in! I like a challenge, I’m quite good at persevering and I love learning new things, so I think from that perspective, a new and exciting business suits me quite well.
However, I am also quite impatient, and it has required a lot of patience to get where we are today—two years fundraising, two years building the distillery from scratch, three years waiting for the spirit to mature—so seven years after I left Bain & Co we finally had whisky in a bottle!
Nc’nean has just been named the UK’s first net zero whisky distillery – was this core to your ethos? How have you achieved this, and how might others go about trying to make their distilleries more sustainable?
Sustainability has always been at the core of what we do. It is really important to me personally, but it is also hard not to have it at the forefront of your mind at the distillery—it is so remote and surrounded by nature that it somehow seems even more important there.
When I first started planning it, we looked at the core areas of the business we could control from the outset—so we installed a biomass boiler fueled from a commercial forest just around the corner, sourced organic barley and developed a closed loop system for our cooling water.
But that was just the beginning and we have been on a sustainability journey ever since—be that replacing some chemicals in the distillery with an enzyme or sourcing the UK’s first 100 per cent recycled clear glass bottle for our whisky. Achieving net zero for our distillery operations is a very proud achievement but we also have a lot more still to do—in particular, working with our suppliers to reduce the carbon footprint of the things they supply to us.
"Sustainability has always been at the core of what we do"
I think for every business, distillery or otherwise, you need to understand your carbon footprint before you can go about reducing it, so that is the first step. And, much like on a personal level, it is about starting to make change—don’t be intimidated by not being able to do everything at once. It’s just important to get started.
You can’t take no for an answer—we spent more than six months searching for our 100 per cent recycled clear glass bottle and were told no many times by UK suppliers because ‘consumers still want flint clear glass’—which just isn’t true!
The Nc'Nean distillery is on the western Scottish coast
Branding is so instrumental for a successful drink business, and yours is beautiful—how did you settle upon your name and company imagery?
We wanted to find something that really represented what we stood for, rather than taking the traditional approach of naming the whisky after the place it is created. We did lots of research and found Neachneohain, an ancient Gaelic goddess, who was known as a protector of nature and for walking her own path.
We felt that perfectly summed up who we were but was a bit of a mouthful, so we abbreviated it to Nc’nean. Once we had that in place, our designs were created by an agency who does not normally do drinks branding, and I think that helped us create something that isn’t really in the traditional whisky vein. But it also helped that their designer was just very talented!
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I think the only thing that is typical is no two days are the same! I’ve just had our second baby so at the moment things are pretty hectic—I try to get to my desk by nine, baby permitting, and I spend most of my time at the moment on calls with my team, talking to customers, and managing the build of a new warehouse and bottling hall at the distillery.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the job?
My favourites are working with my wonderful team, tasting and blending the whisky (it’s hard, but someone has to do it!) and hearing stories of people trying whisky for the first time because of Nc’nean. My least favourite is dealing with the issues presented to us around exporting, particularly since Brexit.
What do you like to do to switch off?
Two children under four and a young business doesn’t exactly give me loads of time to switch off, but I love exercise in whatever form I can get it; lifting weights, cycling, hiking up a mountain. I love food and drink—cooking or eating out, trying a new bar, making cocktails. I also love to travel, but a combination of covid and children has meant that is definitely on the back burner for a while!
What has been the most valuable business lesson you’ve learnt so far? And what has been your most tangible achievement?
I think it is probably to spend as much time in your consumers’ shoes as possible—to really understand what is important to them and how they view you. A simple example—we spelt our name “Ncn’ean” to begin with—the apostrophe was meant to represent where we’d taken the letters out of the much longer Gaelic word—but people found it impossible to pronounce! We ended up changing it to Nc’nean, and all that hassle could have been saved if we’d asked a few people first.
I think getting to net zero for our distillery operations is my proudest achievement. I hope it encourages others in the industry to move even faster if they can which would be fantastic. There is only so much we can do as a relatively small distillery—if others follow more quickly as a result, then that will have an even bigger impact.
"I think getting to net zero for our distillery operations is my proudest achievement"
In five years time, where would you like to see Nc'nean?
I would like to see us selling our whisky and botanical spirit in more countries, encouraged many more people to try whisky who perhaps thought it wasn’t for them; and to have continued our sustainability journey—for example having further reduced our carbon footprint from farming and packaging.
If you weren’t in this line of work, what other career would you love to have?
Well, in purely fantasy world I would have loved to be a ski instructor, but in reality I am not good enough at skiing! In a more realistic world, I’d love to be involved in another aspect of sustainability—working for a bank like Triodos or an organisation trying to support businesses to become more sustainable.
Lastly, a very important question – how do you best like your whisky served?
The most important question! My absolute favourite is whisky and soda. Nc’nean works particularly well with fizzy drinks—a ratio of two parts whisky to four parts something fizzy, over ice and with a sprig of mint. Just the perfect pre-dinner, refreshing drink.
Learn more about the Nc’Nean distillery here.
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