As her organic, sustainably made, small-batch spirit rolls into Waitrose, Nc’nean founder Annabel Thomas talks cutting carbon emissions, eschewing age statements and being a woman in whisky
Annabel Thomas is giving an expert description of the Nc’nean organic single malt in front of her. “When you taste it, you’ll get this lovely kind of creaminess; it coats the mouth,” she enthuses. “That oiliness comes from the organic barley.”
Listening to her, it’s hard to believe the Nc’nean founder – one of the few high-profile women in the industry – “didn’t even like whisky” initially.
So what led a history graduate, working in management consultancy with no connection to whisky, to pursue the ambitious goal of building Scotland’s most sustainable distillery?
For Thomas, the turning point came during a secondment at Innocent. Having arrived under the employment of Bain & Co in 2009, she recalls being struck by how the smoothie business – independently owned at the time – managed to balance purpose and profit.
“All the big corporates I’d worked for at Bain were very profit-driven and all about shareholder returns,” she says. “And then I went into this culture of true sustainability, transparency, and honesty. All these things have now become a lot more common, but 12-13 years ago there wasn’t even lip service.”
Thomas returned to Bain & Co enthused. A few years later, she took a sabbatical to tour the distilleries of Islay. The seed of an idea – making whisky on her parents’ farm on the west coast of Scotland – was sown.
Name: Annabel Thomas
Potted CV: History graduate; management consultant; distillery founder
Finest achievement to date: Auctioning our first bottle of whisky for £41,000
Food or drink brand you admire the most: Innocent for being the pioneers. Riverford for their dedication to organic. Sipsmith for showing the way for craft spirit brands.
Book currently on your nightstand: Urban Jungle – Wilding the City. A present from my sister!
Your business icon: Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia.
As described by your best friend: Organised, logical, mad.
Biggest regret: Sorry but I don’t do regrets!
Takeaway, or eating out?: Eating out – I love food and drink and London’s restaurant and bar scene can’t be beaten.
Favourite whisky (that isn’t Nc’nean) and whisky-based cocktail: Within Scotch, Bruichladdich Organic. And a whisky and soda.
At the time, the whisky sector operated in “very stark” contrast to the purpose-led ethos of Innocent, she recalls. “Not a single distillery was talking about sustainability. I came away thinking: ‘scotch needs to change if it’s going to survive the next 100 years.’”
So the idea for Nc’nean, a scotch whisky distillery that puts sustainability front and centre, was born. The first four years were spent making the concept reality: two to fundraise, two to build. Then there was the unavoidable wait for the liquid laid down to mature. All of which meant it was 2020 before the first bottles of Nc’nean were ready.
The fundraising was arguably the hardest part. Although Thomas is keen to avoid bemoaning her status as a woman in a male-dominated industry – “I’ve never been a male founder of a whisky distillery, so I don’t know what challenges I might not face if I was a man” – Thomas had a tricky time convincing investors to front the cash.
“Of all the equity raised in the UK, very little – around 2% – goes to companies with solely female founders,” she says. “About 10% goes to companies with a female co-founder. So, I might have found it easier to raise money if I was a man, but that’s not specific to whisky, that’s just being a woman and running a startup.”
Undeniably, though, being a female founder is an especially rare feat in the traditionally male-dominated world of whisky. And that’s not the only way Nc’nean is breaking with tradition.
Instead of producing gin or vodka to supplement cashflow, as is the norm, the distillery crafts a ‘botanical spirit’ from its new make – with locally sourced botanicals such as bog myrtle from the farm.
And crucially, unlike many of its older, more established single malt-making peers, Nc’nean eschews age statements on its bottles. It’s a decision inspired by new world producers such as Kavalan in Taiwan and Starward Whisky in Australia, both of which Thomas cites as inspiration for Nc’nean’s approach.
That could have been a risky move in the sometimes-stuffy world of scotch, which tends to equate age statements with quality. But that hasn’t stopped Nc’nean securing listings in over 200 Waitrose stores this month, at a retail price of £59 – carrying a premium over many established, age-led brands.
Thomas is confident in Nc’Nean’s appeal. “Old isn’t necessarily better,” she says. “Consumers in general are becoming more understanding of the totality of what a business or product offers, and we have a very clear differentiation from those products.”
She concedes, however, that Nc’nean’s price point will likely be a barrier to further growth in retail. “There are obviously some retailers for whom that [price] would be a barrier, regardless of whether there’s an age statement,” Thomas says. “To be honest, we’re probably not going to go into any more grocers other than Waitrose and Booths.”
Of course, Nc’nean’s biggest selling point – and a factor Thomas is banking on to make its national grocery debut a success – is its sustainability credentials.
The distillery is B Corp certified and powered by renewable energy (biomass is generated from trees harvested a tractor ride from the distillery). In 2021, it became the first scotch producer to meet net zero for Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions – beating the Scotch Whisky Association’s 2040 target by almost 20 years. Finally, the bottle is made from fully recycled glass and will be sold without outer packaging in Waitrose.
Thomas isn’t stopping there. Currently, she’s focused on cutting Nc’nean’s Scope 3 emissions to reduce reliance on carbon offsets, which are “riddled with problems”, including the potential for greenwashing.
Overall, progress within the industry is moving slower than she’d like. “Changing an entire distillery’s energy source is not a simple endeavour,” she says. “But adjusting packaging is quite simple. The government has brought in legislation to enforce some elements, like recyclability, but the fact the industry is changing to meet legislation means it’s moving too slowly.”
Still, she is wary of more radical solutions, such as banning the use of peat.“From a Nc’nean point of view, I’d love to see it banned,” Thomas says. “We don’t use it. We’d never use it. People shouldn’t be digging up peat. But I do understand why it hasn’t been [banned], because it’s to do with flavour and we don’t have an alternative. Consumers ultimately want peated whisky. So, if you ban it, you’re taking away consumer choice.”
Instead, she urges government and producers to do more to drive positive change. She advocates for the introduction of a carbon tax and for every distillery in Scotland to “transition to a renewable energy source”. This, she argues, “will make a bigger difference to the carbon balance of the earth than [banning] peat”.
And for distilleries keen to bring about a greener future, they could do far worse than follow the example of the fledgling Nc’nean.