Nc’Nean Distillery: Sustainable Whisky in Scotland

February 18, 2021

Nc’nean Distillery made headlines last year when its first ever bottle of organic single malt whisky sold for a record breaking $ 54,183 USD. But that was just the beginning for founder Annabel Thomas. “The hard work of getting the message out more clearly and widely starts now,” she said.

Annabel Thomas never intended to break records. Sure, setting up a charity auction of the distillery’s first 10 bottles of Highland whisky was bound to drum up some publicity. Mainly though, it was meant to generate funds for the local community, the environment and the UK’s hospitality industry affected by COVID-19. In a world where inaugural releases by Scottish distilleries are flipped for staggering sums, Thomas seemed genuinely surprised at the result of the auction. “With the pandemic in its early stages, it was just intended as a nice way to do something back, not to be marketing or anything,” she said. “But sometimes that’s where the best ideas come from.”

Nc’Nean Distillery: Queen of Spirits

Gaelic for The Queen of Spirits, Nc’nean [nc-nee-an] opened in 2017 and is Thomas’s brainchild. She used to work as a management consultant in London before her foray into single malt. The distillery is located on Drimnin Estate, a remote property on the Scottish west coast that’s owned by her parents. Visitors will have to brave miles of single-track roads to reach Nc’nean Distillery. But they are rewarded with one of the best distillery views in the whole of Scotland, overlooking the narrow sea strait between the Morvern peninsula and the Isle of Mull.

Nc'Nean Distillery: Founder Annabel ThomasNc’Nean Distillery Founder Annabel Thomas /Photo Credit: Nc’Nean Distillery

“When I started I had absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for”, said Thomas. “To some extent my goals might’ve been entirely unrealistic. But my first goal was to get the distillery built, which at one point felt like a complete impossibility. That was kind of a great relief when it was done. Although, looking back, it doesn’t seem as difficult as it felt at the time. Running a distillery is a lot more complicated.”

Sustainable Philosophy

Sustainability is at the core of the distillery’s philosophy. Thomas believes it is the distillery’s responsibility to constantly improve its impact on the environment in terms of pollution, carbon footprint and biodiversity. Nc’nean Distillery only uses organic Scottish barley, while the distillery is powered by a biomass boiler which runs on wood chips from the local forest. Nearly all of the distillery’s waste (99.97%) is recycled. One of the more recent challenges was finding a manufacturer to produce 100% recycled clear glass bottles.

For about six months the brand phoned pretty much every glass manufacturer in Europe, but none could deliver on the relatively small order Thomas wanted to place. “They have ginormous furnaces which they can’t turn on just for little old us,” she says. “That would be madness.” But suddenly and fortuitously Thomas met a company called Estal at Bar Convent Berlin. Estal had spent five years working on 100% recycled bottles, which gives you a good idea of how hard it is. Thomas had to throw the original bottle design away, because she could only choose from four bottles shapes. But it was exactly what she was looking for, so she had no qualms starting the design process all over again.

Organic Single Malt

The result is a beautiful glass-printed bottle the distillery has used for all its releases so far. While only 1,320 bottles of the inaugural release were available, Nc’nean Distillery has since released several batches of its Organic Single Malt. “In our mind, the most important release is our first Organic Single Malt,” she says. “This is our mark in the sand — in some form this product will always be in our portfolio. This is what it is all about, really.” Aimed at a young and diverse audience, the recipe for the distillery’s ongoing release is very suitable for a whisky and soda serve. Or the Whisky Six, as Thomas likes to call it.

Nc'Nean Distillery: Nc'Nean Organic Single MaltNc’Nean Organic Single Malt /Photo Credit: Nc’Nean Distillery

Nc’nean Distillery mainly fills their whisky into ex-bourbon and so-called STR red wine casks, which stands for Shaved, Toasted & Re-charred. For Thomas it was a matter of finding the right proportions between the two. “They’re two quite different beasts,” she says. “The STR is very forceful and they mature very quickly. They’ve got tons of flavor and color. The bourbon casks are a bit more delicate and show off more of our new make. You get all of those lovely vanilla-y flavors. It ended up erring towards the heavier STR blend, because it works particularly well in the Whisky Six.”

Yeast Trials

Not easily satisfied, Nc’nean Distillery is looking towards an even more sustainable future. It might try to do something with the CO2 produced during fermentation, while also looking into allowing people to reuse and refill bottles they have already bought. The latter will probably be challenging under current rules that dictate the bottling of Scotch whisky.

On the flavor side of things Nc’nean has been running trials with different types of yeast. The distillery tries to do three yeast experiments a year. One trial was made with the kind of yeast generally designed for uses other than whisky, like red wine yeast, which generates lots of the red fruit flavors that you’d expect in red wine. A trial with rum yeast produced much pineapple and tropical fruit flavors. But some of them don’t work. “One with tequila yeast didn’t taste very nice at all,” says Thomas. “We did that one right around the time when tequila barrels were okayed for maturation by the Scotch Whisky Association. I figured: How cool would that be to put into tequila barrels? But the spirit just wasn’t good enough.”

Thomas hopes to release the distillery’s earlier yeast experiments as soon as this year. It will signify another new chapter in the story of Nc’nean Distillery, one of Scotland’s most progressive malt whisky distilleries.

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