Nc’nean (pronounced nc-nee-an), is an abbreviation of Neachneohain – the Queen of Spirits in Gaelic legend. She was a fierce protector of nature and never afraid to walk her own path, much like founder and CEO of Nc’nean Distillery, Annabel Thomas. 

Annabel’s dream of distilling whisky using organic barley and 100% renewable energy became a reality in 2017. Today Nc’nean’s sustainability credentials are second to none: it was the first whisky distillery in the UK to be powered solely by renewable energy and use 100% recycled clear glass bottles– a first for the premium spirits industry.

In 2022 the Scottish company was certified as a B Corp. Their extremely high score went on to secure inclusion as a 2022 Best for the World™ B Corp™ in recognition of exceptional positive impact for environmental stewardship, ranking in the top 5% of all B Corps in their corresponding size group. Green Business Journal spoke to Annabel about her ‘green-spirited’ journey.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I gave up my job as a management consultant in London 10 years ago to build the business from scratch. Whilst the distillery is based on the west coast of Scotland (on my parents’ farm), I am based in London with my husband and two young children.

What is Nc’Nean’s background? Do you consider yourself a rule breaker in the world of Scotch?

I wanted to start Nc’nean to create a modern, forward-looking Scotch. One that proved that sustainability could be at the heart of the industry. One that encouraged people to drink whisky however they like. One that explored different flavours within Scotch, concentrating on the spirit side of things, rather than focused so much on casks. I don’t think I would describe me or Nc’nean as a rule breaker, but perhaps gently shaking things up from the inside out?

How did you raise the necessary funds as a startup? Was it a struggle?

It was indeed tough. I think fundraising almost always is, but even more so as a completely new, unproven business, and as a whisky distillery, given the long-term, capital-intensive nature of the business. I think the key to raising the money was having a comprehensive business plan and perseverance. It took 2 years, we spoke to about 800 investors and ended up with about 45.

How sustainable is your business… starting with building works.

We have tried to make it as sustainable as possible from the start. First of all by restoring the old stone buildings using natural, traditional materials such as lime wash. We did have to build a new boiler barn though as the farm barn we’d been hoping to re-use had asbestos in it which is a big no-no. But the build was definitely not perfect – we had to use a lot of concrete, as often in industrial facilities, and steel.

During the build-phase we accommodated as many of the builders on site as possible, reducing travel mileage and using on-site equipment where possible.

The heated parts of the building are heated by waste heat from our biomass boiler and our water is gravity fed from a natural spring above the distillery.

What about your production processes?

We use biomass as our primary energy source. We chose this because there is a commercial forest just one mile from the distillery, we know the trees that are harvested are replanted and, for our location, this was the most sustainable option. We also buy in a small amount of renewable electricity.

We only buy organic Scottish barley (the agricultural ingredient used for making malt whisky). As organic farmers, synthetic fertilisers are not allowed so they use a rotation system including livestock to keep the fertility of the soil high (thereby also improving the soil quality, and reducing carbon emissions)

There is a lot of water used in distilling. A small portion of that goes into the actual whisky but most of it is used to condense the vapour after distillation. Instead of sourcing this ‘cooling water’ from a river or using a cooling tower which is both energy and chemically intensive, we dug a huge pond.

We met with quite a lot of resistance to this idea from engineers, but persevered, and I’m glad to say it worked out. We now have a large pond, into which warm water goes at one end and cold water – cooled naturally – comes out the other. It’s topped up by rainwater from the warehouse roofs. This is very unusual in the distilling industry.

We were also the first whisky (possibly spirit?) in the UK to use 100% recycled clear glass from a wonderful company called Estal. By using this glass, we save 40% of the carbon emissions of a typical clear glass bottle.

Best for the World B Corp is superb recognition for your team’s work. What does this mean to you?

It’s brilliant. We’ve made a lot of difficult decisions along the way (perhaps doing the thing that is not obvious, risky or more expensive), in order to do what we felt like was the right thing and recognition such as this is fantastic.

I don’t see sustainability as a competition, so I am not particularly concerned about ‘maintaining high standards’ in that sense – albeit we are working very hard to continue to improve our sustainability – with a particular focus on our scope 3 emissions.

What have been the highest and lowest points of your career to date?

I think one of the high points must be the bottling of our first whisky and the reception it got in the whisky world – we auctioned the first ten bottles for charity and the first one went for £41k!

The low points – well, many too! That is the reality of business I think, especially young businesses. There was probably a concentration of challenges during the build phase – trying to get the large biomass boiler down the small road to the distillery, finding the right set of men and machines to dig and line the cooling pond, and trying to get the plant commissioned.

The onset of covid was also tough – in what was our launch year, having to rip up our entire launch plan and start from scratch seemed like a complete crisis at the time, though turned out ok in the end.

Where do you see Nc’nean in 10 years’ time?

I hope it will be a better known, even more sustainable version of what we are today – pioneering sustainable production and encouraging the whisky industry to embrace diversity of people and drinking styles.

What advice would you give to like-minded female would-be entrepreneurs?

I think if you really feel passionately about something, and have a healthy dose of perseverance, then do it! But make sure you are doing it for the right reasons, and expect everything to take twice, maybe three times as long as you expect!