From strategy consultant to distillery owner, Annabel Thomas is the impressive force behind Nc’Nean whisky. As part of our International Women’s Day coverage, Millie Milliken spoke to her about entering the industry, building her team, and relaunching its women-only internship programme.
The last few months have been exceptionally busy for Annabel Thomas, founder and CEO of organic whisky brand Nc’Nean from Drimnin on the west coast of Scotland. In November of 2021, she appeared on a panel at COP26 alongside Nicola Sturgeon to discuss whisky’s role in combating climate change. Last month, the brand received B Corp accreditation status, and today on International Women’s Day, it opens entries for a week-long internship exclusively for women looking to get into the whisky industry.
“We last did this in 2019,” Thomas tells me from her London base, fresh from a trip to see her distillery. “The idea was to offer two women work at the distillery and get their heads inside the industry, help break down those barriers and show them it’s an industry you can really work in.” Over the course of a week, two women will get the chance to experience all aspects of a working distillery, from fermentation to distillation, as well as foraging, bartending, and blending – and even access to post-internship marketing and sales mentorship if that side of the business sounds more appealing.
As the UK’s first net-zero operations whisky distillery, Nc’Nean is an exciting brand to get under the skin of. And with a woman at the CEO level, for any woman looking to build a career in the whisky industry, that barrier is already somewhat dismantled from the get go. So, how did Thomas herself come to the industry? And what have her experiences of being a woman been like while launching a new whisky brand?
“It’s hard to remember,” Thomas says of her first forays into the industry. “What I do remember is going to a trade show in London when we were really early on – I might not have left my job then [as a strategy consultant for Bain & Company]. The only way to get in was to say we were trade so it was just me and my dad and a load of distilleries. We were thinking ‘how are they going to react to us, we’re a potential competitor’, but everyone was so friendly and delighted to talk to us.”
When she finally did leave Bain & Company to start Nc’Nean in 2013, it was with a goal to do something different in the world of whisky – something nobody else was doing in terms of sustainability and having a different approach. She enlisted the help of the legendary Dr Jim Swan, and spent the next four years fundraising and building her distillery on the family farm from scratch. Three years later and the first organic single malt was ready for the public.
Working on launching a whisky couldn’t have been more different to her former life. “There is one thing that they have in common as they’re both quite fun… Bain was very, very long hours, high pressure, lots of travel, a typical corporate city job with no control over your own life,” she says while also keen to point out that she loved her time there. “It’s a client service industry which is fundamentally different to what I’m doing now – my output these days is a bottle of whisky, not a Powerpoint presentation.”
Of course, launching a whisky comes with its own sacrifices too. “It is all encompassing in a different way… there are no boundaries between life and work. I also have two kids, and I took six weeks of maternity leave because it was impossible for someone else to run the business.”
Being a woman entering the industry wasn’t something Thomas initially thought about – “no I never thought about being a woman to begin with” – but as Nc’Nean became more visible she found that her gender did become a talking point. “It didn’t occur to me until about three or four years in when we were doing some work on the board,” she recalls. “We’d been undercover for three years and had no public presence… Inside the industry everyone is so friendly and nobody really bats an eye, but people outside find it weird. Once we launched, had a public face and started meeting non-industry people, a lot would be asking ‘do you like whisky?’ and commenting on the fact I’m a woman… I think that was when I started to think that this was unusual.
A few years later and Thomas has a whole team around her, one that does weigh more heavily on the male side but admits that her recruitment is something she has thought about more in the last couple of years. “As a result of me being a woman I’ve certainly recruited more women – not that I set out for that as a strategy, but I think that shows the value of diversity as a woman is more likely to put women in positions.” A lot of the Nc’Nean team are also new to whisky and bringing people into the category is something Thomas has been keen on from the start.
That desire is reflected in the branding of Nc’Nean, a stark contrast to the majority of whiskies on the market right now. Thomas was keen to make it attractive to both men and women, as well as people who might be trying whisky for the first time so enlisted the help of a brand agency who had never designed a drinks bottle before. “I think it was that lack of hang ups of what it should be like has allowed us to get to where we are today.”
And that ‘today’ is a bright one. The brand’s shiny new B Corp status is testament not only to Nc’Nean’s incredible sustainability credentials, but also to the company’s ethos as a whole. “You can’t be B Corp just by being sustainable,” she explains. “It’s also about how you treat your people and how you run from a governance point of view: do you have a board, proper board meetings, is it a diverse board, how well do you work with your local community? We don’t talk about it as much but at the core of our mission is building jobs in a small and remote community. Whilst we are still small there are still nine jobs at the distillery and that is really significant.”
And then there is that appearance at COP26 alongside Nicola Sturgeon, Becky Paskin from Our Whisky and Scotch Whisky Association CEO Karen Betts who left a lasting impression on Thomas. “Seeing Nicola Sturgeon up close and in action… she was whisked in, had two media interviews, from there she sits down and opens this panel then is whisked off to the world leaders’ summit… I have so much respect for her. It was also amazing to have a panel on whisky with four women on it and Nicola Sturgeon remarked on that too which was great. I was very proud we were represented there and I hope the broader impact we can have as a brand is to accelerate progress.”
If you would like to apply for Nc’Nean’s 2022 internship, click here to find out more.