After two years of fundraising, two years of building, and three years of distilling and ageing, 100% organic Scotch whisky distillery Nc’Nean has bottled its very first single malt, a sustainable dram aged in a combination of STR* red wine barrels and ex-bourbon casks and presented in a 100% recycled glass bottle – a first for the UK spirits industry. We caught up with founder Annabel Thomas for a first taste of Nc’nean Organic Single Malt Whisky…

Building a Scotch whisky distillery from the ground up is no mean feat. Designing a zero-waste, synthetic chemical-free distillery, powered by renewable energy, to produce certified organic whisky made exclusively from Scottish barley? Well, that takes a little extra planning, as you might well imagine. Seven years on, Nc’nean Organic Single Malt Whisky is ready to grace our glasses, and we could not be more thrilled for founder Annabel Thomas and the team.

We’re not the only ones getting excited about the Highland distillery’s inaugural release. Nc’Nean set a new world record in August when bottle number one of its first single malt whisky went under the hammer for £41,004 – quadruple the previous record held for a first bottle from a new distillery to be sold at auction. It was one of 10 bottles sold on Whisky Auctioneer, which attracted over 850 bids from 13 countries, raising more than £92,000 for five charities.

Annabel Thomas from Nc’Nean

As Nc’nean Organic Single Malt Whisky hits the shelves, we took five with Thomas to find out more about the much-anticipated release…

Master of Malt: Thanks for chatting with us Annabel, and huge congrats on the release – how did you decide it was ‘ready’?

Annabel Thomas: We were so happy with where it was even six months ago – when we couldn’t have released it as whisky – that there was no last-minute ‘is it ready?’ decision. We’ve been playing around with cask combinations for probably nine months now, and we knew it would only get better. We felt like, ‘You know what? We’re going to have a spirit that’s ready age-wise come the middle of the summer, so let’s just go for it!’.

MoM: How did it feel knowing it was time to debut it to the world?

AT: Well, some of it is wonderful, like picking the casks. Up until recently, we hadn’t gone through the comprehensive, ‘Which actual casks are we going to put in it?’. You pick a few casks, taste them individually, put them together and see what happens. But when it actually comes to the, ‘Is it going to be number 66 or 67?’, that’s an amazing process. Blending has always been the bit I’ve been most excited about, it’s the most magical thing, the melding of flavours. We’re doing relatively small batches at the moment, only 5,000 bottles, so that’s only 13, 14, 15 casks – one cask can really make a difference, and I find that totally fascinating. The bottling process, however, is not nearly so much fun. We don’t have a proper bottling hall at the moment, which means the team are having a real struggle. It’s a bit of a logistical nightmare, but they’re doing an amazing job.

MoM: Could you share some detail about the bottle – it’s a 100% recycled clear glass bottle and potentially a first in Scotch whisky?

AT: The bottle is amazing, we love the bottle. It’s been nearly a year of work. We started working on a bottle last July – which looked nothing like this – and then found an amazing 100% recycled glass bottle in October last year. That took on a life of its own, and we ended up designing the whole thing around this bottle, rather than the other way around. You normally look at all the bottles out there and say, ‘Which one do we want?’. But as soon as we found this 100% recycled one we were like, ‘This is it’. We just feel so lucky to have found it, it was amazing timing and felt very fortuitous, like it was meant to be. 

Nc’Nean Distillery on the west coast of Scotland, doesn’t it look grand?

MoM: What can you tell us about the production of the liquid?

AT: We have multiple spirit recipes that we run in the distillery, but everything we’re releasing this year will be what we call our ‘young’ recipe. There are lots of tiny things in the spirit-making process that we tweak for this young recipe. It starts with the mashing. We let the mash sit for an hour and make sure that we have really pure wort coming off it. We use two different yeasts, Fermentis and Anchor, and ferment for up to 114 hours, which is a relatively long time. We then have a very slow distillation, and very high cut points. All of the tweaks are for either greater flavour or more purity – the idea is that it tastes amazing when it comes off the still, which makes for a great three year old whisky. The cask choice has been very tricky, we have probably spent 18 months testing different cask combinations with friends and family, but also at all of the whisky festivals and events we’ve been to. We also did a send-out to various newsletter subscribers. Most of the casks in our warehouse are either ex-bourbon or ex-red wine STR casks, so we were trying to hone in on the proportions of STR to bourbon. Bourbon casks are lovely; relatively delicate, lots of vanilla flavours, quite sweet, and [they] show more of the spirit,  whereas the STRs are much more impactful and bring spicier, deeper notes to the spirit – so the proportions have a massive impact on what the end spirit tastes like. After much debate, we ended up with 65% STR, 35% bourbon. 

MoM: How would you describe the character of your first release, what are the key flavours?

AT: We’ve picked out three flavour areas – the first we describe as ‘lemon posset’, which is really a combination of citrus and malty almondyness. The second is stone fruit, so peach and apricot and things like that. And the third is spiced rye, caraway-type notes. That last flavour definitely comes from the STR casks. The stone fruit, I think, comes from a combination of the underlying spirit and the bourbon casks. You also get some lovely barley nutty notes from the underlying spirit as well. 

MoM: Were you looking for a specific flavour profile, or was it more of a trial and error process?

AT: A combination of the two! We knew that we wanted a light, fruity, floral spirit, but you can’t really predict that accurately how everything is going to come together. One of the things we were looking for, which influenced the decision of the cask mix, is something that works brilliantly in a whisky soda. And the ‘oomph’, for want of a better word, of the STR casks, really helps in that drink. 

Beautiful liquid in a beautiful bottle

MoM: You released a limited maiden run to investors and fans which sold out within 36 hours. What response have you had from those who have tried it?

AT: Well, so far hardly anyone has tried it. This is the frustration, I think, with first releases. We have had a few people who’ve said it tastes amazing, but to be honest, most people have just been commenting on the packaging so far. In reality, a lot of people have said, ‘I’m waiting for so-and-so’s birthday to try it’. They’re probably not cracking open a £100 bottle of whisky on a Monday night when they receive it from DPD.

MoM: Looking back over the last seven years, what have been the biggest learning curves you’ve faced?

AT: I think people underestimate the complexity of actually getting a product to market – the number of steps you have to go through to get the liquid, the packaging, the licences, the logistics, all of these little bits to work together. It’s actually incredibly complicated. In our more distant past, raising the money and building the distillery was incredibly challenging. But that was three years ago now, it feels like a different lifetime. A new business constantly presents new challenges, so now we’re in a whole new phase again. And of course, we’ve had the additional challenge of Covid. Until February of this year, apart from me, our whole team was based at the distillery, which meant it was a very cohesive organisation. I was up there a lot, everyone was in the same place, it was super easy. Now we’ve got people scattered basically all over the country, though the core team at the distillery are still there. We’re still working on it, figuring out the best way to adapt to that and making sure we’re all working together as efficiently as possible. Right now, we’re figuring out how to get significant volumes of bottles, well, firstly to the distillery and then secondly, away from the distillery, in an efficient supply chain. That’s another challenge that we’ll continue to work on and improve as we go. 

MoM: And with the whisky finally hitting shelves, what’s your focus at the distillery over the next 12 months?

AT: Well, there are some really boring things that we’re going to be focused on, like building a bottling hall and a new warehouse. The actual bottling doesn’t take up much space but the storage you need for empty bottles and full bottles and everything else is massive. As well as bottling our first batch, we’re also continuing our experimentation – we’re running some very exciting yeast trials with a special yeast that was originally a wine yeast which the guys at Heriot-Watt have identified as producing really amazing esters. It’s probably not what the team really wants to be focusing on right now – a complicated yeast trial as well as trying to get 5,000 bottles out the door – but it’s one of those things that happened all at the same time. Next year, we hope to have the first of our yeast trials from 2017 ready for release and tasting, which will be exciting because not only will that be a first for us, but there aren’t many other yeast trials that have been released, so that will be really interesting.

*STR stands for Shaved, Toasted and Re-charred, a cask treatment process pioneered by the late Dr Jim Swan, who worked with Nc’Nean Distillery from the very beginning.

Serving suggestion

Tasting Nc’Nean Organic Single Malt Whisky:

On the nose, the single malt is said to be ‘bright, with lemon oil, nectarine and fudge’. While initially ‘a little grassy at first’, the aroma develops into ‘buttery toast, wine gums and candied pineapple’. On the palate, given tasting notes are ‘creamy and fresh with a rich spice, lemon posset, peach juice, fresh ginger, a little coconut and caraway rye bread’. The finish has a ‘medium length with a lightly resinous texture’. The spice notes carry well, ‘leaving an almost menthol tingle’.

The team at Nc’Nean believe their creation is best enjoyed in a Whisky Six; a highball serve that sees 2 parts whisky (50ml) and 4 parts soda (100ml) combined in a short glass over cubed ice and garnished with a sprig of mint. Eager to sample the liquid for ourselves, last week we attended a virtual tasting co-hosted by founder Annabel Thomas and Dave Broom – you’ll find his thoughts on the dram below.

Colour: “It’s a beautiful, quite full gold,” says Broom. “This is a young whisky, but it’s already picked up a good degree of colour. Lovely legs coming down the inside of the glass – if you think of the inside of the glass as being like the inside of your mouth, the legs will give you an indication of what the whisky’s going to feel like. The legs are moving relatively, slowly so I’m looking for a decent mouthfeel coming through here.”

Nose: “It’s a fascinating whisky, because it really does develop beautifully in the glass,” says Broom. “Initially you get this really fresh, quite grassy character, and there’s a spicy note that seems to run all the way through – a lovely caraway note. There’s green bracken and moss, and then slowly but surely it begins to sweeten up and more of the fruits begin to come through. As well as that light herbal character, there’s some cookie dough, and then we’re moving into soft, gentle orchard fruits and a little bit of vanilla.”

Palate: “Very gentle and incredibly soft, it’s very sweet to start,” says Broom. “Halfway through that spiciness emerges and begins to deepen slightly towards the back, with darker fruits beginning to come through. It’s a beautiful, supple whisky.” Adding a drop of water softens things down, he says, bringing out juicy fruit notes such as peach, apricot, and nectarine. “Underpinning all of that is this fresh barley character,” Broom adds. “It’s not a nutty, malty, flavour – it’s more fresh barley.”

Our allocation of Nc’Nean Organic Single Malt Whisky is now sold out.