If you want to know what the future holds for Scotch whisky, look no further than Highlands distiller Nc’nean. We sat down with Annabel Thomas to chat about her latest creation – a trio of cocktail-inspired aged botanical spirits – and unearth the story behind Scotland’s first 100% organic distillery…
“My mission when we founded Nc’nean* was twofold,” Thomas says, addressing the room at the distillery’s Aged Botanical Spirits launch. “One was around sustainability: to create a Scotch distillery that pioneered the very highest environmental standards to show what could be done in that area. The second was to bring some fresh thinking to the Scotch whisky industry, both in terms of the products we create and also the way we communicate and behave.”
The distillery was established in 2013 on the Morvern peninsula, after a life-changing trip to Islay prompted Thomas to take action. “There are lots of distilleries in a small space so it’s easy to do a quick recce,” she explains, “after a few tours, a theme emerged: we’re doing things the traditional way – the way they’ve always been done. I have no problem with that, tradition is the rock upon which Scotch as an industry has been built, but we also have to move with the times.”
Building a distillery from the ground up meant the entire site could be engineered for sustainable production, from the biomass boilers that generate renewable energy to the waste products that feed local cows and fertilise the nearby land. That’s not to say it’s been a walk in the park. Far from it. “Getting a 40-ft by 60ft biomass boiler – that’s like two shipping containers stacked on top of each other – down a narrow single track road with bridges that go around corners, taking it off the lorry, and getting it into a barn, was one of the challenges,” she says.
Then there was the small matter of buying, processing and distilling organic barley. “We were told horror stories when we were thinking about doing it – that it would be hard to find or impossible to work with and give us terribly low yields, but it’s been absolutely fine,” Thomas says. “There are 10 organic malting barley farmers in Scotland and all of their harvest is collected together and malted for us by Muntons. They send us five tonnes a week.”
In 2018, Nc’nean released its inaugural Botanical Spirit, which sees its light, fruity new make redistilled with 10 botanicals, including juniper, coriander, sorrel, heather, and bog myrtle. The three new aged iterations that recently followed – which sees the liquid matured in bourbon, vermouth and Mondino casks – came about quite by chance.
“I was chatting to a bartender in London about our Botanical Spirit, and he asked me if I’d ever thought about ageing it,” Thomas explains. “And the answer was no. Despite the fact we’ve got over 1,000 casks of whisky maturing in the warehouse, it hadn’t actually occurred to us. We had a little bit left over from the last batch that hadn’t yet been bottled, so we took one of the bourbon casks that we normally mature our whisky in, filled it with Botanical Spirit, and left it for four months to see what would happen.”
The resulting liquid was so delicious, they decided to experiment further using different casks. “That was where the cocktail link came in,” she continues, “we were trying to decide what barrels to start with and the cocktails that we like drinking the Botanical Spirit in seemed like a good place to start. Mondino, a German organic bitter liqueur, is a favourite pairing of ours, and they happen to do an aged variety so they had some casks. The Botanical Spirit also makes an amazing Martini, so we got a vermouth barrel. Each barrel brings out different aspects of the spirit, it’s quite fascinating to see.”
You’d forgive the team for resting on their laurels, but these products mark the beginning of what promises to be an exciting chapter for Nc’nean and also Scotch whisky. “We’ll have our first whisky out in June, so we are working very hard on that: designing the bottle, creating the recipe, all those things,” Thomas says. “It’s very exciting after what will have been seven years of work. We have some other ideas up our sleeves too, other products based on our new make. But they’re not very far progressed at the moment – just a twinkle in the eye.”
*A little note – Nc’nean is the correct spelling, it was previously ‘Ncn’ean’ but apparently everyone found it too hard to pronounce, so the apostrophe has moved. If that’s still no help to you, it’s pronounced something like ‘nuck-nee-an.’