How an Essex girl is taking the Scotch whisky industry by storm with an eco-friendly distillery on the wild west coast
Bottle #1 of Ainnir, the inaugural offering from the boutique Highland distillery Nc’nean, fetched £41,004 when it was put up for auction to raise cash for good causes during the early days of the Covid pandemic – four times the previous highest price paid for a first release. Such was the clamour around the debut spirit that its entire run of 1,320 bottles was snapped up within a few hours of going on sale, even though buyers were restricted to just one each.
The Nc’nean motto is “made by nature not by rules”, and the birth of the business has broken many traditional moulds. For starters, its founder is an English woman – Essex-raised Annabel Thomas, who swapped her career as a strategy consultant in London for a new life concocting spirits on the Drimnin Estate, on the breathtakingly scenic but remote Morvern peninsula.
As well as producing great-tasting drinks, the company has a strong green ethos. Sustainability is at the heart of everything it does, using only organic Scottish barley in its spirits and powering operations with renewable energy. Leftover grain is fed to cows and waste products spread on fields as fertiliser. Almost nothing is thrown away, with 99.97 per cent of waste either reused or recycled.
The distillery uses wood chips from a commercial forest two miles away to power its biomass boiler, which in turn heats the copper stills – all trees felled are replanted. Any residual carbon emissions are offset via a sustainable forest-planting project with a verified carbon standard hallmark. Nc’nean whiskies come in bottles made from 100 per cent recycled clear glass, which reduces their carbon footprint by 40 per cent and reuses raw materials.
Among the founding principles is the belief that thriving ecosystems are key to a healthy planet. Ms Thomas is “resolute” that regenerative organic agriculture is the best way to increase biodiversity, protect water, sequester carbon and improve soil health.
The company, which produces malt whiskies and botanical spirits, was set up in 2017 and produced its first whisky in 2020. And its “quiet rebellion” against ‘the rules’ of Scotch whisky production has seen it scooping prizes and accolades left, right and centre.
The small team has just won the Distillery Sustainability Award at the Spirits Business Awards.
Back in the summer Nc’nean was named a 2022 Best for the World B Corp, in recognition of its exceptional positive impact in its environmental stewardship. Last year it became the first distillery in the UK to achieve net zero status – 20 years ahead of the Scotch whisky industry target.
It has also been named Icons of Whisky Scotland and Icons of Whisky Global Sustainable Distillery of the year 2021 and Green Awards winner in 2020. The drinks have also been bestowed with a raft of gold and silver medals from the drinks industry and.
Ms Thomas has expressed her pride at the Nc’nean team’s achievements, which she says reflect their “deep-rooted commitment to championing the most sustainable production processes”. “We are not afraid to challenge perceptions of the way things should be done in the whisky in,” she said.
“From the moment we started out on this adventure, there have been plenty of people who told us that using renewable energy would be too hard and that organic barley would be impossible to work with. Many even said that using a 100 per cent recycled glass bottle just wasn’t the done thing in premium spirits. I am incredibly proud of our small team, who have put their hearts and souls into overcoming all of these barriers to create a delicious whisky with the lowest possible footprint.”
And she says this is “just the beginning”. She added: “It is my hope that our work will inspire others in our industry. We want more companies to look at their mode of operating and make improvements where they can, as we will also be continuing to do across our business.”
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.