The significance of Annabel Thomas’ role as the founder and CEO of Nc’nean whisky is notable for multiple reasons. Like it or not, female founders are still fewer and farther between than their male counterparts. In the spirits industry, even more so, as the alcohol field is so often dominated by men. But perhaps primarily because whisky has always been – and remains to be – a distinctly gendered drink. 'Women couldn’t possibly like whisky' is often the general consensus – and if they don’t like drinking it, then how could they make it?

It’s a question Thomas gets asked a lot, one that is awash with the assumption that her gender dictates her tastes. “I increasingly see how gendered it is as a problem. That 'fact' is lodged deep in people’s minds,” Thomas tells me. “People ask me ‘Do you actually like whisky?’ and I’m like, 'You would never ask a man that.' If a man had spent, at that point, five years of their life building a distillery from scratch, you would assume they loved whisky. And I still get asked it now. So strong is their view that women don’t like whisky, that even if a woman has set up a distillery they can’t get over the fact that she might actually like whisky.”

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It is one of those almost humorous examples of sexism that proves why female experts like Thomas are still so necessary in the industry. Not that anything to do with gender was her driving factor for getting into the industry – it was, in fact, a family pipe dream and a strong dose of gumption that made Nc’nean happen. She was working as a strategy consultant in London in the consumer product and retail sectors for large companies. Her family have a farm on the west coast of Scotland, and had been talking for years about launching a distillery on their land, but never actually doing anything about it. Thomas felt like this needed to change. “I took some time off from my previous job and said to my family, 'Look, why don’t I write the business plan? Because we just keep talking about this distillery and never really doing anything,'” she tells me. “I was like, 'If someone doesn’t do it, we’re just going to keep talking about it.' I’m not one for talking about things, I much prefer action.”

She did her research and wrote up a business plan, but it became abundantly clear that this was a project that would require 100% of someone’s effort – and not a task that could be juggled alongside a full-time job. So, she quit her job and, as she says, “here I am ten years later.” A quick process it was not – the first few years were dedicated to raising money. It took two years to build the distillery, and in 2017 they finally began production.

I was like, if someone doesn’t do it, we’re just going to keep talking about it. I’m not one for talking about things, I much prefer action

While there are many reasons to talk about Nc’nean – from its status as a young distillery and the opportunities that offers, to Thomas herself and the rarity of female founders in this world – one of the biggest talking points is the brand’s commitment to sustainability. Nc’nean operates a net-zero production process, their bottles are made from 100% recycled glass, and the liquid is made from organic barley which has a 42% lower carbon footprint than conventional barley. The distillery is zero-waste, and in January 2022 they were awarded B Corp certification. “When I was London I worked for a little bit at Innocent Drinks,” Thomas tells me. “They have always been very focused on sustainability. I’d come from this big corporate world where it was like either you could make loads of profit as a big corporation, or you could be a charity, and there was sort of nothing in between. Innocent really opened my eyes to this hybrid, or a 'business model with a purpose' as we might now call it.”

At the same time Thomas was visiting big scotch distilleries and found that no one was talking about sustainability. “You could feel the heat that was being generated to power these things,” she says. “I thought, you know, if scotch doesn’t do something then it’s going to lose its younger customers, or never gain them in the first place, and that would be a really sad thing. I also just think you can’t start a business in this day and age and not think about sustainability. I think it’s incumbent on any new business to do their absolute best. So that was the starting principle.”

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That’s not to say anything about setting Nc’nean up in that way was easy. The company has incurred a lot of cost as a result. She uses the way the distillery is powered as an example. They use biomass; wood chips from the neighbouring forest. The biomass boiler was five times more expensive than a normal gas boiler. They buy organic barley which is, on average, 25% more expensive than standard barley. “All of these things are particularly difficult in a business where you put loads of money down up front to build the distillery. And you invest loads of money to lay down the whisky and you can’t sell it for three years,” she says. “So it’s a really long process to being cash-flow positive.”

It does seem that, in the long run, this hard work has paid off – not just for the environment but for the business itself too, proving that you don’t have to sacrifice profit to do good for the natural world around us. “I had lots of discussions with investors in 2013 and 2014 about how you could possibly justify the return on the biomass boiler,” Thomas tells me. “Basically the numbers just didn’t stack up. But if you look at what’s happened to oil prices now, suddenly it looks more positive. And the organic barley – our master distiller actually described organic barley as an "expensive waste of time," but I think it produces this wonderful depth of flavour in the whisky that we weren’t expecting. I feel like it’s kind of karma for doing the right thing.”

Of the 17-person team at Nc’nean, ten are female. It is a company made up largely of young people who take an experimental approach to whisky production – a benefit of the brand’s youth keeping it free from the restrictions of tradition. Nc’nean isn’t just proving that women drink whisky, but that they’re damn good at making it too, and can benefit the environment while doing so. This is a brand breaking boundaries simply by existing – and hopefully bringing the rest of the industry along with it.