Drinks with Annabel Thomas (Whisky Distillery Owner)
Charlotte Street Hotel
What we drank
Annabel: Fever Tree Tonic
I was first introduced to Annabel through my husband after he spoke to her about Ncn’ean’s botanical spirit for an article he was writing. He knew how much I would love everything she is doing for the industry. Annabel is making big changes in the way we perceive Scotch whisky, how we produce it and how we market it.
Let’s start by hearing a bit about you…
I’m Annabel, I run Ncn’ean distillery which is a new whisky distillery out on the west coast of Scotland. We have been producing whisky for two years, but the whole journey so far has been six years for me personally. My background is in strategy consultancy, so I used to basically work in the City in London and I left in 2013 to set up the distillery.
We spent two years raising the money, two years actually building the distillery and then two years producing so far. I still live in London, but spend every third week or so up at the distillery. I live with my husband and my daughter and yeah, I think that’s me.
So how long have you been in the drinks industry, is it just the past six years?
I did work for some drinks industry clients in my old life, but it was the really big companies and it is nothing like what is actually required to start your own thing from scratch. But I learnt lots of good skills.
What was it that made you say ‘I want to set up a distillery’?
Sometimes my answer is madness, but what really got me into it…
We had this kind of family idea knocking about like you do, we had this beautiful farm on the west coast of Scotland that was a bit derelict that we thought we could put it in. But that was a bit pie-in-the-sky. What really convinced me that we should do it is I went to Islay, kind of because I wanted to go and sort of because I had this idea in my mind. I did four distillery tours there and what I realised was a lot of them were saying exactly the same thing. They were all telling a very traditional story which there’s absolutely a place for, but there’s also a place for someone to approach whisky in a bit of a new way.
The things I felt could do with re-looking at were the sustainability side of things (not that many people in the whisky world are looking at sustainability properly and when they do it seems to be a bit sort of surface deep) and then the other is more about the way you drink it and the way it’s talked about. A lot of whisky companies are trying to encourage people to drink it mixed, but it’s still very mixed messaging. We have people visit our distillery who have just visited four other distilleries and at all those other distilleries they’ve been told don’t add anything to the whisky. Which is fine, some people might like to drink it neat, but others might not. I get loads of people telling me ‘I like Irish and American whisky but I don’t like Scotch’. It turns out it’s because they don’t like drinking neat alcohol and they think the only way they can drink Scotch whisky is neat.
That’s one of the things I’d really like to change.
What does you day to day envolve?
One of the best and worst things about my job is it entails everything. So I run the company with the help of a team of five at the distillery who make the spirit, an office manager, and a visitor manager. My job is partly to oversee what happens there, help fix any issues that come up on the operational side, help my visitor manage decided how she’s going to market the tours for that year, help make decisions about things we need to buy. Then I have the bits that I kind of do more on my own which is mostly new product development, so there’s an aged botanical spirit that we’re working on. Most of the sales and marketing stuff I do or I manage through third parties. Then there’s all the behind the scenes bits like finance and HR. We’re looking at our long term plans and forecasts at the moment, so I’m putting a business plan together for that.
What’s your favourite part of working in the drinks industry?
My most favourite part is actually the people who are in it. They are amazing. In particular two lots of people. First, the whisky industry in Scotland is unbelievably friendly. I have never seen anything like it. Then there’s the London booze crowd which is really friendly as well.
Then I have to ask, what’s your least favourite part?
Easy. All of the HMRC regulations. It’s horrendous. To get anything changed on any licence it’s 45 working days. That’s two months. As a young business you want to be able to move quickly on stuff, so if we want to get our product bottled anywhere but the one place we currently bottle it, it’s a two month lead time.
I have one feminist question, do you think being a woman has affected your career?
It’s a pretty hard question to answer because I don’t know what it would have been like if I was a man. There’s defiantly some advantages in that you stick out like a sore thumb. Especially in Whisky. I don’t feel massively aware of disadvantages, but I also think they might not be that noticeable necessarily. Maybe they’re there and I’m just not that conscious of them?
What trends have you be seeing?
In a very small section of Scotch whisky there’s some exciting things going on. Two of the things we’re doing and we’re seeing other people doing is more stuff with new make (unaged whisky). There’s also a few of us playing around with different yeasts, which is really cool. Whisky making is essentially beer brewing to begin with and yeast is a really important part of that process.
What’s been the biggest challenge in setting up the distillery?
The fund-raising process, because it can be quite soul-destroying. You never know until you’ve actually done it whether you’ll be able to achieve it or not. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack but you may never find the needle.
A lot of our ethos is around sustainability and we’ve nailed the two big ones for our industry. The agricultural side, we make our whisky from barley so all of our barley is organic and we only use renewable energy. A distillery takes up loads of energy because you’re trying to boil the stills. But what I hadn’t anticipated was all the secondary things being so hard to fix. One of the things we’re trying to work on at the moment is a more sustainable bottle supplier. It is really difficult.
Cleaning products at the distillery aren’t very environmentally friendly at the moment and there aren’t many alternatives. You think you’ve nailed the big stuff so you can nail the small stuff, but discover you’re a very small fish in a very big pond.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to someone wanting to open their own whisky distillery?
Can I give two?
One is cash. Starting a whisky distillery is a very expensive business. Generally, you’ll need a massive capital investment upfront and then at least 5 years probably of not making any profit.
And the second is be really clear on what it is you’re trying to do. That goes for any business out there.
How can we support you and Ncn’ean?
Talk about us and follow us on social media!
Facebook: Ncn’ean Distillery
Last question…What’s your favourite drink at the moment?
My all time favourite is a whisky and soda. It’s simple it’s super refreshing, you can drink it anytime of day. You can still see what the whisky is adding to it.
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