'Would you ask me that if I was a man?' Meet the woman behind Nc'nean, UK's first net zero whisky distillery

11 June 2024, 10:15 | Updated: 11 June 2024, 18:22

Annabel Thomas left her job as a strategy consultant in London more than a decade ago to pursue her ambition to change the way the world thought about whisky.

With women and sustainability at the forefront of her mind, she has gone on to create the UK's first net zero whiskey distillery - and has hired a female-led team to do it.

It took four years of hard graft, fundraising and actually building to create the Nc'nean distillery in the Highlands, and then another three years to produce its first bottle.

She was first inspired by her parent's farm and dreamed of turning one of its old buildings into a distillery.

After touring lots of distilleries, she realised the industry was still very traditional and no one was talking about sustainability.

"No one seemed to be thinking very creatively about the spirit," Annabel, 41, tells the Money team.

"I just thought that there was a need for that and consumers were going to increasingly demand sustainable products, which they now are. Though, at the time, everyone thought I was mad."

'I didn't have a time machine' - the long process to get started

After deciding to take the plunge, the mother-of-two says it was a "long, slow process" to get the business off the ground, especially juggling the financial needs of her family and childcare.

In fact, she initially took a sabbatical from her job to get started and then went back and started working on Nc'nean at the weekend to make sure she was drawing a wage from somewhere.

Eventually, her business became a full-time job and she managed to launch a seed funding round to really get things going.

"The thing about a distillery that is different to many other projects is that you have to raise an enormous amount of money upfront," she says.

"You can't make something in your kitchen and try to sell it. We spent £5m building a distillery before we produced a drop of liquid - so it's quite a different profile to many other startups," she added.

Getting the funding was "pretty tough", she says, explaining it's hard to raise money when you don't have a product to show for it.

"You can't even say this is what the whisky's going to taste like, because I didn't have a time machine."

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'You would never ask me that if I was a man'

It took Annabel two years to raise the funds she needed, and she wonders if it would have taken as long if she were a man.

"Maybe it would have only taken me a year if I was a man, but you never know," she says.

Initially, she says, she didn't think about the challenges she might have to overcome in such a male-dominated field, but it quickly became obvious.

"It didn't really occur to me until people kept asking, me, basically every single day, if I actually liked whisky," she explains.

"I thought, 'You would never ask me about that if I was a man - just because I'm a woman, you assume I don't like it.'"

Making it sustainable

Sustainability was one of Annabel's key drivers when she embarked on her entrepreneurial journey and her distillery is powered solely by renewable energy.

She was the first to create a distillery that has been verified as having net zero carbon emissions from its own operations, and also the first to use a 100% recycled clear glass bottle.

"It doesn't sound like a big deal," she says modestly. "But actually 100% recycled glass saves 40% of the carbon emissions versus what within the industry would be called fake glass, which is largely like new materials."

When you look at a Nc'nean bottle, it has a kind of green tinge and a few bubbles in it.

The "big guys" would consider them imperfect, Annabel says, but she has decided to "embrace the imperfections".

"If it saves 40% of the carbon emissions, then we think that's the right thing to do," she says.

Nc'nean also replants everything it harvests, only uses 100% organic Scottish barley (the main ingredient in whisky) and feeds the leftover grain to the cows that live on the farm.

The challenges

Away from the struggles with fundraising, Annabel says childcare is one of the biggest challenges she has had to overcome.

With her setting up the company and her husband a lawyer, she says full-time childcare was the only option, but it was far too expensive.

"I don't think as a country we have the right support system," she says. "It's not economic for me to work. If I was running the country, things would look very different."

The issue also means getting the work-life balance can be hard, and she always feels like she's "not spending enough time with the family, and too much time on work".

"I think at least I have some control over my own diary now, which is really helpful," she adds.

Annabel's advice

Use your differences to your advantage - that's Annabel's top tip.

She urges women not to be "put off" by jumping into a male-dominated field, saying the key is to create something different.

Being a woman in such an industry was actually an "advantage", she says.

"You will find that you think differently to everyone else and that can only be a good thing for creating something different, which is ultimately important because you need to find your niche."

Within the whisky world, work is already ongoing to encourage women to join and she hopes that's the same in other industries as well.

Practically, she says, seeking out support groups is "definitely worth it" and surrounding yourself with people who know more than you do is helpful.

"None of our distillers have ever worked in whisky before and I like that because it brings a different perspective," she says.