Friday, 25 October 2019

Introducing Nc’Nean Distillery

In my day job I find myself working in a rather traditional, male-dominated industry that is trying to figure out how it can become more sustainable and reduce its carbon draw on the environment. I was intrigued then to be invited to the launch event of a new spirit which was spearheaded by a woman who left her job in the city with a dream of making her mark in a traditional, male-dominated industry and launch a product that would be both sustainable and carbon neutral.

Step forward, Annabel Thomas of Nc’Nean Distillery.


It is at this point that I probably need to explain about the name of the distillery: Nc'Nean. This was truly fascinating to learn about. Annabel was keen to find a name that summed up the figurative spirit that she wanted her literal spirit to exhibit. In doing her research she came upon the Celtic goddess Neachneohain, who was a fierce protector of nature who focussed now on what we would term “sustainability”. What greater exemplar for the new brand, a strong, rebellious Pictish goddess, who defended nature whilst standing up to the patriarchy?! In order to make it somewhat easier to pronounce (and thus market), the team decided to shorten Neachneohain’s name to Nc'Nean. I like it - there’s a kind of symmetry to it - which accords with the sustainability message.

The Nc'Nean team (taken from their website)
The challenges that Annabel faced in getting her distillery of the ground were extreme. In order to get the distillery off the ground she had to raise significant sums of money, but how can you sell this to investors when you can't show them any product? Yes, she had a vision for the distillery - the spirit she wanted to make and the spirit she wanted it to invoke - but she couldn’t offer any of the product to sample and could only rely on the strength of this vision. Annabel told us that in her lobbying she encountered a very traditional (albeit friendly), rather patriarchal industry, but undeterred she set about raising the funds and pulling together an impressive team, including their master distiller, Jim Swan, who worked with them between 2012 and his untimely death in 2017.

Photo taken from the Nc'Nean website of the distillery in its beautiful surroundings


What to do when you have a distillery and are waiting for the whisky to be ready?

The distillery started distilling for real in March 2017. In order to sell scotch whisky it has to be aged for at least three years and as such the first outputs in terms of scotch will hit the market next year. So, what were Annabel and the Nc'Nean team going to do with themselves between 2017 and 2020? After all they had a lot of distiller’s spirit (unaged whisky) made from barley and they thought perhaps they could make something with this. Perhaps some kind of gin? Rightly, the concluded that this was quite a crowded marketplace at the moment. Instead, they infused the distiller's spirit with some locally-foraged botanicals such as the wonderfully-named Bog Myrtle (as well as heather and sorrel) and established their Botanical Spirit (which you can buy on Master of Malt for £24.95/bottle). This is a very nice drink that works very nicely when served with tonic, or simply on the rocks. It exists as neither a gin, nor a whisky, but something half way in-between and is very fine for it.

With this under their belts the team asked themselves how they could develop this product further. They came up with the idea of taking the spirit and ageing it in a number of different barrels to see what effect this had on the spirit. They settled on experimenting with bourbon, vermouth and Mondino (a type of German-aperol apparently) barrels. At our event I attended we were lucky enough to be served the results of this experiment and they were stunning. 

The Vermouth-aged spirit was served with tonic as an aperitif and was garnished with olive, thyme and orange, which made for an excellent way to start the evening.

After this we tried their Bourbon-aged spirit in the style of a Julep served with mint and grapefruit zest. The sweetness of the bourbon cask really came through and was well balanced with the mint freshness to give a delicious drink.

My favourite was the last of the drinks, the Mondino-aged spirit, which had a real Campari-style bitterness to it that I absolutely loved! This was served with grapefruit juice, honey and soda, which gave a lovely balance of bitter and sweet flavours.

These aged botanical spirits could also be drunk neat over ice but are a lot of fun in cocktails. There are all sorts of recipes on their website for you to check out and they are currently selling a set of their aged botanical spirits (200ml each) for £50. This is a limited edition set of 1,000 - so definitely get your hands on this if you can.

Now that I have tried their aged botanical spirits and understand more of the ethos of the Nc'Nean distillery, I am super-excited to try their whisky next year when they start releasing it!
Disclaimer: I was invited as a guest to this launch event.

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