Annabel Thomas: Forging one’s own Path by being Uninhibited by Tradition

Annabel Thomas
Annabel Thomas | CEO and Founder | Nc'nean Distillery

Great leaders don’t yield to the degrading impotence of giving in to the opinions and prejudices of the people. They forge their own path by going beyond traditional norms. Great leaders destroy the prejudices of people and change their wrong perceptions. That makes them admirable. Annabel Thomas is one such admirable leader who started Nc’nean Distillery to change the way the world thinks about whisky from Scotland. She is the CEO and Founder of Nc’nean Distillery. Her mission was to create a whisky that would exist in harmony with this planet we call home.

The inspiration for Nc’nean Distillery’s name is from Neachneohaoin who was an ancient Gaelic Goddess. She was known as the Queen of Spirits and a fierce protector of nature. She was strong and independent; she was never afraid to walk her own path. Annabel tries to follow her ethos in everything she does at Nc’nean Distillery.

After leaving her job in London in 2013, Annabel spent four years raising funds and building the Nc’nean Distillery from the ground up on the west coast of Scotland. Nc’nean Distillery has been distilling since 2017 and it has just launched its first-ever whisky. Sustainability runs in Nc’nean Distillery’s veins. Nc’nean Distillery believes in responsible and sustainable production.

In an interview with CIO Look, Annabel Thomas shares her journey and her contribution through Nc’nean Distillery.

Below are the highlights of the interview between Annabel Thomas and CIO Look:

What were the challenges you came across prior to launching the organization in 2017?

2017 was our first year of distilling, but before that we had two years of fundraising and two years of building the distillery from the ground up. These were definitely the most challenging years so far! Fundraising was tough because we need to raise £7.5million from a piece of paper and building was equally hard because we had this complex build project (old buildings, high tech equipment) in a very remote location.

Being an experienced business leader, what is your opinion regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Food & Beverages Industry? And how has Nc’nean managed to overcome this significant challenge?

I think it is hard to generalize as the impact has been very varied depending on your type of business – from catastrophic in hospitality, to transformative if you sell in supermarkets. We have been pretty lucky, and whilst many of our original plans were thrown up in the air, by being adaptable, focusing on digital and routes to market that continued to operate, we’ve had a hugely successful ‘first year of whisky’ launch.

What is your thought on the necessity of a positive work culture? In what ways do you implement it at your organization?

I think it’s absolutely essential, I really want my team to be happy at work. Without that, why would you come to work? There are lots of different elements to this I think – it ranges from having fun on a day-to-day basis to making sure everyone feels supported in what they are doing, to trying to get as much socializing and fun in as we can (not something we’ve achieved much in Covid, it must be said).

What Truth does everyone need to know about organic barley, experimenting with different yeasts and longer mashing times?

Organic barley is part of our sustainability strategy. Creating a distillery (and a whisky) that was really pioneering in its approach to sustainability has always been at the core of my mission, and we aim to not only hold ourselves to the highest standards but lead the industry at the same time. As for experimentation, it’s in our DNA and it is fun! There is not enough attention paid to yeast in whisky distilling, and exploring these flavors continues to be one of my favorite periods of the year.

In what ways have you or Nc’nean contributed to the community? If given a chance, what change would you bring in a sustainable and imaginative approach to distilling? 

We aim to support our very local community as much as possible, by providing investment and jobs and supporting local charities where we can (we raised nearly £20k for the local community trust through auctioning our first 10 bottles in 2020).

What would be your advice for aspiring and emerging women entrepreneurs in the Food & Beverages Industry? Have you in any ways contributed towards the cause of women’s empowerment? 

I think my advice would be go for it! But go for it having done your research and with your eyes open – entrepreneurship in any industry is not for the faint-hearted and you need to be both clear in your mission and with a lot of perseverance to succeed and enjoy it! At Nc’nean we have run an internship for women to understand more about the distilling industry (which is perceived to be very male-dominated). Whilst we were unable to run it in 2020, or likely in 2021, it is something I would like to continue when the world can operate a little more freely again!

What is your vision for the company for the next five years?

Well really, we are only just beginning as our single malt launched just last year. Over the next five years, I’d like to see the number of people who have tried and love Nc’nean continue to grow, for more people’s eyes to be opened to Scotch whisky and for the industry as a whole to undergo a sustainable transformation.