Distillery Focus

Queen of Spirits

Visiting the new Ncn’ean Distillery on the Morvern Peninsula
By Christopher Coates
The Drimmin Estate
The Drimmin Estate
Something very interesting has happened on the rural Morvern Peninsula. To the west of Lochaline and almost opposite Tobermory across the Sound of Mull, an unusual distillery has been born. Ncn’ean Distillery (pronounced Nook-nee-anne) began mashing in March 2017, but has thus far maintained a low profile despite opening its doors to the public.

This quiet emergence could be something to do with its location, which is rather rural to say the least. Although only a few miles from Ardnamurchan Distillery (which is located on the adjacent peninsula) as the crow files, the two are separated by a drive of about two hours and the nearest large settlement is Fort William, which is about two hours away by car.

“You don’t have to take the Corran Ferry to get to us, but it’s much quicker if you do,” explains Annabel Thomas, Ncn’ean’s founder and CEO. “It’s so isolated and so few people have heard of Morvern that it does feel a little like you’re coming to a secret island!” Of course, building anything in such a place would throw up some challenges, access being the obvious one, but for Annabel it made complete sense to found the distillery on the Drimnin Estate. “It’s my family’s farm,” she explains. “I love the place, it’s where I got married.”

Annabel’s family have owned the Drimnin Estate for 15 years and during that time have worked to restore Drimnin House and its nearby chapel. “The opportunity to create something in Drimnin, which is a really beautiful, amazing, and wild place is so important to me. Distilling is one of the only businesses that you can do in a sustainable and integrated way somewhere so remote and creating jobs in the area was a really important part of my motivation to make this happen.”

To make this vision a reality, funding was secured by way of £600,000 in grants and equity from 45 private investors.

Annabel’s family has a ‘reasonable’, although not a majority, stake in the company and the distillery company is run separately from the estate. In 2013, when it became apparent that the project was viable, Annabel quit her job with a London-based management consulting firm and began working on founding the distillery full time.

Not content to name the distillery after the estate, Annabel and her investors sought to create an identity that gave insight into the ethos of the business. “This character Neachneohain exists in Gaelic legend. Her story has a nice combination of walking her own path and doing things a bit differently, while also being a protector of nature.” To make things even better, on account of her link to the Samhain festival, this witch-goddess was known as the ‘Queen of the Spirits’.

After a little abbreviation for the consumer’s sake, this moniker proved to be a perfect fit for a company that would hold the principles of sustainable distilling sacrosanct.

Earlier in her career, Annabel worked for the Innocent Drinks smoothie company and she credits their commitment to ethical business practices as having demonstrated to her first hand that a company could be both sustainable and successful. The fingerprints of this approach can be seen in Ncn’ean’s business model, which centres on responsible, organic distilling. To this end, the distillery is powered by a Kohlbach biomass boiler that is fuelled with wood chip sourced from the surrounding estate and all of the malted barley used on site is both organic and Scottish. The company is also planning for future packaging to be sustainably sourced and recyclable, while the whisky making by-products are being used to feed cattle on the Drimnin farm.

“As soon as we realised it was possible to use organic barley we knew it was absolutely the right answer for the business,” Annabel says. “When you go to organic farms, it’s amazing the difference that you see in the landscape and biodiversity you see around the fields. I think it’s just as important that we are supporting the environment where our main ingredient is grown as it is that we’re supporting the environment where the distillery is. Just because it’s not local to you doesn’t mean you can turn a blind eye.”

Of course, committing to such high ethical standards doesn’t come without its challenges. The very nature of organic barley means that costs are higher and yields are lower, while biomass boilers are notoriously ‘fickle’ and must be well managed to ensure a good balance is maintained between fuel efficiency and energy-on-demand. The boiler can take three hours to go from cold to top operation so careful forward planning is required to ensure the energy is there when needed. It might not be easy, but for Annabel this is just the first step on an ongoing journey for the distillery in its pursuit of the ultimate green credentials.

“You’ve got to constantly improve on everything you’re doing, whether that’s reducing road miles, energy use, or packaging. For example, a potential option for us in the future is bringing our supplies in by sea.”

So that’s the philosophy, but what about the nitty gritty of distillation on site? At the helm of the operation is Gordon Wood. Originally trained as a coppersmith, Gordon’s career has spanned all areas of production and most recently he was the manager at Oban Distillery for 12 years. With a planned production level of 100,000lpa per annum, Ncn’ean Distillery is about as far away as you get in terms of scale from one of Gordon’s earlier postings – the now-demolished Port Dundas grain distillery in Glasgow.

Although it looks quaint, traditional distilling isn’t Ncn’ean’s modus operandi. Instead, experimentation is the order of the day and its principal production schedule includes two different spirit styles that were developed by the late Dr. Jim Swan. The first recipe yields a more traditional spirit that is intended for long-term maturation of more than 10 years and is produced by mashing for cloudy wort, using a single type of yeast, and relatively low cut points. The other recipe is intended for shorter maturation of up to 10 years and is produced by mashing for clear wort, using a combination of two yeast varieties, and relatively higher cut points. By forging ahead with regular production of these two recipes, Ncn’ean is able to build up a varied stock portfolio.

As if two spirt styles, a non-standard boiler, and an unruly wood chipper to manage wasn’t keeping Gordon and his assistants Lorna and Reay busy enough, a number of experimental batches have also been distilled that use different combinations of more exotic yeasts – including some usually used in the production of Chardonnay and Champagne. The impact on resultant spirit character is quite staggering and suggests that we can expect some intriguing special releases in the future.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the country, this distillery with values of organic and eco-friendly production at the heart of it has established itself as one of Scotland’s most innovative single malt producers. Rather fittingly, it all seems to have happened without anyone noticing.

Getting Technical

Malt: All organic barley from 10 different farms.
Water source: Local spring.
Mashing: 1-tone mash, with both clear and cloudy warts produced depending on the recipe.
Fermentation: Four washbacks charged with 5000 litres of wort and fermented for 65-70 hours minimum. Experimentation with a variety of yeasts, with wort clarity and yeast varied depending on the desired spirit profile.
Distillation: One pair of lantern-shaped stills by Speyside Copperworks. Wash still charge of 5000 litres yielding roughly 1600 litres of low wines. Spirit still charged with 3000 litres yielding roughly 450 litres of spirit at 72.9% ABV. Cut points are varied depending on the desired spirit ‘recipe’. Five day operation. Balanced system.
Capacity: Around 100,000lpa per annum.
The still house
The still house
The Ncn'ean Distillery still house
The Ncn'ean Distillery still house
The distillery's stainless steal washbacks
The distillery's stainless steal washbacks
The distillery team
The distillery team