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How To Start Your Own Whisky Distillery In Five Steps

Annabel Thomas, Nc’nean Founder. Credit: Nc’nean

Starting a whisky distillery in Scotland is a dream for many whisky lovers, but it is much easier said than done. I have personal experience of this.

In 2013 I left my corporate job and established Nc’nean Distillery in the west of Scotland. Today, Nc’nean Distillery has a well-established global fanbase for our organic scotch whiskies and botanical spirits.

When I reflect on what it took to get Nc’nean up and running as a functioning distillery, five key stages stand out. 

While no two distillery stories are the same, if you are planning to embark on your own journey, you can be sure to encounter plenty of challenges alongside the joy of eventually creating an award-winning product.

So, let’s break down the five stages that I went through when establishing Nc’nean Distillery. 

Step 1: Purpose and research

Over ten years ago, I was working as a strategy consultant at Bain in central London. I loved my time there, but I aspired to explore life outside of the corporate world. 

In parallel, my family had a dinner table dream of starting a whisky distillery on our family’s farm right up on the remote west coast of Scotland. When I took some unpaid leave from Bain, I started to put pen to paper on a business plan.

I began my research, some of it highly technical, and some of it more fun. A key part of this was a trip to the iconic whisky island of Islay, which resulted in two things:

  1. I tried some whisky I actually liked!
  2. I realised that no one was thinking about sustainability in whisky, or in fact, any change at all. They were ‘doing things the way they’d always been done’.


Now, there is obviously an important place for tradition in whisky. However, I was very interested in exploring other ways of making whisky, and contributing to the innovation and sustainability of the industry. 

So, I built my business plan around creating a delicious, modern spirit – with sustainable production at the heart of everything we do. 

The outcome was that we’d need to raise a lot of money to build the distillery from scratch and then fund laying down our stocks for three and more years. I had to go back to Bain for a while but by mid-2013, I jumped into building the distillery full time.

Step 2: Raise the funds

Then followed two years of fundraising – hard graft and a lot of dead ends. Raising millions of pounds off a piece of paper is tough – you can’t create a ‘prototype’ whisky without a distillery, not to mention a time machine. 

By mid-2015 we had finally raised the money we thought we needed to build Nc’nean Distillery.

Step 3: Build the distillery

Annabel Thomas founded Nc’nean with a sustainable vision. Credit: Nc’nean

So, we set about building Nc’nean Distillery – and you may be wondering how do you actually build a sustainable distillery, what does that mean? 

First, flavour. I defined what I wanted the whisky to taste like – light, fruity, and rounded. Think peaches and cream, balanced with some citrus and spice. And so we set about finding someone who could help us create this, and luckily we found Dr Jim Swan. A man with more than 50 years of experience in whisky, and an expert in creating delicious young whiskies. 

Jim helped us design the equipment, source the barley, yeast and casks and defined our ‘recipe’. But what about the sustainability side? I wanted to make sure the key areas were covered up front, knowing they would be hard (and expensive) to change later down the line:

  1. Energy: We run Nc’nean distillery on 100% renewable energy – a biomass boiler fuelled from an on-site commercial forest (all the trees are replanted) and small amounts of renewable electricity. Installing the biomass boiler was tough – it involved lifting and moving nearly 30 tonnes of biomass boiler plant along the 22 miles of single-track road on one of Scotland’s most remote peninsulas with a ferry crossing thrown in there too.
  2. Raw materials: From the beginning we have bought 100% organic, Scottish barley. We are the only distillery in Scotland to run on 100% organic barley. 
  3. Water: We dug a very simple cooling pond to supply 90% of the water we needed – this avoided us needing an energy and chemical-intensive water cooling tower. 
  4. Waste: We take a traditional approach here and feed our leftover grains to the cows on the farm.


Step 4: Start making whisky

Finally, in 2017 Nc’nean started production and suddenly it went from a team of one (me) to a team of six. 

We had a tough start – not only were we beset by the typical manufacturing teething problems, but we were also devastated by the sudden and unexpected death of Dr Jim Swan, just a few weeks before we started production.

Whilst I could feel grateful that we’d benefitted from his expertise, he left a huge hole in our team. But I was lucky to have recruited a fantastic team. We pulled together, did a lot of problem solving, and started producing our delicious light and fruity new make spirit. 

Step 5: Launch the whisky

Nc’nean Organic Single Malt Scotch Whisky is gaining fans across the world. Credit: Nc’nean

When early 2020 rolled around I was pretty excited – I had been working on the project for seven years. 

We’d found an incredible 100% recycled glass bottle to bottle our whisky in. We recruited our first marketing team member and between us we wrote a great spirits launch plan – get into bars, go to  events and generally get people tasting it, but we all know what happened in March of 2020. 

So, that plan was ripped up and we quickly pivoted to a digitally focused business. We decided to auction the first ten bottles for charity – and we were, shall we say, rather surprised that the first bottle went for £41,000!

A few years later and Nc’nean whisky has been recognised internationally – with a double gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, 95 points at IWSC. We are a certified B Corp, our flagship whisky is now available in 18 countries including the USA and Canada, and our team continues to grow.

If you are going to have a crack at it for yourself, good luck!

Buy Nc’nean Organic Scotch Whisky

Nc’nean’s flagship expression is available in specialty retailers across the United States including various Binny’s, Spec’s, and Total Wine stores, as well as available for online shipping via Reserve Bar.

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Annabel Thomas

Annabel Thomas is the founder and CEO of Nc'nean Distillery and produces world-renowned organic single malt scotch whisky. Annabel caught the whisky bug whilst living and working in London, and decided to pursue a career in whisky thereafter. She is passionate about environmentalism and sustainability in the industry.

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