I suppose it’s quite an odd situation to find oneself in, a trio of bloggers on a Zoom with both the founder and brand ambassador for a distillery whose whisky we had not exactly been enthusiastic about recently.
In fact, I jokingly asked if our tasting notes were up on Nc’Nean screens for us to work through line by line. But there was, at least I hope not, no awkwardness in the conversation, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t see our mugshots on dartboards in the background. As it turns out it was one of the more enjoyable Zoom calls I’ve had this pandemic.
So there we were, Adam, Jason and me (together the first time I think since we met up for grower champagnes and hotdogs in the sadly no longer with us Bubbledogs restaurant) to better understand Nc’Nean and be shown the errors of our ways (I jest) in a conversation with founder and CEO Annabel Thomas, and brand ambassador (though as we learned, that term doesn’t quite come close to the role) Matt Hastings.
And why not?
There’s something quite good about brands fighting back. Why should we bloggers get away with mashing keyboards willy-nilly? It’s bad enough given the utter nonsense that gets pushed around Twitter threads or forums, as people create their own curious new realities about whisky or why a company has chosen to do a particular thing.
So I can understand, and respect it, when a company wants to respond – but more on that at the end. That’s what happened with Nc’Nean: Matt reached out to us, supplied us with a range of spirits and whiskies, and we arranged a Zoom, like just about everything else this past year.
(The tl;dr version of this article is: no review, no score, quite a ramble.)
It was as healthy as I hoped it would be too – respectful, honest, varied, in-depth and positive. It is possible to disagree, as reviewers, but to then have an open conversation around what we critics perceive a certain reality to be, and what a brand actually knows to be the reality about their own production and business plans. The challenge with any online discourse is that we become strange animals. And I think the pandemic, having removed any layer of real interaction for over a year, has only made ambient discussions worse.
But this was, I have to say, very pleasant indeed. I must admit that sometimes I suspect when readers online say they applaud ‘honesty’ in reviewing, what they actually mean – deep down, in their hearts – is they like it when bloggers give a kicking to creators and makers. Starting back at the creators on a screen really brought that home: real people who care about what they do.
I suppose one nice added thing to note about the format was that despite being online it was behind closed doors. We weren’t barking out random tasting notes to interrupt people’s timelines. As a result, the conversation just seemed to flow really nicely, despite the inherent awkwardness. There’s a lot to be said for the quality of conversation that comes from private discussions; perhaps it recreates the quiet corner of a pub, makes us reflect better, engage better. Certainly for me, anyway. It didn’t feel as if Nc’Nean were trying to promote something, even though the rules of engagement were specifically about that very thing. They just wanted a chance to explain what they were doing, in a fair way.
Do I sound like I miss real conversations? I do.
The Not A Review
I think it would be fairly pointless to sit here and discuss the Nc’Nean whiskies in the usual manner, so this isn’t a review of the whiskies but of the experience. I’ve already started to reflect on the point of points when it comes to describe sensory and emotional reactions, let alone when you have the distillery team right in front of your face watching your reactions on screen. The spirits and whiskies we tasted were therefore the framework for a conversation, and the basis of this was the STR cask, which I shall get to shortly.
We examined three new make spirits and immediately launched into a discussion about barley – I may have had something to do with that. Nc’Nean is all-organic, and all Scottish. That’s as much as it is a carbon thing as, I suspect, it is as a ‘Scottish’ provenance thing; a light footprint in raw materials transportation and all that. Putting their money where their mouth is: organic barley is more expensive, so Nc’Nean take a hit.
Annabel and Matt began to discuss flavour variance from organic grain, which is where things got interesting; and we briefly got sidetracked by a discussion on biodynamic barley, soil health, flavours uptake into the grain, buried cow horns and so on. Annabel was very much interested in distilling biodynamic barley, except none of it grows in Scotland. They’d have to get it from the south of England, so for that reason it was so far off the table. Sometimes when dealing with people in other sphere’s you sometimes have the “look ’em in the eye” test. Are they sincere, or do their motivations come from elsewhere? I can honestly say the animation from Annabel and Matt, the evangelism (rather than mere passion), the breadth of knowledge – they’re geeks.
But as a business this, in my book, was also good stuff: they care very much about raw materials; once again, they’re showing that they’re a money-where-their-mouth-is kind of operation. They’re not going to do something for the sake of it, unless it fits in with their values, and I started to have a lot of admiration for them.
Anyway, the new make spirit itself. Or rather, the spirits themselves, for we were presented with three different types of spirit, and old recipe, a new recipe and an alternative ‘rum yeast’ recipe. The new recipe which is the one they use now was fresher than the old: a distinctive fruitiness, and a lovely texture. Clearly what goes into barrel matters, whether or not your flavour variance comes from the source of the barley, if you’re using radically different grains, or your yeasts and fermentations, and so on. Matt came to life more here – he was not just an ambassador, but whisky blender, photographer and probably pot-washer-upper if such things were required.
The rum yeast new make spirit was very interesting: and had some massively bright agricole notes – not surprising I suppose, given that’s what rum distilling yeasts are meant to bring out, but very interesting to sample it in a barley-derived sprit. Sugar cane is a more evolved form of grass of course; or rather they’ve more evolved photosynthetic pathways to be a super-efficient ‘C4’ plant (whereas barley is a luddite ‘C3’) so is therefore sweeter. But the yeast had clearly made a difference on barley, and brought out more of those sweeter flavours I would detect in rum spirit. Curious. This will be most interesting to see develop over time – and I hope they continue this theme with some other equally interesting experiments. I know it excites someone like me – a nerd – but a business cannot be build solely catering to nerds (a bubble, within a bubble, within a bubble). Hopefully these experiments will see the light of day.
Onto the whiskies, where we were presented with a few more building blocks, cask strength types at 60% ABV of STR, bourbon and of an earlier rum yeast experiment, which wasn’t yet technically a whisky. One of our criticisms previously had been the late Dr Jim Swan STR (Shaved, Toasted, Re-charred – I mention it in my Cotswolds review) cask influence on the whisky, but that influence of course goes deeper. The operation was still running according to the Dr Swan playbook in terms of cask filling strength of 63.3% ABV – his blueprint for craft distilleries, as he was a famous consultant for many new distilleries.
I can understand why a new venture will have leaned on his expertise: it must be daunting at first, setting out on such a journey, and this revered industry figure had carved a trustworthy niche out for himself in setting up craft distilleries. It makes perfect sense. Yet a point raised in our discussion was: what’s Nc’Nean, and what’s Dr Swan’s fingerprint?
Playing with the yeast strain and fermentation was something Annabel said would have been frowned upon by Dr Swan, but which I can only heartily approve of, as it’s more what they want to do. I’ve reflected a fair bit on this subject of late and perhaps it’s a full post for another time, but I think I would much rather a distillery be itself; to express what the owners or producers want to actually express, rather than follow a reliable formula set by an external figure. Whether or not you like the whisky is irrelevant – tastes are wholly subjective; to individuals, to times of day, what you ate before etc. At least they’d be doing their own thing.
It’s worth adding that the first whisky we tasted was a single malt that eschewed overuse of the STR influence and leaned more on ex-bourbon. Matt had made this to connect some of the dots mentioned above and respond to our comments on the Swan-recommended STR casks.
STR casks are a good way to turbocharge young spirit, or I suppose that was their original intention; but I think for all of the gathered scribes we had the impression STRs stamp too much of their identity on the spirit, and nearly always in a way I am not convinced is the most harmonious. Or rather, a lot of new distilleries following the Dr Jim Swan template (cut points, filling strengths etc) and the Jim Swan casks (STR), leads to this curious little situation where craft distilleries that have followed the same formula have produced whiskies that share similar profiles, at least to my tastes; but whether or not I’m projecting back-of-napkin theory onto flavour perception is another matter entirely.
It was good to mix their whiskies around and ironically I leaned towards what Nc’Nean originally suggested in their ratios – which is to say, on the STR a little more. Why? Despite this going against my clear prejudices against the STR barrel, it gave youthful distillate a little extra something – and colour, too, which I know doesn’t matter to us (actually that’s a lie, I’ll shamelessly buy something that’s lived in a more active barrel) but to many drinkers these days folk expect a bit of colour in their whisky. I have to say I think in a couple of years they’ll have a fine selection of first-fill bourbon matured whiskies to use too. But largely speaking I’d much rather drink their well-made youthful whiskies than knackered old Scotch that’s lived in rubbish wood but which gets celebrated because it’s old and cheap. (See, we can’t help it with the negative lines, can we? What is it about the internet?)
I keep returning to this point: the building blocks for this distillery are very good.
Personally, tinkering hither or thither with ratios isn’t going to really make a radical difference. And for me it’s not even about making radical differences: it’s about being what you are. Or in my post-Adam Curtis documentary binge, perhaps it’s more about expressing individuality. Be different. Upset a few traditionalists – many of whom in my view attach their preferences of what makes good whisky to perhaps the worst era of production (1980s, 1990s).
Did it change our perceptions of Nc’Nean? Yes, I suspect it did in my case. Will I buy a bottle in future? Yes, I most likely will.
A wonderful discussion, a great exchange of ideas, and I think it’s fair to say a connection, certainly on my part. A rather wishy-washy word, that one, but it seems appropriate. At least now I was able to sit down virtually with the people who made it and engage on a more cerebral basis about their offering. I liked what was on offer, and think that Nc’Nean will put out some excellent whiskies and build a robust brand.
Whilst the company is clearly going to continue its effective land-grab of being a properly ‘green distillery’ before some greenwashing takes place from the industry elsewhere (as it has most other industries), the key point is that what they are creating, what they have to play with, is good.
Simply good. The future is bright.
Just One More Thing…
However, one thing niggled me Columbo style after the conversation, and that was this: why care what people think?
In the world of flavour, we’ve already made our judgements on a brand’s whisky long before we drink it. The environment in which we drink will change our perceptions, time of day, ambient lighting, mood – in fact, any number of things will see scores ramp up or down at random, all of which have nothing to do with what you’ve made. You like the bottle, you hate the bottle; you like the people, you hate the people – all of this has influenced us long before we stick our nose in a glass. Our friends like it? We’re all in. And so on.
Trying to get different people to like the same flavours is bit of a fool’s errand: everyone has massively different opinions on what they value in a whisky to begin with, let alone the taste itself; opinions are consciously or unconsciously pre-determined. Not to mention that everyone behaves like an arsehole on the internet anyway.
So why care what people think? Let’s assume you’re getting independent technical analysis on the spirit to iron out any flaws, just carry on doing your own thing. I would say that to anyone in this rough trade. Don’t make another McWhisky that tastes the same as everything else, plough your own furrow. Play with grains, experiment with yeast, go wild with wood. Build your own empire. Show people what you’re doing. Make what you want to make, in the way that you want to make it, in the way that you want it presented.
And if a few people like us, behind keyboards, don’t like what you produce? F*ck ’em.