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.
Thanks to Annabel and Matt for taking the time to speak with us. Very much enjoyed it!
The gals and guys at Nc’Nean are doing great things and I appreciate Matt, after giving their organic whisky a bad review he sent me 3 samples off his own back to try and challenge me. To be fair to him, I tried the Ainnir and only that one so far, it was an awesome dram. I throughly enjoyed it and I’m grateful that Matt (and the rest of the team probably) have such an enthusiastic nature towards their product – as most creators would. So I agreed with the points about Nc’Nean as a team and brand.
However, the organic was not a great whisky (imo) and a lot of other people agreed. The last article on it was honest and not something aimed at having a go at the team or creators. I believe you may be somewhat correct that some people like seeing negative comments against brands because it arouses a sense of anarchy or something like that BUT, and a big but, I don’t believe that anyone reading Malt (or at least anyone who truly knew what Malt was about) would feel Malt was attacking creators. Malt has always been an honest outlet that I have seemed out for integrity and clarity. After this article, I’m unsure what the structure is now and I’m hoping this is just a one off discussion and reviews remain as honest as usual.
Hope this didn’t seem too ranty.
No I didn’t think we were being “dishonest” in our previous review, I think if I had a point it is that, among other things, “honesty” in this world of interpreting flavour, as a word, doesn’t really mean too much. Or rather thinking one is objectively honest loaded with a kind of weird posturing that fails to take into account the nuances of human experience with regards to flavour: am I always in a room that’s the same temperature, have I always washed my glass to the same exact standard, did I have the precise same day/mood before I approached the dram, am I influenced by what others have said, does the packing influence my decision, was the sample – if shared – in a bottle that was cleaned properly? And so on, and so on.
Flavour. It’s a funny thing. No one can agree – one cannot even agree with oneself. Culturally, it’s even worse: different countries have different frames of references for what makes good spirit (personally I think the French whisky fans have a great, wider frame of reference for example).
So trying to please anyone, as a creator, is a bit of a fool’s errand and we reviewers can have a bit of a grand idea of our own opinion anyway. (I hate even using that word, reviewer – even when I was a reviewer for Whisky Magazine back in the day.)
“It’s complicated” is basically what I’m saying, though perhaps not as elegantly as I might like. I used to think for my own writing that the tasting/review was never really the point of an article anyway. It was simply the vehicle to frame some thoughts, an opinion, to try and get people to consider what is in their glass – any glass, any dram – a little differently. (But here I am getting a grand idea of my own thoughts, once again!). That way I never got caught up in navel-gazing reflections of honesty.
As you say, there are a myriad of external factors that can influence how we feel about a whisky but that’s why we experiment with it over time and not just a one off causal fling, well that’s what I try to do and I know you can’t do it with a sample (unless you have a few samples).
It’s obviously not easy for creators to appeal to everyone and some don’t try to. As long as the brand is staying true to their values then that’s ideal for me. However we cannot, as consumers, let brands bully us into thinking something is good by using outlets such as “influencers” or paid for reviews that cloud such judgment. So too, we cannot let brands flog off just any old spirit and expect us to drink it gratefully if it’s not up to standard. Brands can rely on their name and status to do this, I know newer distilleries cannot do this and its generally harder for them to get a foot in the proverbial door but they may rely on certain “ideals” such as sustainability or organic production – which I’m not having a dig at but it does help the product even if it is not entirely up to standard. It can be seen as breaking the mould and all that. Once again though, the product should speak for itself and if its not good then people will speak out and if a lot of people are agreeing a product isn’t great – it generally means it isn’t.
I have always used Malt, amongst other reliable reviewers, as an outlet to determine the true reviews from the paid/kiss ass reviews. As a “reviewer” myself, I can generally whittle it down to who is being truthful and who isn’t.
Cheers for the reply and I’m not sure my points even made any sense there…
It is an interesting point you have. There have always been paid-for reviews, freebies, for decades; there’s more online perhaps, but it’s still the same nature of a commercial industry. Even a brand ambassador being deployed to have a conversation is still a paid-for (salaried) effort to influence our opinions on something, to create a relationship, to “educate” – every time we speak with someone, go on a tour, are we being manipulated to have a good experience? Some bloggers/writers/grammers may have bought a cask from a distillery, undisclosed, before they review that brand’s wares (cask sales = basically becoming an investor); others may know the owners well enough as friends. Some may be looking for a job in the industry one day. How does one police all that? It’s a small world – relationships form all over the place. It’s messy and far, far more subtle than just bunging a free sample in the post. But does it really, ultimately, matter when [insert corporation] literally doesn’t care what people say online when it can shift thousands and thousands of cases by paying for whisky to be on sale in a bar chain, massive stands and promotions in retail chains, advertising? That’s where money makes the real difference, anyhow. Cold hard cash remains the ultimate influencer, for so much in life.
Back in our humble world though, I often think that those keenest to declare their own honesty have the most to hide.
That creative mantra remains: show, don’t tell.
I agree that brand ambassadors have always been a thing however we know their role, we know their intentions but it’s becoming harder to distinguish geniuine admiration from bought out opinions. The online presence of some is not about the love of our beloved drink but rather the influx of freebies and popularity that comes their way.
I don’t think declaring honesty frequently guarantees that you have more to hide. The truth always finds its way out, one way or another. Yes, actions speak louder than words but sometimes declaring honesty and integrity needs to be said as there is so much bull in online presence. Its easy for someone’s honest actions to be clouded by the bombardment of ‘paid for’ and ‘in partnership with’ posts and reviews that saying it sometimes make it a lot clearer. After all, if you say it online then it’s there forever.
Clarity, integrity and honesty is what the readers are after. Well, I feel the Malt readers are anyway.
Continuing the thread here as the comment threads seem limited! “declaring honesty and integrity” – all good things, sure, and I can’t think anyone would ever decline such ideals. For years, when it was me flying solo on Malt, I think, we’ve always stated when samples were sent. No one really minds such declarations. In this particular article there’s literally not even a review of the whisky at all for reasons that ought to be obvious.
And cask owners, or perhaps those who have a big collection of a distillery’s wares ready to sell at auction, writing favourable things, that’s murkier, wouldn’t you say? Or trying to impress our peers? Or that biggest danger of any online personality: the ego.
I’m more interested in how aware someone – even myself – is about their own biases or agendas, tribally or for flavour. “I got a sample” is easy to say. “I’ve spent 10 years drinking only X type of thing and don’t have the frame of references to talk authoritatively about Y” is quite another, much harder thing to admit.
I don’t know. I don’t think there are any right or wrong answers here – we all have bullshit detectors. I reckon it’s easy to read, or see, when someone is being disingenuous, for whatever conscious or unconscious reason.
But it’s less easy to see such things in oneself – and that’s the only thing any of us can really do much about I suppose. Focus improving as individuals: to taste broader, learn more, stay open-minded.