So we pick up the story the morning after my drive from The Lakes Distillery back to York last Monday. I knew I had a big day and drive the following morning so I hit the hay early.
I got up the next day, got our 7-year-old daughter ready for school, took her in the car and set off on the long road to South Wales. More specifically I was heading for the Brecon Beacons National Park and Penderyn Distillery that lies on the Northern edge of it.
Now I realise Penderyn is not a new distillery in the truest sense of the word but, relatively speaking and compared to most Scottish distilleries, it is still a bouncing baby. Most of you will have tried Penderyn at some point and it is often – unfairly or not – spoken about in terms of a curiosity. After all, who has heard of Welsh whisky?
(A quick and abbreviated Welsh whisky history, as much for me as for you)
Well, believe it or not, the Welsh have been distilling whisky (or chwisgi) since the Middle Ages and perhaps earlier. There are records of distillation stretching back to AD356 but most sources seem to suggest that up until the early 1700s, anything distilled in Wales was likely from mead and using herbs and botanicals. In fact it would appear that most attempted revivals of Welsh whisky saw individuals trying to reproduce this ‘traditional’ style much to the annoyance of the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association). When once of these ‘entrepreneurs’ started blending Scotch whisky with herbs et all and called it Welsh whisky, that was the straw that broke the proverbial. Welsh whisky was sunk. Or was it…
(End of history)
Fast forward to the year 2000 and the formation of the Welsh Whisky Company and the establishment of the Penderyn Distillery. The aim was simple – to revive and re-establish Welsh whisky in a whisky-crazy world. Under the auspices of whisky-making uber-maestro, Dr. Jim Swan, the company decided on a slightly less than traditional (perhaps in honour of its forebears) method of production. Rather than make the wash themselves, it was decided to cut that complication out altogether and commission it from the nearby ‘Brain’s’ Brewery. I mean, why not? Most distilleries in Scotland would have started life as breweries after all.
They then turned their attention to the stills. How could they produce good, clean spirit with less kerfuffle and fuss than the traditional pair of copper pot stills? Enter stage right, the ‘Faraday’ still – originally designed for one of the less than kosher 1990s Welsh ‘whisky-makers’ by Dr. David Faraday, Great Grandson of Michael. This is basically a copper pot still loaded with two column stills, with the pot taking care of the first distillation and the columns then purifying and concentrating the spirit up to circa 91% ABV. It sounds like a short cut, but the reality is that on its own, this one still only produced the equivalent of one cask of new make per day.
To think that this now Global brand was established using this quite lonesome and unique still is quite incredible.
I was taken round the distillery by MD of Penderyn, Stephen Davies. What became apparent – aside from the warmth I felt from Stephen and the rest of the team – is that there is an immense amount of pride invested in Penderyn. It is staunchly Welsh, but in a modern and unashamedly un-twee way. They seem able to celebrate their national pride without resorting to the usual ‘racial’ stereotyping that so many whisky brands have embraced at some point. There was also a feeling of honesty and openness, as well as cheeky defiance, in the face of the daunting task of fighting the tide of Scotch whisky that is ever-present.
At Penderyn the current ‘standard’ bottling is aged first in ex-Bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace, then ‘finished’ in Madeira ‘drums’. Penderyn have and do use other cask types – just check out these ‘ex-Laphroaig’ Quarter Casks being used to help create the Penderyn ‘Peated’ expression; not the first or last distillery to use this technique to ‘smoke’ their whisky, but one of the most significant impacts on the spirit, I think.
Perhaps the most exciting development (aside from the swish visitors centre opened in 2008) has happened back in the distillery itself. Last June a second Faraday still was installed, but this time by Forsyth’s (rather than McMillan’s who made the original). But it is what else Forsyth’s installed just a couple of metres from the Faraday twins that excited me the most…
A pair of good-sized, traditional copper pot stills as well as – what would be seen as normal in a Scottish distillery – a full set of wash backs and a mash tun! Has Penderyn, after nearly 15 years of brave experimentation, come of age and seen the light? If that was the case, why invest in a second Faraday still? My understanding is that the two sets of stills will be used for distinctly different products but Stephen is adamant that the Faraday stills will always be used for Penderyn whisky as this is part of what creates the distillery character. Whatever the plan, these are exciting times for the distillery and Penderyn fans.
My only hope – and I don’t see this changing at Penderyn – is that they retain their pride and identity as a Welsh Whisky distillery whilst continuing to make better and better whisky.
I left Penderyn with a smile and with my cynicism once again having taken a battering. That’s two distilleries (and two countries) in two days that are new, doing things in different ways and both with a great chance of making it.
Have I been wrong about other things too?…
Penderyn is open for visitors and tastings and you can find out more from their website… www.welsh-whisky.co.uk