Penderyn – first Welsh distillery in over a century
Back in the Welsh mists of time, well, not that far back perhaps, 20 years or so, a group of friends met around the table with the landlord of a local pub. They spent the evening drinking local beer, and towards the end of the evening the order for whisky naturally arrived. The barman offered them Scottish, Irish, American whisky, but after drinking Welsh beer all evening, how could they then drink Scottish whisky? Or Irish, or American?
Whisky had not been produced in Wales for a century, so you can imagine the banging of clenched fists on the wooden tables, the gallic oaths, the indignant calls for a rebirth of Welsh whisky distilling! That is the story of how Penderyn (pron. ‘pen-‘derin) distillery, named after the local village Penderyn (from the Welsh ‘head of bird’), came into being. The friends clubbed together and started the ball rolling. A site in the southern reaches of the scenic Brecon Beacons was found in an old wine warehouse belonging to the pub landlord, and the rest is whisky history. On St David’s Day (1st March), 2004, the Prince of Wales opened the distillery and signed cask number 1.
Penderyn whisky came into being as a result of the drive and exertions of a few local investors, with help from the industry in the shape of mentors and consultants such as the late Dr Jim Swan, who was also their master blender. What we see now from the outside is the very much renovated and redesigned wine warehouse, capable of hosting all the whisky-making apparatus with the exception of maturation, which, because of National Park planning restrictions, has had to be done in warehouses a couple of miles away.
There is a bright streak running obliquely along the front wall, that at first I thought represented a lightning strike, or Merlin the wizard’s spell, but it is the ‘Welsh gold seam’ motif that greets you as you arrive at this mine of liquid gold. Shona from the visitors’ centre and head tour guide Ray welcome me in and show me the ropes.
Production water is sourced from the distillery’s own bore holes, mixed with unpeated, malted barley and mashed in a traditional, copper-topped mash tun before being sent to the six stainless-steel fermenters for a few days to turn the extracted sugars into ‘beer’ that is ready to be distilled.
Ray is an ex-chemical engineer and mentions early on that Penderyn is a single-distilled spirit, in a manner of speaking. This manner becomes apparent when I see the still: one of only two Faraday stills in existence (the other is also here). Designed by a descendent of the scientist Michael Faraday, this second-hand, copper still resembles the German-made schnapps stills I have seen at other distilleries on the continent and Ireland.
The idea is that, unlike the traditional pot stills that distil the spirit once at a time, this type can distil several times in the same run, rather like a column still that makes vodka or grain whisky. This still is split in two, owing to Welsh National Park height restrictions. To increase output, Penderyn ordered a second, replica Faraday still that is an exact copy of the original, complete with superfluous, blocked port holes at the base that were used by the previous owners and retained to be sure of recreating the exact same style of spirit.
Like a column still, a Faraday still makes alcohol that runs off in the nineties, percentage-wise, and the steam is turned to liquid at the end of the process in an unusual glass condenser that looks like something from a teenage giant’s chemistry set.
All-female distilling/blending team
I once heard Penderyn described as one of the smallest distilleries in the world, but nowadays it hardly qualifies as a ‘micro-distillery’ in comparison to some new distilleries elsewhere in the British Isles. At the moment, the possibly unique, all-female team of distillers and blenders are producing a respectable 340-400,000 litres of pure alcohol per year. The visitor numbers are not bad either, especially considering the location – 43,000 over the previous year.
With an eye to double distilling, Penderyn have installed a pair of more recognisable ‘lantern’ pot stills made by Forsyths of Scotland, and these will up the output considerably in the not too distant future, with the intriguing possibilities of balancing the clean, light, Faraday whisky to the heavier, pot still – a marriage made in Wales.
Maturation is done in a warehouse nearby (there are restrictions on expansion of the distillery building) in ex-bourbon, sherry, port, wine and also peated casks from Laphroaig - after a mistake in an order produced an accidentally smoky whisky that proved just too good to throw away – their Peated 46 won gold at the ISWC World Whisky Awards last year.
Though Penderyn draws on the little-known tradition of whisky making in Wales - yes, there is one - there is a bottle of old and rare ‘Welsh Whisky’ on show in a display case, this is a modern distillery. The bottles are stylish and striking with the gold seam motif, designed by Glen Tutsell, who also designed for Peroni. Their Bryn Terfel (or ‘Falstaff)’ expression comes in a striking, red-velvet-clad bottle - never seen a whisky bottled like that before, the sort of thing you’d expect Santa to pull out of his pocket on Christmas Eve.
The standard single malt is a mix of 5-8-year-old whiskies, but the batch system means that this can change from year to year as stocks age. Having won several awards, Penderyn already has something of an international reputation and is available in over 40 different countries. Most of the single malt expressions are bottled between 41 and 46%, with single cask editions of up to 50%, and besides variations in finish, the basic house style of Penderyn, matured in ex-bourbon and ex-madeira wine casks, can be described as having a toffee, raisin and vanilla character. Its bright, sharp, light fruitiness is just the thing after a rainy trek across that famously raw and rugged scenery of the Brecon Beacons.
(Photo attribute: Top photo of Cotswolds Distilling/Blending Team: Jon Tregenna, Cotswolds Distillery.)