Welsh distillery Penderyn has been bottling its whisky for nearly five years now, and it’s going from strength to strength. Dominic Roskrow travelled to the Brecon Beacons National Park to visit it
When Welsh distiller Gillian Howell got married recently, she faced a dilemma over whether to change her name to that of her partner.
“It does create a problem for us,” smiles Penderyn’s managing director Stephen Davies. “His name’s Macdonald, you see. Howell is a good Welsh name but we can’t have people thinking we’ve got another Scot making our whisky.”
Clear water between what happens in Wales and what happens in Scotland has always been a key part of the Penderyn mission statement, as has the desire to avoid being tagged as a Welsh novelty act.
“The last time someone did a Welsh whisky they bought a load of Scottish malt, added a few ingredients from Tesco and called it Welsh whisky,” says Davies. “We want to be taken seriously. But if you want to buy 3000 rugby balls filled with Scotch I can give you a very good price.”
Transparency and authenticity really matter here, and you only need to glance around the distillery and its new visitor centre to know that at every stage, from the distilling and maturation process through to the bottle design, to understand how hard the distillery has worked to be different, and how proud its staff are of the result.
Penderyn is the result of a pub conversation between the landlord of the Glancynnon Inn Alun Evans and two friends, who, over a drink or two, bemoaned the fact that there wasn’t a Welsh whisky. The conversation led to some research and then a costing exercise. Before they knew it, the idea had become a reality.
“It was important to them to find out that there had been a tradition of making whisky in Wales because they didn’t want to be seen to just be making whisky like Scotland and Ireland because we are a Celtic country,” says Gillian Howell, who joined the company some five years ago, before bottling had started. She’s unusual in the world of whisky not just because she is a female distiller but because she’s so young.
“We don’t know how many distilleries Wales once had but they discovered there had been a whisky making tradition. The Welsh Whisky Distillery Company had a distillery at Frongoch in the North which operated between 1890 and 1903 but it was frowned upon by a strong Temperance movement. The people who worked there would go and receive deliveries at night to avoid being ostracised by their neighbours. It was probably because of the Temperance movement that it was forced to close down.”
In actual fact the Welsh link to distilling whisky goes back much further. The bourbon pioneer Evan Williams was from a distilling family in Wales, and some believe that Jack Daniel might have been of Welsh descent, though this is the subject of some debate.
With a suitable pedigree established the pioneers set about researching the practicality of making whisky on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, turning convention on its head in the process.
“There are a lot of underground caves in the area and Alun knew cavers who told him there was a large quantity of water under us,” says Gillian. “So they got a diviner in to decide where to dig a bore hole. The result is our water source which passes through limestone and is then purified again. They also decided they couldn’t afford to brew a distiller’s beer so they approached Brains in Cardiff to make the wash for them. We call it barley wash and it is delivered to us in tankers from Cardiff about 35 miles away. It is very fruity and this affects the final taste of our whisky.”
Because the barley wash is made under sterilised brewery conditions it has to be treated at the distillery to reintroduce bacteria to ensure sympathetic distillation. It’s altogether an unusual of doing things but perfectly natural to Penderyn. Indeed they seem surprised that no-one else does it this way.
Penderyn’s real stroke of genius, however, was to create a unique and distinctive Welsh whisky by calling on the services of two non-Welshmen: Doctor Jim Swan and David Faraday.
Dr Swan is one of the world’s leading authorities on whisky making and he has acted as master distiller for Penderyn from the outset. He has trained and mentored Gillian, who has daily hands-on responsibility for production. But he travels down to Wales each month to go through cask samples and he has been involved with the creation and development of the spirit from birth to bottle. Arguably the most radical aspect of his involvement, however, was the dispensation of a standard double pot still system and the employment of a never-used distillation system invented by David Faraday, a relative of Michael Faraday.
“The still had already been designed but had never been commissioned when we took it on,” says Stephen Davies. “People have given it various names but it is not a continuous still. It is a batch system with a single pot still but with a unique way of distilling the spirit. We charge it nine times a week.
“There are various plates in it from which the spirit can be drawn off and Jim Swan tested every one before deciding on the best one to make the spirit for Penderyn. When he decided on the seventh one and said that this would be best we had to take his word on trust. We had no idea what was going to come out of the end. But the spirit produced has a very high alcoholic strength and the energy we use is fraction of what a traditional two pot still operation uses.”
Each run produces just 220 to 250 litres of spirit, enough for just one barrel even after water is added..
The maturation process is unusual too. Spirit is put in to four types of cask – first fill bourbon casks, second fill bourbon casks that had previously contained Penderyn, second fill bourbon casks that had contained non-peated Scotch, and Madeira casks.
There is no age statement on the whisky and how long it stays in the cask depends on the judgment of Howell and Swan. But it’s considerably less time than a premium Scottish single malt would have. Finally the whisky is finished in Madeira casks for a period of about six months.
Each month a selection of casks covering the four maturation styles are selected for bottling.
“We select 22 casks each month and that gives us about 7000 to 8000 bottles,” says Gillian. “Although we aim for consistency with such small quantities each batch is slightly different to the next so you’re never quite sure exactly what you’re going to get. But the general characteristics are there. We bottle at 46% ABV and we produce a light, vibrant young and fruity whisky.”
As a result of this process each monthly batch of Penderyn is date-stamped, bringing a provenance to the whisky. It’s a nice touch.
Two other expressions of Penderyn have also been introduced, a sherry version, which will account for about 10 per cent of production and an intriguing peated one, accounting for five per cent.
“The peated one came about by as an accident really.” says Gillian. We deliberately stayed away from peat because it is a style so closely associated with Scotland. But once in a blue moon we’d accidentally get sent a cask that had contained peated whisky and so we kept the resulting whisky. It only comes from the cask so it’s lightly peated and it’s not right to compare it to a big Islay malt. That’s not what it’s intended to be.”
The efforts to draw a marked distinction between Scottish single malt and Welsh are paying off in spades, and the Penderyn story could easily act as a blueprint for any aspiring distiller set on carving out a niche in the market. The whisky here is unlike anything from Scotland at all, and should be judged in that context.
And while many will argue that the distillery has benefited from its Welshness and appealed to the national pride of Wales, the malt’s been around long enough now to have out-worn its Welsh novelty value.
“Of course we have benefited from tourists visiting and wanting to take away something unique to the region,” says Davies. “And of course we have had many Welsh people buying it because it’s Welsh. But that can only work for so long. Eventually it has to come down to the standard of what’s in the bottle, and what’s in the bottle is very good indeed.”
The current trend towards premium whisky hasn’t hurt the company, either. With relatively small levels of output from the off the decision was made to package the whisky well, highlight the cottage-craft nature of the operation, and price it accordingly. But the price tag – around £35 – no longer looks out of place as Scotch whisky prices have gone up. The bottle, sleek and stylish with a flash of Welsh gold, adds to the quality appeal.
With a smart new visitor and demand outstripping the distillery’s capacity to produce, these are heady times for Penderyn, and even a shortest amount of time with Howell and Davies or in the company of the distillery’s enthusiastic staff, and the pride is plain to see.
Howell sums it up perfectly: “When we started we had to explain what we were doing to everyone and no-one took us seriously. Now we export to 35 countries including 23 states in America. It’s been amazing.”
Indeed it has. A Welsh success story coinciding with a resurgent Wales.
How could she even think of calling herself Macdonald?