The Spirit of Wales

Originally in Country Quest

When I wrote this feature, the Welsh Whisky Company was only beginning to embark on its bold venture. Since then, it has thrived and the Penderyn Distillery is renowned throughout Wales and beyond. When I visited in 2005 (before Prince Charles made his appearance!), there was no admission to the general public. Now the specialist visitor centre mentioned to me by the Managing Director, Stephen Davies, is open and flourishing. See the links below for more information.

Barrels in store at Penderyn Distillery. More pictures can be seen below.

Picture by Ewart Davies

Welsh Whisky? Does that sound like a contradiction in terms? The Scots will tell you that whisky, or uisge beatha owes its origin to an ancient cult rooted in the peaty soils of their glens and flowing from the fresh spring waters of their hills. The Irish will tell you that whiskey, or usque baugh, was taken to those Scottish glens by missionary monks from Ireland.

The people - all 20 or so of them - from The Welsh Whisky Company, Y Cwmni Wisgi Cymru, in Penderyn, will tell something different. They will say that wisgi was first created in the fourth century on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) by one Reaullt Hir, who had learned the art of distillation from Greek merchants. The truth is that the origins of malt and grain distillation are lost in the mists of time. In all probability, all of the Celtic nations practised the art. There was considerable movement between the nations: the Scots, unlike the Picts, were an Irish tribe, and the number of stones in Wales inscribed with Ogham, an early form of Irish writing, bears witness to the strong Irish presence here. It is easy to see how chance factors could lead to a spreading of the knowledge of the 'water of life'.

It was just such a chance factor that led to what might be called the third era of Welsh whisky, now in vigorous infancy in Penderyn, at the southern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, between Aberdare and Brecon itself. It all started, as so many good things do, with a chat in a pub. This time, though, the conversation proved to have a substantial outcome. Brian Morgan, now the Chairman of the new company, and Alun Evans, the owner of a pub in Hirwaun just to the south of Penderyn, recognised a niche idea when they saw it, and the idea of distilling whisky in Wales for the first time since 1906 was born. Having a good idea was one thing; turning it into a successful product has been another. The greatest problem is that production needs a big financial outlay, with no return at all for several years. Distillation began in the September of the millennium year, and the first bottles of the single-malt Penderyn Whisky went on sale in 2004 - on St. David's Day, appropriately enough. Sixty thousand bottles were made last year, and one hundred thousand are realistically hoped for in 2005. Distribution is already in full swing through most of the supermarket chains in Wales, and there was a successful launch in London's Hurst House on St. David's Day this year. There are already flourishing exports to Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and Penderyn Whisky is especially popular in France, where it is sold through La Maison du Whisky. Already there are thoughts of breaking into markets in the USA. A promising start, indeed.

Perhaps none of this should be too much of a surprise. Stephen Davies, Managing Director of the Welsh Whisky Company, told me that the 'Triple Crown' of successful whisky making is 'good water, good barley, and a good still'. All these ingredients are available in Penderyn. The water is of ideal quality in the National Park; the grain is supplied in the form of 'whisky wash' by the long-established Brain's Brewery in Cardiff, and the company was very lucky in that an unused still was available from a concern in Brecon that had planned to distil its own whisky in the nineteen-nineties. It didn't quite get there before it went out of business.

The whisky wash is supplied to the recipe of the Welsh Whisky Company. Essentially this is an unhopped beer, fairly strong at 8% proof. It is the distillation and storage that turns the wash into 46% abv. Penderyn Whisky - it leaves the still at a remarkable 92% abv. I don't want to get too technical in a piece like this - and not only because I would very likely get into difficulty - but it is worth emphasising that a non-chill filtration process is used, so as not to compromise quality. For the long period of storage required, barrels obtained from the Jack Daniels' distillery in Tennessee, together with Madeira casks are de rigeur. When I spoke to him, Stephen Davies had just returned from the Bluegrass Cooperage in Kentucky, where they make the barrels for Jack Daniels. He assured me that the trip was strictly business. We'll take his word for it, although he also told me he visited the Buffalo Trace; Makers Mark and Woodford Reserve distilleries while he was there.

I can tell you from personal experience that the taste of Penderyn Whisky is very smooth and fine. You don't have to take my word for it: the jazz singer George Melly is now a convert to Welsh Whisky after years of drinking Irish Whiskey. And perhaps we shouldn't talk about a 'Triple Crown' of successful whisky distillation, but a 'Grand Slam' - Penderyn is now the official whisky of the Welsh rugby team. It was emphasised to me that this decision was taken before 19 March, 2005! To mark its association with our national sport, and the 125th anniversary of the Welsh Rugby Union next year, the distillery will have a specially-packaged and limited edition of 1250 bottles next year. These will set you back by a mere 125 each if you're interested. Most of us will be well enough satisfied with the Penderyn from the supermarket shelves!

The distillery has already gained a number of awards, of which it is most proud of the Silver Medal awarded in 2004 in the World-wide Whiskies category of the International Wine and Spirit Competition. It is also rightly pleased with its entry right at the beginning of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible for 2005 - the world's leading whisky authority - '... absolutely staggering arrival on the palate of malt landing with almost snowflake delicateness. Immediately a second movement, this time of bitter-sweet fruit, blood orange included, sweeps down over the startled tastebuds. Astonishing stuff.' Praise indeed.

These words must have been like music to Master Distiller, Dr. Jim Swan, the man who made the whisky what it is and what it promises to be. They also justify the decision to give the distilling process a higher priority than the trappings of a visitors' centre. But there are plans to build one soon, and thoughts to have displays like one of cooperage, or barrel-making.

So the first whisky to be distilled in Wales for the best part of a century is off to a more than promising beginning. One thing seems likely: it won't meet the fate of the last operation in Wales. This was The Bala Distillery, in Frongoch, Bala. It was in business from 1887 to 1906, and was a sizeable concern. This, though, was at the time when the temperance movement was at its strongest, and it forced the distillery out of trade. Times are different now. It easy enough to imagine the spirit of Reaullt Hir smiling down on Penderyn. As he might have said himself, 'Iechydd Dda!'

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Picture gallery: see below.
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Picture Gallery

The pictures below are [l to r]: (1) Stephen Davies, Managing Director, tasting the Whisky' (2) Leading Members of the rugby team and management in the early days of Penderyn and (3) Awards gained in the early days of Penderyn.

[1] Stephen Davies, Managing Director, sampling the whisky.  [2] Leading Members of the rugby team and management in the early days of Penderyn.  [3] Awards gained in the early days of Penderyn.


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