For ages I have been meaning to visit Penderyn Distillery. You see, my family all originally hail from just across the border in Hereford, so the region has been well-known to me since I was a wee lass. In addition, I have a rather Welsh name. It actually means, and I kid you not: “Friend of the Elves”. If that doesn’t conjure up images of Lord of the Rings, I don’t know what will.
As such, it was with excitement that I recently made my way over the Brecon Beacons National Park to visit the only Welsh whisky distillery.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with Penderyn, it began distilling in 2000 and has won numerous awards since, such as a gold in the World Whiskey Masters in 2011 for its bourbon single cask. It is distilled in the tiny spot of a village called, logically, Penderyn, which sits just inside the borders of the national park.
I met up with Gillian Macdonald, Penderyn’s distiller, who was to take me around the site. It was then I learned Penderyn was by no means the first Welsh whisky makers.
In actual fact up until 1903 there was a healthy distilling tradition in Wales. The last company to distill, the Welsh Whisky Distillery Company in Frongoch, was built in 1889 and produced Royal Welsh Whisky. However, by that point the Temperance Movement was in full swing, with devout believers promoting abstention from alcohol, especially in Wales. The sale of alcohol on a Sunday was forbidden from 1881 onwards and archives suggest by the time the distillery shut down nearly a tenth of the British public was teetotal.
It took nearly 100 years for distilling to return to Wales, although the Welsh were still having a subtle influence on the way whisky would be produced: records show that Evan Williams of Dale, Pembrokeshire, was one of the founding fathers of the bourbon movement in the US.
These facts and many more on the history of Welsh distilling can be found at the start of the distillery tour. Moving through this area, we headed into the heart of it all to watch the distillations being done.
Penderyn’s whisky differs from Scotch in that it uses two columns and one copper pot still which means the new make spirit is slightly altered from what you would find elsewhere. Gillian told me the company chose to do this because it would further distinguish them from Scottish or Irish whiskies and because they had fewer regulations to adhere to, as they are not governed by the strict laws found in Scotland.
In addition, Penderyn diverges from the norm by taking a “cut” that is much higher in alcohol content. To explain: when the 2,500 litres of wash are put into the copper pot, they are heated and the liquid travels up the columns before condensing and moving back down. The “cut” is the alcohol that is selected to go into the final new make spirit which will then be transferred to casks and made into whisky. Penderyn takes its cut at alcohol levels of between 86% and 92%, which is much higher than most Scottish or Irish whiskies choose. This results in a lighter, purer base spirit, in the end creating a whisky with a pleasantly light signature flavour.
So what exactly is the whisky like? Well, I’ve tried Penderyn many times before but there is something rather romantic about trying it straight at a distillery rather than out of a bottle from my local supermarket. So, it tasted even better than normal. I’m already a big fan of both their peated (which I wrote about in this piece) and their signature bottle, the Madeira finish. But I had yet to taste the Portwood, which is only available at the distillery or abroad. I should mention this is not the same as the Port Wood Single Cask, which was named European Single Cask of the Year in 2009. But, regardless, this one was beautiful. It was slightly woody, in a nice way, like when you chew an ice lolly stick after finishing the ice cream. From some distilleries I could imagine it being too sweet, but this one manages to avoid being sickly because of Penderyn’s lighter signature style.
And, excitingly, during a tour to the storerooms a couple of miles down the road, Gillian passed on a sample of the latest distillation of the Portwood. I will be reviewing it soon but I can currently leak that it is sublime. Even better than the first. In fact, it’s sat beside me as I type at the moment and I’m having difficulty stopping myself from drinking it down in a dash!
Over at the storerooms I was amazed to see all of the stock – and to realise that Penderyn is still very small. To me, the hundreds of barrels looked like a treasure trove, but as Gillian pointed out, their production capacity of three casks a day is but a mere drop in the whisky production world.
Still, it was nice to get a look in behind the scenes of such a great distillery. So, here’s a cheers to the Welsh! And the elves. I can’t forget my friends…!