WELSH WHISKY SCENE
Gold in them hills
Wales may not be the first country you would associate with whisky. The rolling green hills are home to many more sheep than fields of barley. The nation has always been more interested in beer than spirits. And the valleys have hidden far more gold than illicit distillers. But, as David Cover reports, a new kind of gold is springing from the heart of Wales – a liquid gold
The original and short-lived Welsh Whisky Company train at Frongoch
Despite the lack of association between Wales and whisky, there have indeed been attempts to start whisky production in Wales in the not-so-distant past. In the 1890s, a huge sum of money, the equivalent of £12.5 million today, was invested in building the Frongoch distillery in North Wales.
In addition to floor maltings, still house, and accommodation for its staff, a railway was built for transport. From what we know today, this whisky was peated and matured in sherry casks, but few bottles still exist.
Their goal? To take on Scotland as a quality whisky producer.
Unfortunately, the whisky was never able to shrug off its status as a gimmick and, combined with a strong temperance movement in North Wales, the first true attempt at a commercially available, quality malt whisky was doomed. The original Welsh Whisky Company had to close its doors in 1903.
Using a unique Faraday still, Penderyn created a new lighter style of whisky with the help of the late Dr Jim Swan
THE LONG WAIT
Wales would have to wait for over 100 years for its next whisky to become available. It wasn’t until the millennium that a small group of friends started a distillery in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons.
They had no experience in making whisky and only just enough money to buy the equipment they needed. When talking to potential investors and their friends, people would laugh and call them crazy.
Remember that this was a time when the category we now call ‘world whisky’ didn’t yet exist. At this point, distilleries like the English Whisky Co. and Kavalan wouldn’t distil for another five years. Even Japanese whisky was scoffed at. The idea of a Welsh whisky of any discernible quality was absurd.
The fledgling distillery was named Penderyn, after the small village in which it resides, and it wasn’t sticking to tradition. Instead of trying to take on Scotland or copy Ireland, Penderyn wanted to do something different.
Using a unique Faraday still, they were able to create a completely new style of whisky.
It was lighter, more delicate, and combined with the expertise of Dr Jim Swan, the barrel regime was going to be something exciting too. Madeira casks were brought in to finish the whisky, creating a distinct fruity style to the young whisky.
Penderyn released the first whisky from Wales in over 100 years on March 1, 2004. But despite its small beginnings, Penderyn has grown over the years, going from a 60,000 litres of pure alcohol (LPA) per annum micro-distillery to over 380,000 LPA, and it continues to innovate; experimenting with new cask types and installing a pair of traditional pot stills in 2014. It is now a global brand, going from strength to strength in markets all over the world, having won over 50 international awards.
ABOVE: David Cover, Penderyn ambassador
Since releasing its first whisky in 2004, Penderyn has gone from being a 60,000 litres of alcohol (LPA) per annum micro-distillery to producing more than 380,000 LPA
YOU WAIT 100 YEARS FOR A DISTILLERY…
Penderyn stood alone as the only Welsh whisky until as recently as 2016, when Dà Mhìle distillery released its first whisky, an organic single grain.
Despite the distillery only starting production in 2012, Dà Mhìle has been involved in the whisky industry long before even Penderyn. The Glynhynod Farm, where the distillery is located, commissioned Springbank to make the world’s first organic whisky from barley grown on the farm in West Wales in 1992. The whisky was released in 2000, giving the distillery its name (Dà Mhìle means Millennium in Scottish Gaelic) and a further batch of organic whisky was commissioned from Loch Lomond distillery in the same year.
The distillery itself is tiny and the process, as well as ethos, is all about sustainability and craft. The still is a European design, with a rectification column, but is direct fired from wood from the farm grounds. The grains are all organic and the distillery is releasing small quantities of malt and grain whisky each year, though only a few hundred bottles of each.
ABOVE: James Wright
TIME TO GET HEAVY
Wales was now a whisky producing nation. But another large-scale distillery wasn’t built until early 2018, when Aber Falls came onto the scene.
The small village of Abergwyngregyn is a picturesque spot on the edge of the Snowdonia national park, within a stone’s throw of the sea. Hanging above the village, a waterfall flows over a steep cliff, and below, an old slate works houses the Aber Falls distillery.
Halewood, the company behind the distillery, has invested in lovingly restoring the building and putting in traditional pot stills. This, and the use of both copper and steel condensers, would mean one big difference to any other Welsh whisky in production; a heavier flavour. They have also made a point of using Welsh barley, as well as using a proportion of virgin oak casks. These casks are currently slumbering in the Aber Falls warehouses, but will not go undisturbed for much longer. Having already won acclaim with their range of gins and liqueurs, Aber Falls hope to build on their success with the release of their first whisky in May 2021.
James Wright, managing director at Aber Falls, said: “Our whisky is unique because everything that goes into it is uniquely Welsh; our site, nestled between the Menai Straits and the Carneddau mountain range, creates its own microclimate, we use rock-filtered water drawn from Aber Falls waterfall; Welsh malted barley from farms across Wales, and the passion and skill of our Welsh team.
“In effect we have bottled the spirit of North Wales and are immensely proud and protective of our achievement. And because we are proud, we want to put Wales on the world map as a producer of excellent food and drink.”
But this isn’t all from Wales. Following the success of the craft distilling scene all over the world, small, boutique distilleries have begun to pop up. In the Welsh Wind in Tan-y-Groes and the Coles Family Distillery in Llanddarog are two such examples.
The Coles Family Distillery has already released its first single malt whisky, having started distilling in small quantities since 2017. The family are already looking at several experiments, including rye whisky and using chestnut wood barrels.
On the other hand, In the Welsh Wind are differentiating themselves by taking inspiration from Bruichladdich and Waterford distilleries, only using local barley and taking a grain-to-glass approach. The malt is delivered unkilned (ie green) and small casks are being utilised for rapid maturation. The distillery started in early 2018, so the very first whiskies won’t be far off.
Both distilleries have decided to use column hybrid stills, somewhat like those at Penderyn and Dà Mhìle. I may even dare to say that a style is emerging.
I wouldn’t go as far to say that Welsh whisky can yet be defined so easily, but an innovative approach to distillation seems to be a key part of what makes Welsh whisky different.
In fact, of the distilleries mentioned, only Aber Falls does not use some kind of rectification column in its distillation set up.
Above all, the focus is quality. Single malt and grain have taken precedence over blends and bulk whisky, while sustainability and supporting the local environment come up again and again when talking with the producers.
In the Welsh Wind are differentiating themselves by taking inspiration from Bruichladdich and Waterford distilleries, only using local barley and taking a grain-to-glass approach
MORE TO COME
The future of Welsh whisky looks bright. Brighter than ever before. Penderyn is set to build two new distilleries in Wales, with one in Llandudno opening on 17 May this year, while a further site in Swansea will be opening in 2022. Aber Falls will release its first whisky this year and is set to expand, while Dà Mhìle and Coles continue to release small amounts of their products.
“It’s an exciting time,” says Stephen Davies, Penderyn’s chief executive (pictured). “Despite the recent challenges that we are all facing, Penderyn is still very optimistic about the future, with a focus on raising our brand visibility both at home and in international markets. [In June] We open our new distillery site at Llandudno giving us the opportunity to make a new style of single malt and also to welcome in visitors to North Wales for the first time.
“In 2022 we will be doing the same in the Copper Quarter in Swansea. In addition, we are spending a lot of time with our export partners in Europe, the Americas and Asia introducing Penderyn to customers old and new.”
TIME FOR A TOUR
But the world of Welsh whisky is not yet solidified in law. The current rules for making whisky in Wales are general and a Protected Geographical Indication for the region is currently being discussed. I believe, as long as it allows for innovation, this would be a cause for celebration and another step on the way to a larger and more cohesive Welsh whisky scene.
Even a few years ago, a tour of Welsh whisky distilleries would have taken you to one or two spots. Now, a tour of Wales’s distilleries includes the rolling mountains of the south and the rocky cliffs of the north, the wild coast and grassy farmlands, pristine valleys and gorgeous views. It would take you high and low, to some unpronounceable placenames and some beautiful, forgotten places. You’d drive past waterfalls, castles, a great many pubs, and even more sheep.
And maybe, along the way, you’d discover some genuine Welsh gold.
David Cover is a global brand ambassador for Penderyn distillery and writes about whisky at daveswhiskyreviews.com