Britain has long punched well above its weight when it comes to distilled spirits. For many consumers, Scotch and Irish whisky and English gin are the standard bearers for their global categories. But there’s more to U.K. distilling than those giants, and this month, Taster’s Club members found out firsthand just how delicious whisky made in another corner of the United Kingdom can be.
Penderyn Whisky is distilled in Wales, a country in southwest Great Britain with a long history of human settlement, a rich and distinctive culture, its own language, and—it turns out—a track record of making great whisky. (Fun trivia: Evan Williams of Kentucky bourbon fame migrated from Wales, where his family made spirits, to the New World.) Yet Penderyn Distillery, founded in 1999, is the first whisky to be distilled in Wales for nearly a century. We sat down with Penderyn’s media manager Jon Tregenna to learn more about how Penderyn got started, what makes it special, and why Madeira casks are so important to Penderyn’s house style.
The Origins of Penderyn Whisky
Penderyn Distillery’s origin story begins, like many contemporary distilleries, as a fortuitous encounter between friends enjoying one another’s company at a bar. “The distillery started off after a conversation in a local pub when a group of drinkers decided to buy a unique and un-commissioned still that had found its way into Wales,” explained Jon. (More on that unique still later.) “The pub landlord had a wine warehouse with its own water source in the foothills of the magnificent Brecon Beacons National Park in an area known as ‘waterfall country,’ and thus Penderyn was born.”
The distillery first began operations in 1999, nearly 100 years after the most recent Welsh distillery closed its doors in 1903. With such a long period of dormancy in Welsh whisky production, the founders knew they had a once-in-several-generations opportunity to put Wales back on the whisky map, as long as they committed to doing things the right way.
In the U.K., spirit must age at least three years and one day to be called whisky, although many distilleries choose to age theirs even longer. That rule is partially responsible for the excellent quality of whisky from the U.K., and the world has a Welshman to thank for it. “It was a Welsh Prime Minster of Great Britain, David Lloyd George, who in 1916 brought in the “three years and a day” rule for whisky to try to clamp down on illegal stills,” explained Jon. “Inadvertently, he created the premium whisky industry at the same time.”
Drawing on that tradition of quality, Penderyn Distillery only released its inaugural whisky in 2004, five years after distillation commenced, to ensure it was as delicious as it could possibly be. The first batch was even bottled under the watchful eye of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, a potent symbol of just how exciting it was to the people of Wales to have a whisky distillery once again.
A Different Kind of Still
From the beginning, the founders knew Penderyn Whisky would be unique, because it would use one of the most unusual stills in the world of distillation. “Penderyn whiskies tend to be lighter and fruitier than your traditional whiskies,” explained Jon, “and this is down to our unique still. It is a single column still that produces a new make spirit of up to 184 proof. This is an industry-high and means that the heavier oils and impurities have largely departed and we end up with a fruity, light, fresh, flavoursome spirit.”
This distinctive piece of equipment is called a Faraday still. It was designed by an inventor named Dr. David Faraday, a descendent of the famous Victorian scientist, Michael Faraday. The still is designed so that the mash only needs to be distilled once, not twice like a traditional pot still, increasing efficiency in the distillery while also achieving dual goals of a highly refined yet still very flavorful spirit. In 2013, Penderyn commissioned a second Faraday still, and then expanded again in 2014 by purchasing a pair of more traditional lantern-style stills for additional experimentation.
Most of Penderyn’s whisky is aged primarily in used bourbon barrels, just like Scotch whisky (and reposado and añejo Tequila, for that matter). But Penderyn also uses other types of casks to add new layers of flavor to its spirit, and Madeira—a sweet wine made on the Portuguese archipelago of the same name—is a house favorite.
“When we started distilling in 1999 we had a visit from the late great Master Distiller Dr. Jim Swan, who despite being Scottish took a keen interest in new distilleries around the world,” said Jon. “After nosing our new make spirit, he suggested that after it had been in a bourbon cask for a number of years we finish it for several months in an ex-Madeira cask. This became our house style, although we now use a number of casks to finish our whiskies, like port and sherry, among others.”
Taster’s Club members got to experience that house style first-hand this month with one of two different Penderyn bottlings: Penderyn Madeira and Penderyn Legend, each finished in Madeira casks.
Sipping Whisky the Welsh Way
If you were one of the lucky club members who got a bottle of Penderyn this month (or you’re inspired to go out and get your own) Jon recommends taking an up-close-and-personal approach to getting acquainted with your new Welsh whisky.
“We advise that people give it a ‘cwtch’ first, which is Welsh for ‘hug,’” said Jon. “It should be tasted at room temperature, and we advise people to put a tiny drop on the tip of their tongue first and ‘chew’ it.” While it might feel funny to “chew” a liquid, the process of aerating and diluting the whisky will help unlock more of its deliciously fruity flavor, which is the very best reason to look silly that we can think of.