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From phoenix to dragon: How Welsh whisky rose from the ashes

Welsh Whisky

In celebration of St. David’s Day, we’re exploring the revival of Welsh whisky. Join us as we talk to Penderyn Distillery about identity and innovation, consider the category’s exciting future, and recommend some terrific festive tipples.

With the world whisky map ever broadening and countless distilleries popping up on almost every continent, malt enthusiasts have had plenty to choose from in recent times. However, with St David’s Day just around the corner (Thursday 1 March 2018) we thought it was an apt moment to champion the Welsh option. After all, its fledgling scene is producing some absolute corkers, and this looks set to continue over the coming years.

From humble beginnings

There are countless stories about Wales and its long history of alcohol production. One tale suggests that Ireland’s beloved St. Patrick was actually Welsh, and enlightened the UK with distillation techniques he learned from his time in France. Another tells of Reaullt Hir ‘The Great Welsh Warrior’ who supposedly distilled ‘chwisgi’ (whiskey) from braggot (mead made with both honey and barley malt) brewed by the monks of Bardsey Island in AD 356, while the ‘Mead Song’, uncovered in a manuscript of the 6th century Tales of Taliesin tells of Welsh distillation.

GibsonIt’s hard to imagine that Welsh distillation could have begun here

These legends have been widely discredited and disputed. Archaeology suggests there were small stills throughout Wales around the 4th century, but we know little else about this discovery. Yet there’s plenty of heritage when it comes to the art of whisky distillation, aside from the tall tales.

Wales’ relationship with the world of whisky tends to relate to people who left for America. It was suggested that Jack Daniel was Welsh and, even though this was rejected by the Tennessee brand, it did acknowledge that his grandfather was certainly from Wales. American whiskey-based liqueur Southern Comfort was initially produced by Welsh distillers. Evan Williams, the first commercial distiller in Kentucky, originally hailed from Dale in Pembrokeshire, where his family opened a distillery in 1705. He left Wales for the US and in 1783 began producing Evan Williams bourbon.

The decline of Welsh whisky

It would seem that whisky distillation was in Welsh blood after all, but myriad reasons forced production to cease by the turn of the 20th century.

The Welsh Whisky Distillery Company – founded in Frongoch, Bala in 1889 – was the last of its kind. It would seem the mood at the time was optimistic for its success; the distillery was funded by a substantial capital of £100,000 (around £12 million give or take, in 2018 terms) and its full production capacity was anticipated to reach 150,000 gallons per annum. This would have made Frongoch the 17th largest malt distillery in the UK, but its fortunes didn’t last long – the business was liquidated in 1910.

GibsonThe Welsh Whisky Distillery Co, all those years ago

However, alcohol distillation in Wales was inevitably susceptible to its strong religious foundations. The temperance movement (an organised social movement committed to reducing the consumption of alcoholic beverages) was substantial in this era, and a lot of people were prepared to get quite violent against distillers to defend it. When combined with the financial difficulties that naturally occur when attempting to build a brand centred around a spirit you have to wait many years to mature, the realistic notion of whisky distillation in Wales was sadly eliminated.

The cruelest blow came in 1915, when Chancellor Lloyd George, introduced the Immature Spirits Act in an attempt to reduce the impact of alcohol on the war effort. It stipulated that whisky must be matured for at least three years, which ultimately contributed a great deal to the drink’s eventual reputation as a premium product. Lloyd George, a Welshman, ironically contributed a great deal to the Scotch industry through this legislation.

Back with a bang

It wasn’t until the 1990s that attempts were made to revive distilling in Wales, the Welsh Whisky Company were the first that found success. Now known as Penderyn, it would prove to be the turning point for Welsh whisky. “It was quite a liberty to set up a distillery then,” Jon Tregenna, media manager for Penderyn Distillery, remembers. “It isn’t like nowadays.” Despite all the obstacles, the distillery was built in the Brecon Beacons National Park and production commenced in 2000. The first whisky commercially produced in Wales for a century was launched on St. David’s Day, 1 March 2004.

GibsonAn early Penderyn edition, ready to change the whisky world

Penderyn has forged itself a respectable position within the wider whisky community through its commitment to innovation and its appreciation of its national heritage and culture. Creating an identifiable style was paramount to this success and with help from the late, great Dr. Jim Swan, Penderyn was able to distill a recognisable core bottling, Penderyn Madeira Finish. Aged initially in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels, the whisky was finished in Madeira wine casks on Swan’s recommendation, and was met with rave reviews. “They got it right first time,” Tregenna remarks fondly.

The calvary arrive

For nearly two decades, Penderyn was flying the flag for Wales alone. Alongside its stellar work, an important factor in the Welsh whisky revival has been the establishment of other brands and distilleries.

In 2016 the Dà Mhìle distillery near Llandysul helped make Wales an official whisky-making country, when it bottled its first variant, an organic single grain whisky. According to European Union alcohol regulations, a country has to have at least two distilleries making and marketing whisky to be recognised as a legitimate whisky industry.

GibsonDà Mhìle Distillery has joined the noble cause

Dà Mhìle is not alone, however. Hot on its heels was Aber Falls, a distillery established just a stone’s throw from the gateway of the Snowdonia National Park in 2017. While its whisky won’t be available until 2020, Aber Falls has released a premium range of small batch, handcrafted gins and liqueurs, and it’s very much planning to become a regular creator of whisky.

What does the future hold?

At the time of writing, the future of Welsh whisky is incredibly exciting. In June 2016, Penderyn announced that it was planning a new distillery at the historic Copperworks site in Swansea. Discussions are also underway for another distillery in Llandudno, North Wales.

GibsonPenderyn installed these beauties not that long ago, and soon whole distilleries will follow

These facilities will add to the huge numbers of visitors that Penderyn Distillery has drawn since the opening of its purpose built visitor centre in June 2008. It has already cemented itself as one of South Wales’ top attractions, winning a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence. In 2015, it managed to beat the BBC’s Dr Who Experience in Cardiff to one of Wales’ top tourism awards, and it was visited by more than 35,000 people in 2016.

Penderyn also has the distinction of boasting a distillation team that is led by women. Laura Davies and Aista Juknevicivte are chemists by background, and were recruited as distillers after they scored top marks in a nose test. Tregenna certainly believes the distillery hired the best people for the job. “To have women heading up our team gives us a great point of difference,” he says.

GibsonWomen distillers and Welsh whisky – two things we can’t wait to see more of

Aber Falls has also shown an appetite for innovation and community-led projects. Its exclusive Clwb Llechi (which translates as Slate Club, referencing the site’s history in slate production) allows consumers to purchase a limited number of 200-litre single malt whisky casks. Allowing whisky fans to own a piece of distilling history is representative of the mentality and identity of modern Welsh whisky.

Welsh Whisky is well and truly back

Penderyn, however, is still very much at the forefront of this drastic evolution. Through the distillery, Welsh whisky is beginning to prove its capabilities abroad. The battle to put Welsh whisky in the spotlight again relies, like it does for any whisky, on global success. With the backing of a number of major international awards and a range of spirits to be proud of, Penderyn has begun making serious inroads into China, Japan, Russia and the US. According to Tregenna, the first minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, described the distillery as “one of the great Welsh manufacturing success stories of recent times”.

GibsonNot Scotland, nor Ireland, these are glorious Welsh whisky barrels

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this revival has been that it has come on Welsh whisky’s terms. The style is no copy of Scotch or Irish; there were no shortcuts taken. “People recognise it as being different,” says Tregenna, “it’s not what they expect.” UK prime minister Theresa May certainly seems to agree. She said she would be enjoying a dram as her Christmas drink in December 2017 – a month in which Penderyn announced a record in annual sales.

Tregenna tells me there’s a word in the Welsh language – ‘Hiraeth’ – which some take to mean ‘homesickness’, or ‘yearning’, but for others there is another definition: ‘A sense of loss for an ancient land’. It is his belief that drinking authentic Welsh whisky allows an individual to tap into something illusive and very Welsh, or as he says, “a secret pride for our small and romantic nation.” This St. David’s Day seems as good a time as any to celebrate that.

Welsh excellence

Below you’ll find a selection of fabulous whisky from the lovely Penderyn, as well as examples of distillation delightfulness from Aber Falls and Dà Mhìle while we wait excitedly for its whisky to be available for retail.

GibsonPenderyn Madeira Finish

The classic. The original. The core expression at the heart of the Penderyn range. This is the bottling that started it all. Lovingly created in cooperation with Dr. Jim Swan, this now illustrious Welsh single malt was finished in Madeira casks, giving it notes of sultanas, toast, vanilla, custard and sweet spices.

GibsonPenderyn Celt

We simply had to include a bottling that featured the iconic passant red dragon of the Welsh national flag, didn’t we? The Penderyn Celt might pique the interests of fans of Islay drams here, as it enjoyed a suitable finishing period in peated casks, resulting in a litany of fantastic flavours including vanilla, orange zest and a good helping of coastal peat.

GibsonPenderyn Bryn Terfel (Icons of Wales)

A perfect representation of Penderyn’s irresistible Icons of Wales series, this. It’s the fifth release from the range, and it honours famed Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel with a succulent Welsh single malt matured in bourbon casks and presented in a dashing red velvet bottle. Notes of vanilla ice cream, banana bread, juicy red apples, honey, white pepper and milk chocolate make this beauty as complex as it is delicious.

GibsonAber Falls Salted Toffee Liqueur

This Salted Toffee Liqueur from Aber Falls finds that perfect balance between sweet and savoury in this classic flavour with the addition of Anglesey sea salt, providing a subtle kick to the honey, buttery biscuits and brown sugar notes also present.

GibsonDà Mhìle Seaweed Gin

Beautifully composed and utterly original Seaweed Gin. Dà Mhìle make this fascinating tipple with a variation on its small batch gin, which is then infused with seaweed from the Newquay coast. With notes of spearmint, citrus, savoury juniper, peppery spice, fragrant eucalyptus and, of course, seaweed, this Dà Mhìle delight manages to be sophisticated, fun and intriguing all at once.

That’s not all we have for you lucky lot, however. Penderyn kindly provided us with a cocktail recipe to kick off the St. David’s Day celebrations, using Penderyn Madeira Finish, as well as a delightful food pairing, complete with recipe!

The Iechyd Da cocktail:

This means ‘good health’ in Welsh, and makes for the perfect toast for St David’s day:

GibsonThe Iechyd Da cocktail

Ingredients: 50ml Penderyn Madeira, a spoon of Welsh honey, 10ml blood orange juice, 2 dashes of orange bitters (finding one shouldn’t be a problem)

Method: Pour all ingredients in whisky tumbler, add ice and stir. Simple and delicious!

Food Pairing: Experience the very best of Welsh cuisine with this classic, a Cockle, Bacon and Laverbread (seaweed) quiche, using this fabulous recipe!

From all of us at MoM, Happy St. David’s Day! Or, in the spirit of things, Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus!

Categories : News, Whisky

1 comment on “From phoenix to dragon: How Welsh whisky rose from the ashes”

  1. Gareth Phillips says:

    Da iawn ! diolch yn fawr i bobl Cymru !

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