By Richard Thomas
If the idea of Welsh whiskey leaves you scratching your head, it shouldn’t. Just because you’ve never heard of it doesn’t mean it fails to make sense. Perhaps it is half-forgotten because the Welsh were the first of the Celtic nations of the British Isles to be subjugated by those pesky English (during the reign of Edward I, to be precise), but the Welsh are at least as Celtic as the Scots or the Irish. The Welsh have their own Celtic tongue, and 20% of the population speaks it, over 580,000 people. Welsh Gaelic speakers vastly outnumber the Gaelic speakers of Scotland, and as a proportion of their population, the Welsh are only slightly behind the Irish in speaking the old language.
As it is with language, so it is with whiskey. The Welsh are Celtic Britons, and distilling is in their blood, despite being severely overshadowed by the Irish and Scots. Indeed, the Welsh whiskey tradition secretly courses through the history of American whiskey.
One of the earliest recorded distilleries in Wales was opened in 1705, in Pembrokeshire. This distillery was owned by the family of one Evan Williams, whose name ought to sound familiar to Kentuckians and other assorted bourbon lovers. Williams immigrated to the United States during the Revolutionary War, settled around Louisville, and began distilling in 1783. His story is hardly the only one with Welsh roots, and a lot of what American whiskey fans think is an Irish or a Scots influence on their whiskey-making is really Welsh.
Welsh whiskey slipped into obscurity due largely to 19th Century temperance movements. Prior to modern times, the last distillery in Wales closed in before World War One. A half-hearted stab at bottling blended scotch in Wales was crushed by Scottish litigation, leaving the way open for Penderyn. Building its distillery in Brecon Beacons National Park, Penderyn shipped its first commercial product in 2004, thus becoming the first distillery on Welsh soil in almost a century.
I’m starting our series of Penderyn reviews with their Madeira-finished single malt not just because it is billed as the distillery’s “house style.” The aging process also has some personal appeal for me, combining as it does bourbon and Madeira casks. I was raised in the Bluegrass, and spent my teenaged years so close to bourbon country that the vapor was in the wind if it blew east. Later, I followed my heart to Portugal, and even though Madeira wine is made out on some semi-tropical island in the Atlantic, the idea of a bourbon-and-Madeira aged whiskey rings a bit like my life story in a bottle.
This basic Penderyn single malt is matured in old bourbon casks, and then finished in Madeira wood. It carries no aging statement, and is bottled at 46% alcohol. That bottle is quite different from the norm in the whiskey business, looking more like what a wine producer with Euromodern styling might use.
That choice of bottle and labeling style is somewhat appropriate for the Penderyn Madeira Finish, because in the glass the whiskey has a semi-translucent, pale gold color akin to a hefty white wine. The aroma of the whiskey is distinctively crisp in its fruity, vanilla sweetness, a lot like a big, dry and oaky white wine, in fact. That’s the Madeira finishing at work, I’m sure.
The whiskey stays thickly sweet on the palate, tasting of a mixture of honey, vanilla, and autumn fruits like apples or pears. The woody nature of the whiskey shares center stage, as does its ginger-spiciness. The finish, which is mild and of a middling length, leaves the wood behind and winds down on the spice and fruity aspects.
After growing up in Kentucky and living in Washington, DC (better known as “that pestilential swamp on the Potomac”) for 13 years, I have come to think of whiskey as better left on the shelf during the hot, sweltering summer months. That is what whiskey cocktails and things like mint juleps are for. That said, I think I’ve finally found a single malt I would recommend sipping neat at the end of a sweltering, steamy day.* The Penderyn Madeira Finish’s combination of fruity sweetness and crispness make it the sort of thing you could drink in hot weather without cooking yourself, and its smooth, simple virtues make it a good choice for a light sipping whiskey.
At $60 to $70 in the United States, Penderyn Madeira Finish is too expensive to serve as a regular sipping whiskey. However, it’s status as an imported micro-spirit with an unusual personality make it worth the price tag.
In Europe, Penderyn is somewhat cheaper. I’ve seen it for sale on the internet for €36, and Penderyn lists the whiskey at £38 (UK postage included) on its website.
This Penderyn whiskey started collecting awards at the 2004, 2008 International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC), where it bagged a silver. Whisky gave it a “Best of” for “Other” types of whiskeys without an aging statement in 2008, and Malt Advocate gave Penderyn their micro-distillery award that same year. In 2011, the whiskey won silver, Best in Class at the IWSC and gold at the Whiskeys of the World Masters.
* Just because I endorse it for summer drinking does not mean you should commit the sin of putting ice in it.