Close-Up on Distilling in Wales
By Richard Thomas
When Penderyn opened their doors in 2000, they became the first distillery to operate in Wales since the 19th Century. Since then, the micro-distillery has collected garlands aplenty, and demand is so high that Penderyn intends to triple their production. The busy little distillery in Rhondda Cynon Taf has become a place to watch, and the Whiskey Reviewer was happy to spend some time with Penderyn’s Managing Director Stephen Davies, discussing the past, present and future of Welsh whiskey.
RT: One of your 2012 medal winners was your Madeira Finish Single Malt, but you also have a new Madeira Finish Single Malt, Red Flag. What is the difference between Red Flag and your original Madeira?
SD: Madeira Finish is our flagship expression and also our most popular, enjoyed around the world since it first went on sale on St David’s Day 2004. Red Flag is a much more recent bottling, launched in late 2012 – it’s actually a special edition, launched as part of our Icons of Wales series to commemorate Welsh martyr Dic Penderyn. In terms of differences between the whiskies, the Red Flag is bottled at a slightly lower strength (41% abv compared to 46% abv) and a lighter flavor profile.
RT: Whisky-making in Wales dates back to at least 1705, but ultimately died out around the time of the First World War. When Penderyn opened, it became the first distillery operating on Welsh soil since that time. Why do you think it took so long for Welsh whisky-making to stage a comeback?
SD: That’s a very good question – when you consider Penderyn’s location (right above some of the world’s finest fresh water) it seems incredible that no-one else set up a distillery there. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that setting up a distillery is no easy enterprise – it’s a huge investment and not something anyone would get into for easy money. You’d need to love whisky and love Wales to embark upon a journey like this, and Penderyn’s founders certainly had to work hard to make their dream a reality.
RT: One of those early Welsh distillery families spawned Evan Williams, a prominent figure in bourbon history. Do you or any of the people at Penderyn have a liking for bourbon whiskey?
SD: Absolutely – in fact, we use bourbon barrels for our initial maturation, so bourbon is a big influence for us. Interestingly, as well as Buffalo Trace barrels, we also use barrels from Evan Williams, who, as you point out, came from Wales. It gives a wonderful circularity to the whole process!
RT: One of the points of interest for your distillery is your Faraday still, which differs from the more traditional double or triple copper pot still. What advantages do you gain from using this different style of still?
SD: The single pot still (unlike a conventional two or three pot still system) has a number of influences on the spirit produced, but the most notable is that it improves dwell time with the copper and removes many of the undesirable compounds.
RT: Another distinction at Penderyn is that you distill your whisky to an exceptionally strong 92% abv. What does distilling such a strong spirit do for your whisky?
SD: The higher ABV reflects the fact that the spirit is of a higher quality – in a very literal sense, it’s purer. It’s not widely known that part of the reason for maturing whisky in wood is to reduce the impurities found in new make spirit, but the purity of our spirit means that we can concentrate our own use of barrels to primarily build complexity, flavour and depth.
RT: What does the future hold for Penderyn? Any upcoming new installments in the Icons of Wales series, for example?
SD: There are big plans for the Icons of Wales series – this year, we’ll release a new bottling celebrating the signing of the Declaration of American Independence, highlighting the fact that there were more signatories of Welsh origin than from any other country. 2014 will be another big year for us, as we celebrate the Dylan Thomas centenary. The best way to stay up to date with our activity and new bottlings is to connect with our Facebook page. If you visit now, you’ll also see the PEOPLE series, which is a new series of unscripted monologues from people with a connection to Wales, which we launched earlier this month