HOW PENDERYN REDISCOVERED A LOST ART
Back in the 1990s, one man brought whisky distilling back to Wales for the first time in a century and the team at Penderyn – now all women – make a staggering 330,000 bottles a year. Sandra Hembery found out more...
PRIME Minister Theresa May turned to baked beans and a tipple of Welsh whisky to get her through a serious Brexit back-stabbing.
With Jacob Rees-Mogg threatening to depose the party leader and ministers resigning amid the EU fallout, Mrs May admitted to knocking back a shot of the “Welsh gold” last month.
But it is a long way from the discovery of a unique still in Brecon to the Penderyn whisky gracing Number 10’s drinks cabinet.
Back in the ’90s, Alun Evans, who ran a pub in Hirwaun, heard about a still for sale, which had been designed by a descendant of British scientist Michael Faraday as part of a university project.
It had never been commissioned, but Evans got together with pals and took a punt on setting up a distillery in an old wine warehouse with a natural source of water underneath.
Now Penderyn, based in the village of the same name, is a global venture – selling to countries as far afield as Japan and Siberia.
It boasts an all-female team of distillers, which last year produced a staggering 330,000 bottles.
In the ’90s one man transformed the process. Dr Jim Swan, who died last year, was the distillery’s master blender, charged with creating Penderyn’s unique style of single malt.
A consultant to the worldwide drinks industry, Dr Swan was an expert in maturing spirits in oak casks and the distillation process itself.
Under his guidance, Penderyn started producing world-beating spirits from three basic ingredients – barley, yeast and water.
Staff started distilling in 2000, with the first whisky bottled in the presence of Prince Charles in 2004.
It is the casks already used in the USA’s Bourbon whisky industry that give the spirit much of its flavour, and all of its colour.
That same spirit is sometimes put in a Madeira wine or sherry cask and it takes on a whole new taste.
When Penderyn opened in 2004 it had been more than 100 years since a Welsh whisky was distilled.
In 1889 the Welsh Whisky Distillery opened in Frongoch, Bala, Gwynedd. It closed 14 years later, leaving the nation without a whisky distiller.
What makes Penderyn different from Scotch or Irish whiskies?
The first still was the only one of its kind in the UK – and possibly the world – that was a single column still.
While most Scottish and Irish distilleries use a two or three-pot still system, the technology developed at Penderyn allows for a clean spirit to be produced from just the one.
Each morning the copper-pot still is charged with their own malted barley wash.
As the steam heats the liquid it starts to bubble and the vapour rises into a copper column above the still. The column has a number of perforated plates and the vapour condenses on the first plate before returning to the still.
As the process continues, the vapour reaches the second plate... and so on, before evaporating and falling back to the still; each step leaving the spirit smoother, softer and more refined than before.
Eventually the spirit is drawn from the seventh plate on the second column and piped into a glass spirit safe where it lands, literally drop by drop, over the course of the day.
This process not only imbues the raw spirit with great complexity, it also removes many of the undesirable chemical compounds. It arrives at the spirit safe at an industry high of 92% alcohol – virtually free from those chemical compounds.
The spirit safe is literally padlocked, as it has not been subject to the British taxation system.
Whisky is then aged in charred oak barrels. This is mainly to remove any remaining chemical compounds as the charcoal in the oak barrels acts as a filter.
All the elements of the distillation process are closely controlled by Penderyn’s distilling team.
Even slight variations in climatic conditions will produce subtle changes of character in the finished product.
While the method to produce the original whisky has changed little over the years, the production side has now
expanded. A second single still was designed specifically for the site in 2013, and Penderyn now boasts two more of the usual (Scottish method) lantern stills at its site.
It can also boast 42,000 visitors this year.
Jon Tregenna, media manager at the distillery, said staff now go around the world spreading the word about Welsh whisky.
He said: “As we go around the world we are educating people about Wales.
“Wales is the secret Celtic cousin. If you don’t know much about Britain you will have heard of the Irish and Scots. We tell the story of Wales. We tell it through our history – we have 600 castles, more than anywhere else in the world, and Welsh is one of the oldest languages in Europe.”
Penderyn now produces two main ranges – the gold one, which has 46% alcohol, and the Dragon range, with 41% alcohol.
That 5% difference in alcoholic content can add £9 per bottle to the price.
The Dragon range bears the motto “Y ddraig goch ddyry cychwyn”, which is used in many Welsh logos and was the battle standard of legendary Welsh princes.
The Gold range is named after Welsh gold, which is extremely rare, pure and precious.
Penderyn also boasts an Icons of Wales range.
Opera singer Sir Bryn Terfel is honoured, particularly for his favourite role, that of Falstaff.
Another “special”, That Try, harks back to an amazing moment in Welsh rugby history. It recounts the highlight of a match that took place on January 27, 1973, in a packed Cardiff Arms Park, when the Baa-Baas scored what is regarded as the greatest try ever seen. The bottle features a specially-commissioned drawing of scorer Sir Gareth Edwards.
Dylan Thomas is also given his own whisky.
Released in 2014 to mark the centenary of the birth of the famed Welsh writer, it celebrates his life and works and features original photography and illustrations.
Another icon of Wales whisky is called Independence and commemorates the signing of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Thomas Jefferson, who went on to become one of America’s most famous presidents, was one of the 56 men who adopted the Declaration of Independence. Wales is a small country yet Jefferson and 15 of his fellow signatories had Welsh roots.
The first special whisky to be produced in the range was Red Flag. It commemorates the first time a red flag was raised as a symbol of social protest.
This happened during the 1831 Merthyr Rising, which ended in the execution of miner Dic Penderyn, aka Richard Lewis.
But for those with a few extra pennies to spare, you can even buy your own complete cask of the liquid Welsh gold. Retailing at around £7,000, Penderyn fans can buy the cask which is matured at the distillery for anywhere between five and seven years. What you get at the end of the wait is around 300 bottles of Welsh whisky at 46% alcohol.
That works out at around £20 per bottle.
And for those who don’t like whisky, the distillery also makes Brecon Botanicals gin, Five vodka and the Merlyn cream liqueur.
So how do you get to be a Penderyn distiller? By not applying for the job.
Penderyn bosses know that if they advertise for a distiller they will get inundated with applications. So when the now distillery manager Laura Davies applied for a lab technician’s job little did she know what was involved.
“I probably found out at my interview. I didn’t apply for the job. I thought I was applying for a technician’s job.
“I turned up for my interview and there were around 10 glasses in front of me.”
Laura had to smell and taste each drink and describe it. While she thought she was completely wrong, it turns out she got more than 90% of the test right.
Distillers have to have a “nose” for the various aromas and tastes. It is something that can’t be taught and now Laura leads a team of three women who help to develop the unique Penderyn taste.
But it was not her first choice of career: Laura originally had plans to become a crime scene investigator after graduating in forensic science.
Now she has to protect her nose, by not wearing perfume at work and, if she’s doing a sensory session, she resists having anything with a strong flavour at lunch.
Although it is unusual to have an all-women distilling team, it’s not surprising. Women are believed to have better “noses” as a general rule.
Penderyn has grown rapidly since it first produced whisky in 2004.
It is now stocked in Harrods, Asda, Tesco, Waitrose and other supermarket giants – and at venues including the Ritz and Savoy hotels in London.
Penderyn now has plans to open a new distillery on the old Swansea Copper-works site in 2021, after a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The site, opposite the Liberty Stadium, includes a visitor centre with shop, tasting bar, exhibition space and toilets, along with the creation of a distillery, offices and VIP bar.
The brand is also hoping to open a new site in north Wales, as it outgrows its current site in Rhondda Cynon Taf.
The Llandudno base would include a store, visitor centre and training hub for workshops.
Distillery manager Laura Davies looks after the day-to-day running of spirit production at Penderyn
Laura Davies with blender Aista Jukneviciute and new recruit Bethan Morgans