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...

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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


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