Inside the Welsh Distillery Taking on the Irish and Scottish Whisky Dons
Photo courtesy Penderyn Distillery.

Inside the Welsh Distillery Taking on the Irish and Scottish Whisky Dons

Ireland may have Jameson and Scots their Scotch, but Penderyn Distillery is making a name for Welsh whisky. “The Scots do a double distillation, the Irish distil three times, but we only distil once,” says Penderyn’s Jon Tregenna.
April 15, 2016, 10:00am

Vast mountain scenery, epic castles, Celtic roots, a longstanding rivalry with the English, and a love for whisky.

No, not Scotland or Ireland: Wales.

For many drinkers, whisky means Scotch or Jameson, but over the last few decades, distillers from countries as unlikely as Taiwan and Denmark have tried their hand at making the water of life. Now, it's Wales' turn.

Penderyn Distillery is currently the country's only whisky maker but rather than jumping on the bandwagon of the spirit's recent surge in popularity, its distillers are reviving longstanding whisky-making methods that reach back as far as St. Patrick.

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Distilling equipment at Penderyn Distillery, the only whisky distillery in Wales. Photo courtesy Penderyn Distillery.

"St. Patrick was born in Wales, so they say, and then went to Europe to train to become a monk," explains Penderyn distiller David Cover. "French monks had deciphered the method of distilling from Arab perfume-making texts, and had started to distil wine to make brandy. Of course, grapes don't grow so well in the UK so when Patrick came back with the method, people used different grains—like malted barley—and made whisky. The story is that he then went to evangelise Ireland and introduced the spirit there."

For which the Irish sainted him. Well, not for that specifically, but you get the gist—if you believe the Welsh version, then the Scots and Irish have a Welshman to thank for their national spirits.

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As it turns out, the distillers of Kentucky need to thank the Welsh too.

"Evan Williams was a Welshman with a distillery in Pembrokeshire," explains Cover. "He emigrated to America, started a corn farm, and began making whisky from the excess. He's known as one of the founding fathers of Bourbon."

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Given this illustrious past, why is Penderyn currently the only whisky distillery in Wales? And if it only opened in the year 2000, what went so wrong before then?

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Whisky barrels in the Penderyn warehouse. Photo courtesy Penderyn Distillery.

"The last Welsh distillery before us was in North Wales, back in 1890," he says. "Wales was probably one of the worst places to have a distillery at the time because there was such a big temperance movement. A lot of people hated alcohol and they were prepared to get quite violent about it. They'd go into pubs and drag people into the street and beat them up. Obviously the distillery owner was quite scared of these people and didn't want to get caught, so he started doing his deliveries by night. One morning they found him run over by his own horse and cart."

Depending on who's side you were on, Williams had either been drinking too much of his own whisky or he'd been got by the temperance movement. Whatever the truth of it is, that put paid to whisky production in Wales for the next hundred years.

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Photo courtesy Penderyn Distillery.

And then Penderyn came along.

"We're capable of making something that's unique and different, something that's completely Welsh," the distillery's media manager Jon Tregenna tells me. "The Scots do a double distillation, the Irish distil three times, but we only need to distil once, because we have a different kind of still that's works as if we're doing loads of distillations in one go. That makes the whisky quite light and delicate."

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This is where distilling gets into the nitty gritty of chemistry, and Penderyn's innovative still was created specially for them by Dr. David Faraday, the grandson of Victorian scientist Michael Faraday and a chemical engineer at Surrey University. His invention uses what's known as a fractionating column, similar to the purification systems used in the petrochemical industry. The alcohol is put into the wide base of the still and heated up. As the liquid evaporates, it rises through the copper column above the still, hitting seven perforated plates. It becomes smoother and more refined as it works its way up.

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The bottling line. Photo courtesy Penderyn Distillery.

The still doesn't look as beautiful as a traditional Scottish still, made like something out of Wallace and Gromit with more rivets and bolts than sweeping curves, but the raw spirit that comes out of it smells incredible, and surprisingly not overpoweringly alcoholic. I stick my nose in a glass of the raw stuff and it reminds me of ripe soft summer fruits in a bowl. I get stopped before I take a sip.

"It's light and fruity," Tregenna says,"but the spirit comes off the still at 92 percent."

It's no wonder the temperance movement had a hold in Wales. Imagine drinking booze that potent on a regular basis. Penderyn's Welsh still produces the highest strength of any malt whisky made in the world.

"This is one of the main differences," he adds. "The spirit that comes off Scottish stills is around 65 percent, but it's quite heavy and oily. The Scots can't make their whisky another way by law, but we're only governed by European law so we were able to be more modern and innovative."

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Photo by the author.

Of course, whisky is as much art as it is science, and even with a unique still, the final products needed to be honed into something fine.

"Part of the barrel ageing process for whisky is to give the spirit extra purification time. The wood reacts with the alcohol and removes any leftover impurities," Tregenna explains. "Because our spirit is already so pure, the barrel ageing process for us is just to add character, and so we can choose what flavours we want to add in."

READ MORE: This Bar Is Serving Whisky from an 18-Foot Oak Tree

So whether the heft of peat or the rounded warmth of Bourbon, the Welsh whisky can play to people's preferences, leaving less to chance.

"The curious thing is that people who claim they don't like whisky say they like Penderyn," he says. "Scotch can run across your tongue like a barbarian hoard charging over a peaty highland bog. But when you drink our whisky it's as if you're being flirted with by an ageing druid or sung to by a bard."

He's not wrong. The spirit woos me in a melodic Welsh voice, urging me. Come and taste, my love. Come and taste.

When I do, I find myself completely enchanted. The Welsh certainly seem to be holding their own when it comes to whisky. And given their history, we probably shouldn't be surprised.