“This idea of Welsh whisky…” Our Scottish-born guide trails off as the bus approaches Penderyn, the only whisky distillery in Wales and reputedly the smallest in the world. “Anyway,” she tries again with a dismissive wave of her hand, “It’s said to be quite smooth.”
The idea indeed. Is it possible that the Welsh – those Morris dancing British Isle cousins of the Scots – distill anything approaching the peaty “water of life” perfections with names as evocative as Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Glenmorangie. Like our guide, I have my doubts a tiny company just a decade in could pull it off.
Tucked in the rolling hills inside Brecon Beacons National Park an hour north of Cardiff within sight of the slag heaps left from centuries of coal mining, the Penderyn micro-distillery sits on what it claims is the sweetest of springs. In fact, a small cheesemaker in nearby Blaenafon – a UNESCO World Heritage town – puts this whisky to use as a flavouring for one of its cheddars aged down the pit of an old coal mine. My expectations thus lowered in spite of the hyped water, we enter the new Visitor’s Centre.
Inside, manager Keith Tench begins our tour with the story of the last Welsh distillery. It closed over a century ago, an unequivocal failure. He says the swill produced at that distillery “was sought after by the paint industry as a thinner.” Keith passes around a bottle of malted barley wash, a cloudy 8% sludge prepared for Penderyn at the unappetizingly named Brains Brewery in Cardiff. “It doesn’t smell very nice,” says Keith. “A little like the carpet the morning after the spilling of a lot of beer.” Crash! go my expectations through the floor. If I wanted to sample world-class whisky, why didn’t I just go to the source – Scotland?
Keith leads us past a glass wall through which we witness the boxing up of bottles – not exactly a unique or otherwise remarkable experience. But through the glass we can see a unique combination pot and column still developed here on site. Penderyn is experimenting with age-old whisky making techniques. As we file through an exhibit that wouldn’t be out of place in a low-budget museum, we lift lids from wooden boxes and sniff at the ingredients that go into Penderyn’s Brecon Special Reserve Gin: lemon rind, liquorice root, cinnamon bark, nutmeg. At last we enter a room with sampling stations and a bar. Keith takes up his position behind the bar where he pours drams of the distillery’s three whiskies nicknamed Aur Cymru or Welsh gold – of course, the term Scotch can be neither legally nor accurately applied to these drinks. They are whiskies and while they share characteristics with their cousins, they are not Scotch as I am about to discover through my nose.
Following Keith’s lead, I swirl the golden Madeira single malt in the bowl of the nosing glass beneath a cupped hand. He calls this technique the Welsh cwtch or hug and demonstrates how bodily warmth releases the personality of the liquor by embracing his assistant, a stocky footballer who reminds his amourous colleague that both of them are already married. The shtick lightens my anxieties. I inhale the captured volatiles one nostril at a time as instructed… butterscotch from the bourbon barrels in which the whisky was matured. Then come the fruity vanilla notes reminiscent of fine port from the Madeira wine casks in which it was finished. Indeed nothing like the smoky Scotch I’m used to, there is nothing here to bring to mind a disapproving friend’s summation of Scotch that it smells of ashtrays spilling over with cold cigar butts. Rather, the taste is as pure and smooth as the spring waters beneath the distillery are alleged to be. Not Scotch, but what a whiskey.
It’s just gone 9:30 a.m., but I’m eager to sample the other two whiskies, one finished in Oloroso sherry casks, the other in peated scotch casks. They do not disappoint. The peated brings to mind the northern scotches, the sherried presents rich, dark caramel, but both give way to that Penderyn fresh fruitiness of melons, citrus and apple to finish with vanilla.
“Anyone for gin?” Keith Tench calls out. Perhaps the others fear they’ll require the services of AA upon returning home. At any rate, while there’s the odd call for Merlyn cream liquor, I’m the only one for gin. Nobody’s dares the vodka. Brecon Special Reserve Gin proves quite simply the finest of this family of drink I have ever come across. The sharp spice flavourings arrive early, but are balanced by the sweetness of the liquorice and soothed by the quintessence of orange and lemon citrus. I savour the last of it and head for the gift shop – a little wobbly with this early hour gold strike – in search of bottles of everything and to enquire whether or not Penderyn has yet hit the international market – it has, Canada and the USA among the lucky destinations.
Our Scottish-born guide rushes us onto the bus. A smile on my face and a heavy shopping bag in my hand, I oblige, contented in the knowledge that in Scotland, whisky is the water of life while in Wales, it’s a seam of gold.
All photos © Darcy Rhyno
“Keith Tench of Penderyn Distillery in Wales.”
“A Penderyn exhibit interprets the ingredients in its Brecon Special Reserve Gin.”
“Blaenafon Cheddar Company.”