When it comes to whisky, Wales doesn’t get as much as a look in as our Celtic cousins to the north in Scotland or over the water in Ireland, but that doesn’t mean our history isn’t drenched in distilling or that whisky, or wysgi, doesn’t flow through our veins.
As far back as the fourth century AD, a man by the name of Reaullt Hir was rumoured to be distilling a drink, off of the North coast on Bardsey Island, made of barley, yeast and honey.
Skip forward a few centuries to the 1700s and we meet a man named Evan Williams. Hailing from Dale in Pembrokeshire, where his family opened a distillery in 1705, Evans left Wales for the USA and in 1783 began producing Evan Williams Bourbon, considered by many to be the finest bourbon in the world. Welsh distillers even first produced Southern Comfort and the legendary Jack Daniels has been rumoured to derive from Welsh stock.
Despite the Tennessee distillery rubbishing the claims of Mark Evans of Llanelli who supposedly found Jack’s original bourbon recipe in an old book of herbal remedies belonging to his great-great-grandmother whose husband named Daniel emigrated to Tennessee in 1853, it has been proved that JD’s grandfather was at least Welsh.
Fast forward to the new millennium, and the opening of the Welsh Whisky Company, now known as Penderyn Distillery, and it just proves that Wales can distil with the rest of them. Penderyn, the first commercial whisky distillery in over 100 years, is situated amongst the mountains of the Brecon Beacons and as well as its malt whisky, it also produces vodka, gin and Merlyn, its famous liqueur.
As Wales’ only whisky makers, I’m thrilled to introduce Laura Davies, Penderyn’s distiller to give us a brief lesson in whisky distillation.
I joined the team at Penderyn in early 2012, fresh from university. I didn’t actually know that I was applying for the role of Distiller here – obviously, if you advertise for a Distiller, you get so many applications, so it was all kept very low-key. I applied to be a Technician, thinking it probably wouldn’t be very exciting but that it was a job – how wrong I was! I was invited for an interview, at which point I was told what I was actually applying for, and, after the usual interview routine, instructed to nose and taste several glasses of liquid. I had to describe and identify what was in each glass to be considered for the job. I scored highest, and was offered the job. I haven’t looked back and it’s taught me that things aren’t always what they seem!
What is the process of distilling whisky in a nutshell?
First, we take the malted barley and mill it into a fine grist. The grist is mixed with hot water, in a large vessel called the mash tun, in order to dissolve the sugars within it. The grist is allowed to soak with the water being changed several times and being slightly increased in temperature each time. At the end of this process, we have something called the ‘wort’.
The wort will go into our washbacks, where yeast will be added, and will be left there to ferment for 2-3 days. The yeast will convert the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Once the fermentation is complete, the solids will be separated from the liquid. The liquid, known as the ‘wash’ will then be filled into one of our stills for distillation.
We have two very unique ‘Penderyn’ Stills here at Penderyn, as well as a pair of the more traditional style pot-stills.
The purpose of distillation is to take the fermented liquid from being sort of an unhopped beer at around 8% to being a completely colourless, fruity, fragrant spirit – we draw our spirit from our Penderyn Stills at between 92% and 86% ABV (an industry high, and one of the reasons that Penderyn is so unique).
The next step is to fill this spirit into casks. In order to be classed as whisky, the spirit must rest in oak casks for at least 3 years. We source our casks from Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky, and cask at 63.4% ABV. The final part of the journey is to sample the casks to determine how they’re maturing and if they’re ready to use. At this point, we rely on the expert help of Dr Jim Swan, an industry expert and our consultant, who will nose (and sometimes taste, if it’s necessary) each and every cask with myself and a colleague to decide if the whisky is ready for bottling (it’s a tough job!). We only take the whisky for bottling when it’s absolutely ready, and we bottle everything ourselves on site.
If you weren’t a distiller, what would you be?
Hmm…tough question. If I had to be anything other than a distiller, I guess I’d love to design clothes and shoes. I love being creative and I love the creative side of my job, but I’m absolutely awful at art so I don’t think I’d be too successful! I’ll stick to whisky!
What are you favourite whiskys?
My favourite Penderyn whisky is our B227 Single Cask Edition – it’s a bourbon-matured whisky at cask strength and it has a beautiful aroma of vanilla and fresh fruit in the nose and a long, lingering finish. I do like the Auchentoshan range because it’s sweetness and fruitiness reminds me of our own products. I’m also keen on the Taiwanese whisky Kavalan because it has such lovely rich flavours and the Podium, especially, has a very complex and intriguing nose to it.
When you’re not distilling, what are you doing?
I spend most of my day in sensible work boots and practical clothing, so I really love shopping at the weekend! I’m also a fan of music and so enjoy going to watch live music when I get the chance. I love travelling too, and I’m very lucky that my role here at Penderyn sends me to great places like Paris, New York and Switzerland to promote the brand.
What’s the best thing about being a distiller?
I count myself very lucky that I enjoy coming to work every day. It’s not 9-5, and of course it can be stressful at times, but a lot of the time I don’t feel like I’m working. I love putting our batches together, and I feel so excited when I see someone buying a bottle or ordering Penderyn in a bar. I know that I’ve been part of that and there are few jobs where you can truly feel so involved in the product. I love the opportunity to be creative, and I think, for me, the best part is seeing someone’s face light up when they ask what I do for a living. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of that!
What makes Penderyn’s whisky so good?
We have a single distillation on our Penderyn Stills – Scottish whiskies are typically distilled using a 2-pot system, while Ireland uses a 3-pot system. Our Penderyn Stills allow us to draw a very high-strength, fruity, fresh spirit from a single distillation. We also use fresh, natural spring water from our own spring beneath the distillery.
Our work with Dr Jim Swan also allows us pioneering wood management – Dr Swan is a world-renowned expert on wood maturation and we are one of the only distilleries to give a Madeira Finish.
But don’t just take my word for it – if you haven’t tried it already, give it a go, and let us know what you think!
How do you like to enjoy your whisky?
I always try to enjoy my whisky without water, at least at first – I love to really appreciate the full experience of a whisky; the colour, the nose, taste, the finish. My favourite way to enjoy a glass of Penderyn is in the garden after a long day – I’ve got lovely views of the Welsh countryside from my garden and I find it very relaxing.
If you’d like to see what Laura is up to at the distillery, or when she’s out and about for Penderyn, you can add her on Facebook (‘Laura at Penderyn’) or follow her on Twitter; @LauraPenderyn. Penderyn also run sweet tours of the distillery so check it out!