At Whisky Live London, I had an opportunity to speak with Gillian Howell of The Welsh Whisky Company about, the first Welsh single malt in over 100 years.
Gillian is quite unusual in the world of whisky. 1. She is Welsh, 2. She makes the only Welsh whisky currently in production; and 3. She is the only female distiller of whom I am aware.
KE – Tell me about Penderyn
JH – Basically, we reignited a tradition in Wales. It’s a brand new distillery, but over 150 years ago there was distilling in Wales. But due to temperance movements, and the fact that the guy who knew how to run the distillery died in an accident – the combination of those two things basically killed the Welsh whisky industry. This company was started by six people sitting in a pub, where most good ideas come from, talking about whisky. "Scotland’s got it, Ireland’s got it, why not Wales?" So that was it.
The seed was planted as it were and the first distillation took place on September 14th 2000.
KE – Is there anything unique to Welsh whisky?
JH – Yes. We use a completely unique distillation process, different from Ireland, different from Scotland.
KE – How so?
JH – In Scotland you have two pot stills, and you distill from one to the next. In Ireland they’ve got three. While at Penderyn, we’ve got one.
KE – But you are double distilled, right?
JH – No. Only once. We’ve incorporated a fair bit of new technology onto the still. The guy who designed it is called David Faraday (a descendant of renowned British scientist Michael Faraday), who examined stills around the world, and created this one by combining the most efficient parts of existing stills. A "super-still" if you will.
It produces an incredibly clean whisky, coming out at almost 92% on a single distillation. In comparison to Scotland where the double distillation produces between 70%-80%. The higher the alcohol content, the cleaner the spirit is.
And when you put the spirit into cask, it absorbs whatever has been in the cask previously. But the cask also leeches out some of the less desirable flavors, but with a higher alcoholic content, there are fewer less desirable flavors to be removed, this gives the cask less work to do, and it matures more quickly. The spirit you are tasting now, what would you put as the age ?
KE - It’s light, I’d say between 6 – 8 years.
JH – That’s only a 4 year old.
KE – I wouldn’t have guessed that, but tell me, why release at 4? To get into the market?
JH - Yes, but also because of the way we make it, it was ready at 4 years. Most Scotch isn’t ready at 4 years. Jim Swan helped with the creation and hand selected the best casks, which is a big factor in the maturation. Jim selects which casks are ready to bottle. These were, in Jim’s estimation, read to go. We did want to get into the market though and we plan to slowly move the age up as our stock matures. Our plan is to have our standard bottling at 5 years – when Jim believes it will be at its peak, but we are also going to be laying down a certain percentage of stock for older whisky. I suppose like other companies, we may decide to release certain age labels. But most people think it is an 8 year old already. So it will be very interesting to see if the 6 tastes like 12, and so on.
KE – Tell me about the process.
JH – We use no peat, it’s aged in first and second fill ex-bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace, and when it’s ready the barrels are married and then put into Madeira casks for 6 months. When we first started we used some ex Scotch, as we didn’t have second fill ex-bourbon. We also have a few sherry casks in the mix and we are experimenting with different finishes.
KE – Let’s talk about the still. Is it a traditional pot still shape?
JH – Yes, but it has a column on top, and it is connected to another column. It’s completely revolutionary – there isn’t another like it in the world.
KE – What about Blends? Has anyone approached you about using Penderyn in a blend?
JH – Right now, we have such limited stock, so it’s more likely that we’ll bottle it all ourselves.
KE – When the first bottle actually hit the shelves?
JH – March 1, 2004. March 1st is St. David’s day, a national day in Wales, Prince Charles came down – brilliant day, so it’s been 2 years, now.
KE – Here’s the obvious question: You are Welsh, You are female, and you are working in a Scottish male dominated industry. How’s that working out for you?
JH – This is an unusual job to have to start with. So it is just another point of difference. The tradition is that the job was handed down from son to son in Scotland – when they started up Penderyn, they wanted to be different in how things were done. So why not go for a female.
Let’s Talk Packaging
One reader asked why I focus so much on packaging. "Because it’s important." Says I.
All other things being equal, a consumer who is unfamiliar with two choices will lean towards the nicer package. This is a constant in marketing. Good packaging says quality. You ARE judged by how you dress.
And the folks at the Welsh whisky company get it.
The bottle itself is nothing to speak of, very much a transparent version of a standard "high-shouldered" Cabernet bottle that has been stretched out a bit – elegant and attractive, but not remarkable.
But when placed in the "presentation frame" the bottle becomes magnificent. The elegant frame accentuates the clean lines of the bottle beautifully. The gold inscribed, black frame is the perfect contrast to the bright gold color of the whisky.
The packaging yells quality. So far, it’s a front runner for my 2006 "best packaging" award.
But, packaging can only help get that first sale – what’s in the bottle is what makes the second sale.
Penderyn’s official tasting notes, per Dr. Jim Swan:
Penderyn has an exceptionally balanced taste with an aroma of
cream toffee and fleetingly of fresh new leather. Then, as the initial
sensations fade, the finishing notes of tropical fruits, raisins and
vanilla emerge strongly and are long lasting.
Undiluted: A little spirity on the nose, which gave way to a young wine aroma, with unripe apples, and early grapes, slightly solvent, and a very light, early spring floral aroma. Surprisingly rich mouth feel, and a strong malt taste with pronounced oak spice – gives way to bourbon, a spicy bite and very light, dried fruit It does taste young, but definitely not 4 years young.
Diluted: It didn’t change the nose much, but the solvent became more pronounced. I tasted more sweetness with the dilution, but at the cost of some malt. Finish was long with more pronounced oak, spice and bourbon.
I preferred it undiluted.
Overall: Very balanced for something so young – but not complex. I don’t notice much of the Madeira, to be honest – except for spice in the finish. I liked Penderyn – and I would love to see where it goes in the next few years. I think this will be some incredible stuff with some more maturity. I’d also like to see it either with a stronger Madeira influence or none at all. I can’t decide. Either way, this is drinkable stuff.
(These notes were NOT taken at the Whisky Live London, show, but a month later in my study – Festivals are an excellent place to try new things, but a horrible place to take serious notes.)
I asked Brett Pontoni of Binny’s Beverage Depot his thoughts:
Its actually pretty well made, a touch young, but not overly spirity, this stuff is going to be killer in another 2-4 years, right now its still solid. Kind of mindful of a lowland with more weight than you would guess from the color. The wood regimen that Jim Swan designed must work, because I would normally be suspicious of a "spirity" character in a whisky 4-5 years old, it is bright and racy, but not dominated by alcohol.
For you sticklers, Penderyn is pronounced pen-DARE-in.
Officialy introduced here on March 1, 2006, Penderyn is bottled at
46% abv, non chill filtered, with a price point of $70 (Binny’s).
Penderyn is slowly working its way into the U.S. – imported by Monsieur
Henri, Penderyn is available in 6 states so
far…watch this space for more.
In addition to Penderyn, the Welsh Whisky Company produces Merlyn Cream Liqueur, Brecon Vodka, and Brecon Gin. The company remains privately owned and the next major goal is the construction of a visitors center at the Penderyn Distillery.