Penderyn Whisky started with a brave and interesting decision which has both identified their character and branding and has immediately placed apparent limits on their expansion. They have established themselves as Welsh through and through, placing themselves just within the borders of the Brecon Beacons national park. This carries with it some limitations of their potential expansion, due to the building regulations in the park but makes their branding clear, from the vein of Welsh gold cutting across every bottle to the proudly stamped AC (Aur Cymru – Welsh Gold) mark at the top of every bottle. Penderyn Whisky is the first Whisky (or Wysgi) company based in Wales for over 100 years. (It seems there was somebody with absolutely no connections to the current company importing Scottish Malt into Wales, re-bottling it and calling it Welsh Whisky for a time, but let’s gloss over that, as it was found to be deeply fraudulent by the SWA.)
I recently attended a MasterClass at Penderyn distillery – a three hour tour through the general history and development of whisk(e)y, how it has evolved and developed and whisky’s place within the world of aged spirits. They also focussed on the differences and similarities between Penderyn’s technique and the rest of the whisky industry. The most striking difference is the still and the distillation process itself. Since Penderyn falls under no local distilling authority, it can use the more open European Definition of Whisky – it needs to be distilled from cereal and aged in wooden casks for three years (I have heard some say three years and a day, but I am still yet to find out why this should make a difference; I have heard the suggestion that it takes into account the leap years but, if anyone could help me out, that would be much appreciated). Unlike Scotland, the wort for the distillation comes from offsite, from Brains brewery, who conduct the mashing and fermentation of the malted barley according to Penderyn’s guidelines. This allows for a fantastic and (as far as I’m aware) unique connection between two very Welsh companies. There are also no restrictions on the number of distillations required, so Penderyn elected to use a newly designed still, designed at the University of Surrey by Dr David Faraday (a direct descendant of Michael Faraday – he of the law, the constant and the cage). This is an internally heated copper pot still with an attached fractionating column still which allows them to draw the wonderfully flavoured new make spirit straight off the still at around 92% ABV. We were given the opportunity to try it: it had citrus and sweet liquorice, spicy notes, along with a distinctly fruity finish. It is believed that the height restriction in the Brecons is blamed for the unusual appearance of the Faraday still. It is in two halves on opposite sides of the still room, divided into the (almost) traditional kettle and the very tall fractionating column.
The new spirit is then diluted and placed straight into bourbon casks from the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. All of their whisky starts in Bourbon casks for four to seven years, depending on the activity of the casks, before being transferred to a selection of alternative casks. Most of their current whiskies have been matured in a selection of casks, but they do occasionally release wholly bourbon aged whisky as well (their newest bourbon aged whisky has just been released). There was mention of a few special casks in the warehouse, a few miles down the road in Hirwuan but beyond letting us know these casks existed, sadly their lips were sealed against further revelations of what releases these may form. Their flagship whisky is the Madeira Finish but they also produce Port Wood and a Sherrywood whiskies. The Madeira is finished for at least a year before bottling, whereas the Port Wood is more of a double cask maturation, with an extended maturation in portwood barriques. Whereas a third of the spirit in their SherryWood has been wholly matured in sherry casks before being vatted with two thirds bourbon aged. They also produce a Peated Cask – much like The Balvenie Peated Cask – this is a non-peated whisky, finished for six months in casks from the Kilchoman distillery on Islay. (The Balvenie Peated Cask whisky is, however, aged in casks which previously held Balvenie’s own peated spirit).
So, to the whisky itself; I was amazed at the similarity between the new make and the matured whisky. All of the flavours from the new make, that fruitiness and subtle liquorice notes, are discernibly present in the final product. There seems to be relatively little subtractive or, indeed, transformative maturation in the development, but there is considerable additive maturation. It could be supposed that this is due to Penderyn’s efforts to make the new spirit as pure as possible, eliminating the oily residues found at lower ABV’s, so the wood does not need to absorb any unpleasantries. The biggest difference to the flavour appears to be the Port Wood where there is a real change to the base notes of the whisky; however, the Madeira and Peated Cask add a wonderful further layer over the new spirit. The Madeira has a complement of fresh fruits and green leafy herbs, whereas the Peated, as one would expect, brings a very coastal, savoury smoke to the nose. It is delicate, certainly not overpowering, and lasts wonderfully right through to the finish. The same, citrus, fruity freshness with just some liquorice notes still remain, complemented and supplemented by the finish of choice. The whisky is uncomplicated, light, fragrant and very tasty. The Sherrywood and Madeira finished whiskies both feel very definitely summer tipples: light and almost floral. The Peated and Port finishes are wonderfully autumnal but perhaps not the deeply frozen midwinter warmers that some of the Islay peat beasts are.