Text and photos ©2009
The two-lane road to Penderyn winds up the mountain and across a broad, windswept heath at the edge of Brecon Beacons National Park in southern Wales. It’s a forbidding landscape, barren except for coarse grass grazed by scattered sheep. The village is home to the only distillery in Wales and one of the smallest you’ll find anywhere. Wales was without a distillery for 96 years, until the Welsh Whisky Company began distilling at Penderyn in September 2000. Their first whisky was released in 2004. Though a small operation, they have a beautiful visitors’ center, with exhibits tracing Welsh history as well as Welsh distilling.
Brains brewery in Cardiff produces the malted barley wash that is then distilled in Penderyn’s one-of-a-kind pot still. 2,500 liters go into the still at 8% alcohol. Over the next eight to ten hours, 250 liters of 92% alcohol spirit will be produced. This single distillation is enough to fill just one barrel a day. The distillate is combined with water drawn from Penderyn’s natural spring, bringing the alcohol level down to 63%, then racked into American White oak Bourbon barrels (most from Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky), where it will rest from four to seven years.
Penderyn currently produces three whiskies, each differentiated by the oak in which they’re finished. Most, about 90,000 bottles a year, are finished in Madeira barrels, which begin their service aging red wine in France. From there the barrels go to the island of Madeira, where they’re used to age the eponymous fortified wine, before ending their useful life at Penderyn. The whisky is kept in these barrels from four to six months, until the master distiller judges that enough of the Madeira character has been imparted to the spirit. 8,000 – 10,000 bottles are finished in dry Oloroso Sherry barrels, and a like amount is finished in Scotch whiskey barrels, used to impart lightly-peated notes to the finished whisky. The final product is watered down to 46% alcohol before bottling. I always water mine further to bring out the fruitiness and subtler nuances that are lost when drinking whisky neat. If you want an entirely Welsh experience, you can cut your whisky with Ty Nant natural mineral water.
Despite having judged various spirits competitions, I learned something new from Keith Tench, manager of the visitor center, as he led us through a tasting of their range of whiskies: try smelling the glass first with one nostril, then the other. Most people’s sense of smell is stronger on the left side than the right.
While traditional whisky forms the core of the business, the distillery also produces small amounts of FIVE Vodka (distilled five times), Brecon Gin, and Merlyn Welsh Cream Liqueur. Penderyn’s products are available in 16 countries, and 32 states in the U.S.
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