Being at the helm of a new distillery in an emerging whisky region could be daunting, but for Aber Falls' Sam Foster, the freedom provides an opportunity. "You can set your own goals," explains the distillery manager. "You can create your own way, based on what you believe in. You've got a clean slate."
Few slates are cleaner than those of Aber Falls. Foster was picked to join the entirely new team formed to open the distillery back in 2017, the first in North Wales for over 100 years. Proudly embracing their local identity, they use 100 per cent Welsh malted barley and water running fresh from the falls. Another benefit of that blank slate beginning: the purpose-built distillery has allowed them to design processes as sustainably as possible. The demand says it all: their flagship single malt has won several awards and doubled in capacity in just a few short years. With 2023 seeing the arrival of Wales Single Malt Geographical Indication (GI), it’s a strong start for the burgeoning scene.
The valleys of Wales may not be the most well-trodden of whisky routes in the UK, but for those who venture off the beaten track, they’ll find the distillery just a hip flask’s hiking distance from Snowdonia’s spectacular Aber Falls waterfall, where the Afon Goch plummets from the Carneddau mountains into a rockpool below, and onwards through the village of Abergwyngregyn.
The malted barley sourced directly from local farmers, combined with rock-filtered water from the falls, and sea-salt air from the coastal location gives the whisky a unique sense of place. “You’ve got the mountain range behind you, the Menai Strait in front. It doesn’t feel like you come to work when you come to work in a place like this.” Foster, born and raised in North Wales, hadn’t imagined a career in whisky. His family has been farming in the local area since the 1700s; the revival of the amber spirit flowing through Cymru has been meaningful for him personally, and for others in the young team who’ve taken the reins of the distillery together.
And they’ve handled the reins well: the marmalade and chamomile-scented single malt (available from aberfallsdistillery.com and select retailers across Europe) brims with toasted cereal, candied orange, vanilla cream, honey and hints of cocoa and sweet tobacco, with a pleasingly rich, lingering finish. For a distillery in its infancy, the inaugural release is an impressive preview of future potential.
New-wave Welsh whisky, unbound by the history and tradition of classic regions like Scotch, enjoys freedom in innovation and experimentation. Aber Falls is the only distillery in the country to use 100 per cent Welsh barley. Sourced from a farm in Pembrokeshire, it then follows a similar production process as single malt Scotch whisky: malting, milling, mashing, fermentation and double distillation, but there are some idiosyncracies, such as using stainless steel and copper condensers to give more control over the flavour of the spirit. “Copper to give those light, fruity, creamy notes; stainless steel for heavier, 'meatier’ spirits,” explains Foster. “We can play around with them and create different expressions.”
Aber Falls is now in 24-hour production. “We’ve been going from three mashes, to five, to seven…” muses Foster. Currently at a total of 28 mashes per week, the team is expecting to produce around half a million litres of pure alcohol per annum. “The volumes baffle my mind. We’re just watching the numbers going up week by week.” Specially selected casks, predominantly bourbon, new oak, and oloroso sherry, were once filled on-site before maturation, but the increased demand, from around 35 casks per week to around 120 every 10 days, now called for a filling store and warehouse expansion nearby on the Menai Straits.
“It was tricky sometimes back when we were filling 35 on-site, if we would fill 120 casks here now it would just be absolute chaos. There wouldn’t be any visitor centre because all the floors would be taken up by casks!” The expansion coincided with the announcement of the Welsh GI, a proud moment for Foster and his team, and one they hope inspires more Welsh whisky distilleries to pop up. “That's the aim, isn't it?” he grins.
Aber Falls might be a new name, but the team already has a bold vision for sustainability. Starting with the sourcing of baley locally from a single farm, the spent grain goes straight back to the farm as draff for the cows. “Out of the mash tun and into the trailer,” as Foster says – it’s a ‘field to field’, closed-loop system. “We’re constantly looking at all the different processes,” explains Foster. Reducing emissions, anaerobic digestion of pot ale and spent lees, an investigation into converting waste CO2, and exploring alternative burn fuel for the boiler are just some of the processes being implemented and explored. “You’ve got to look at everything,” he adds, “if you’re not, it can be quite irresponsible.”
Supporting the local community forms part of the ethos, too, and the cafe and shop are filled with local Welsh produce from the distillery’s neighbours. It’s a fine place for a pit stop between a morning of walking the waterfalls and an afternoon touring the distillery – where guests can get right to the heart (head, and tails...) of the process, seeing distillation in action and feeling the heat as it comes off the stills.
No tour is complete without a tasting, and alongside samples of the award-winning Single Malt, bottled at 40% ABV, guests have the opportunity to explore limited editions: like the higher strength Distiller’s Cut releases finished in a variety of different casks, and limited-release Distillery Exclusives, available only from the site itself. Visitors will have a chance to try two specials due for release this year: a luscious Vin Santo (an Italian dessert wine) cask finish with intense toasted hazelnut and caramel on the nose and deliciously concentrated dried tropical fruits, cinnamon, ginger and treacle on the palate; and another finished in an ex-Calvados cask, brimming with freshly baked apple and pear, lashings of butterscotch, custard cream, burnt sugar and cinnamon.
For those who really fall in love with Aber Falls, there are even limited opportunities each year to buy a private cask of the distillery’s single malt, allowing members of the ‘slate club’ to follow their own whisky on its maturation journey.
“We’re unique in what we do” Foster points out, “We have our set Single Malt expression and also a load of funky casks.” Past releases have included whiskies matured in casks that previously held the popular Pedro Ximénez sherry, Sauternes dessert wine, and a unique orange liqueur.
The range of production processes and cask finishes gives us a glimpse at the free-rein and experimentation possible in a new-wave distillery, all while still maintaining quality. “We’ve got such a unique opportunity, making Welsh whisky,” Foster adds. “We're really lucky to be in the position we're in.” Aber Falls is waving the flag for the emerging region’s identity, thanks to Welsh ingredients, local suppliers, and an eye on the future of the health of the land. Let’s hope the spirit flows as freely as its namesake’s waterfall for the next one hundred years.
Single Malt Welsh Whisky
Style: Single Malt
Availability: Buy online here.
Nose: Approachable aromas of delicate citrus, marmalade, chamomile florals and creamy vanilla combine with rich, toasted hazelnuts and chocolate.
Palate: Smooth with a pleasant weight, malted cereal notes join lemon curd and candied orange with vanilla, honey and sweet tobacco spice.
Finish: Tobacco spice continues, adding a grippy texture along with the luscious, lingering oiliness.
Comments: Smooth, approachable and very drinkable, a great value single malt and a very promising preview of what this young whisky will go on to do.