Whisky woe in Wales

Whisky woe in Wales

Charles MacLean recalls a bygone era when distinguished gentlemen with a love of alliteration decided to distil whisky in Wales – only to have their brave venture scuppered by suspect casks and the Temperance movement.

History | 16 Sep 2001 | Issue 18 | By Charles MacLean

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What is thought to be one of only three surviving bottles from a distillery in North Wales which closed in 1900 will be auctioned on Wednesday 26th September 2001 at Phillips International Auctioneers, Tredegar House, Newport, Wales. The other two – one of which belongs to HRH The Prince of Wales – can be seen at the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff.With the auctioned bottle will come a collection of framed memorabilia of this vainglorious attempt to produce classic malt whisky in the principality.These photographs have tantalising, and sometimes obscure, captions, such as: “When Queen Victoria stayed at Pale (near Bala) she was presented with a magnificent polished oak cask, with silver hoops, filled with Welsh Whisky by Mr. Price. A similar presentation was made to the Prince of Wales in 1894. Judging by the letters of enquiry since received from the Yeoman of the Cellars, the Queen is uncommonly anxious to taste her own whisky. Some time after this the whisky styled itself ‘Royal’ Welsh Whisky.”And also: “The workers at the Frongoch Distillery were brave men to endure the scorn of their contemporaries. Hence the conspicuous and inevitable kettle in the photograph. Since Michael D. Jones, Principal of the Independent College, who started the Patagonian migration scheme lived here at the time, Welsh Nationalism and religious beliefs were so strong that some of the local outside suppliers had to effect delivery by night for fear of being ostracised by their neighbours.”The distillery was founded in 1889 at Frongoch, near Bala, in Merionethshire, North Wales, on the bank of the River Tryweryn and adjacent to the Bala-Festiniog railway line. The principal sponsor was the owner of the site and the local squire, Richard John Lloyd Price of Rhiwlas, Esq, “a gentleman who took delight in hunting, in dogs, and in horses”. He also established a slate quarry, a brush factory, a lime kiln, a tileworks and a bottling plant for Rhiwalis Table Waters drawn from St Beuno’s Well, promoted under the delightful slogan: “Once drunk, always drunk”. The Welsh Whisky Company’s founder and first chairman was Robert Willis.The idea of establishing a distillery in North Wales had come to these gentlemen two years earlier, while they were strolling in Hyde Park one Sunday. They were especially persuaded by the alliterative attractions of the ‘W’– Welsh Whisky flowed easily off the tongue they thought. The company was founded with the considerable capital of £100,000, quickly subscribed by the licensed trade (mainly distillers themselves) in Liverpool, Bristol and London, and was registered on 12th June 1889. Mrs Lloyd Price, in traditional Welsh costume, modelled for the company’s trademark.All seemed set fair. The situation for the distillery was ideal – “Where the fresh ozone breezes tempered the summer heat and moderated the winter cold, where the water supply flowed down from the mountains and the peats were to be found in plenty on adjoining mosses” (Harper’s Manual, 1915) – and the distillery itself, built from stone collected and carted into Frongoch by local farmers, was described as “one of the most thoroughly perfect that could be for the required purpose” (ibid).The same entry refers to the involvement of “the late Mr Chas. R. Haig – than whom there was no better whisky expert in London and the provinces.” Management was entrusted to one Mr Colville, “a Scotchman with a long experience as a distiller”; a Mr Hughes was Under Manager – “he had a daughter who was a gifted pianist and her services were much in demand at concerts”.The first season’s operations were described as fairly promising; the second season’s were even better. Queen Victoria was presented with a cask when she visited Pale Hall, near Bala, in September 1889 (delivered to Windsor Castle two years later), and a similar cask was presented to the Prince of Wales in 1894 by his “brother freemasons” of Bala Lodge, as mentioned above. He apparently sent a double-edged message back through an equerry, to the effect that ‘there would always be a place in HRH’s cellars for Welsh whisky’. Although Mr Lloyd Price was never awarded the Royal Warrant, the company’s
advertisements referred to “Royal Welsh Whisky”.However, the distillery’s success was short-lived. The entry in Harper’s Manual 1915 remarks, waspishly, that: “The whisky was not maturing properly; it remained rawish, crude and practically flavourless for a pure malt product and a market could not be found for it ... In fact, only a year or two sufficed to prove that the very costly experiment of making Scotch malt whisky in Wales, under the best conditions possible, was doomed to failure. The whisky lay at the distillery ‘eating its head off’ for want of customers, occasional lots of casks were sold off at a loss to get rid of accumulating stock, and ultimately the whole was disposed of at the auctioneer’s hammer in London at an average of something less than a half, or even one-third the prime cost of
production.”Now, readers of this magazine will know that the fact that the whisky failed to mature was the fault of the casks not of the product itself. Although our knowledge of the effects of wood has increased massively during the last 20 years or so, even in the 1890s distillery workers would say “the wood makes the whisky”. So what went wrong?I think the clue is to be found in the picture caption quoted above. North Wales was the powerhouse of the great Methodist revival of the 1870s, 80s and 90s, and the sect is ardently committed to being tee-total. This was the era of the so-called ‘first religious revival’, the high-point of chapel building throughout Wales, although those in the south tended to be Baptist rather than Methodist. The ‘Patagonian scheme’ mentioned above was the migration of a ship-load of settlers from North Wales on the S.S. Mimosa around 1895, bound for Patagonia (South America) in search of religious freedom and a utopian agricultural society. Temperance and Prohibitionist Societies proliferated, indeed the day of the opening of the distillery coincided with a Temperance Meeting in Bala, addressed by Sir Wilfred Lawson MP, and led to an exchange of doggerel between the latter and the aforementioned Mr Lloyd Price, which included the proud boast: “And England and Scotia will both cease to boast, When Welsh ‘white eye’ has got them both simply on toast, And this still-born idea will not perish still-born, When Fame sounds Welsh Whisky’s praise loud on her horn.”The Welsh Whisky Distillery Company Ltd was put into liquidation in 1900, and finally wound up in September 1903. The “most thoroughly perfect” buildings lay empty for some time, then were used as a prisoner of war camp during the Great War. There were still some German prisoners there in late-1919. During the Irish Troubles of the early 1920s it was used to hold Irish prisoners in the unhappy custody of Scottish guards. Not a stone remains today of the distillery: the site was developed for housing in the 1980s leaving only memories in the shape of a vintage bottle and framed pictures. Valuable antiquities from a brave, yet doomed venture. n
Y I am indebted to Dr. Alex Kraaijeveld who drew my attention to the Journal of the Merioneth Historical and Record Society, Vol. IV, 1961-64 (see his interesting contributions to www.celticmalts.com – for more information about distilling in Wales).The last wordBetween 1974 and 1996 a company named variously the Brecon Brewery, Welsh Whisky Ltd and Welsh Distillers Limited operated from Brecon in South Wales. But it did not produce whisky: it bought Scotch fillings and allegedly added herbs to make what it described as “the original Welsh whisky (or chwisgi)”. Following pressure from the Scotch whisky industry which objected that Welsh Whisky was a “passing off” and a “misleading indication of origin” under EC regulations, this company went into liquidation.A group of men from Essex bought what remained from the receiver, changed its name to Welsh Distillers and intended to start distilling – before they too went under, after “cooking the books to delay payment of excise duty” [Western Mail, Cardiff, January 2001].The unusual still they commissioned was bought by The Welsh Whisky Company, which has established a distillery in the village of Penderyn in the Brecon Beacons and went into production in August 2000, distilling around 500 litres of malt whisky a day. More information regarding this venture will soon be seen in Whisky Magazine.Welsh Whisky Company:
+44 (0) 1685 813300
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