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Celtic Cousins - Reviving part of Welsh culture

The Welsh Whisky Company is in business and impressing whisky experts with its product. Charles MacLean visited it
By Charles MacLean
Like all good whisky tales, the story of the revival of distilling in Wales begins in a pub.It was 1997. Brian Morgan, an economist who was at the time working for the Welsh Development Agency (he is now director of Cardiff University’s Business School), was talking to a friend about the economic future of Wales.Over a couple of malts, they reflected upon the Welsh influence upon distilling in the USA, which was considerable – think of famous Welsh names such as Jack Daniels and Evan Williams. Would it not be a good idea to approach these companies and see if they would help revive the art of whisky distilling in the Principality?By chance, two weeks later, another of Brian’s friends, Alan Evans, phoned to alert him to the sale, in liquidation, of the plant and effects of Welsh Distillers, including a complete bottling line and an unused still.Welsh Distillers had an unfortunate history. It evolved out of ‘The Welsh Whisky Company’, founded in 1974 by the colourful Dafydd Gittins in Brecon.Although it produced a couple of brands of so-called ‘Original Welsh Whisky’ (or ‘chwisgi’), it did not actually distil: the company bought Scotch and allegedly filtered it through herbs. This aroused the wrath of the Scotch Whisky Association, which objected that it was ‘passing off’ and a ‘misleading indication of origin’ under EC Regulations.Daffydd Gittins, did intend to go into production, and even commissioned a still, but he ran out of money and the business (now called Welsh Distillers) was taken over by a group of men from Essex, who later went to prison for “cooking the books to delay payment of excise duty”, according to a report in the Western Mail, Cardiff (Jan 2001).Hence the sale of the still and plant. The whole lot went for £75,000, and within a year The Welsh Whisky Company Ltd had been incorporated.Its first task was to test and prove the still. It was of a completely novel design, combining a 2,500 litre pot still with elements of a column still, so that complete distillation could be achieved in a single unit, and was the invention of Dr. David Faraday, professor of distilling in the University of Surrey, and a great-great grandson of Michael Faraday, the ‘Father’ of electricity and magnetism, and the inventor of the electrolytic cell.The Faraday still also had its origins in a pub – this is the way things work in Celtic countries! – and in a chance meeting between Daffydd Gittins, David Faraday and a colleague of Faraday’s from Surrey University, Dr. Ron Schultz.It was the autumn of 1991 and the place was the George Hotel, Brecon. According to Gittins, he told the boffins he wanted “a far more efficient method of distillation for whisky production, [while] Ron and Dave scribbled away on scraps of paper procured from the busy bar maid”.In May 1993, the new still was installed as part of visitor centre at the ‘Welsh Whisky Distillery’, but it was never connected up.Brian Morgan went to the European Commission for support in testing the novel still. It was of particular interest, since it was capable of producing spirit from any fermented raw materials, anywhere in Europe, with very considerable energy saving over traditional stills (the Faraday still requires only 38 per cent of the energy needed to power equivalent pot stills).The research was led by the University of Surrey, conducted over the course of a year by four Ph.D. students, and funded by the EC and an international consortium of interested companies and academic institutions.None of the founding directors of the Welsh Whisky Company had any experience of distilling, so they appointed the leading independent authority on the subject, Dr. Jim Swan.The first innovation that Dr. Swan suggested was to do away with mashing and fermenting on site. This is not possible in the manufacture of Scotch whisky, but there is no reason why a pioneering non- Scotch distillery should not have its wash made elsewhere than at the distillery.Conversations were opened with S.A. Brain & Company’s Welsh Brewery in Cardiff, less an hour down the road.The second innovation came about as a result of the first. Analysing the wash and new-make spirit, Jim Swan felt there was “something lacking”. He went back to the brewery to look at their procedures and discovered that, as a matter of course, they sterilise the wash by boiling and thus remove lactic acid (which turns beer cloudy and can introduce unwanted flavours).In whisky distilling, lactic acid (Lactobacillus) creates a secondary, bacterial, fermentation after the yeast has done its job, and this produces an additional range of flavours and aromas in the distillate.So when the wash arrives at the distillery (at the moment 20,000 litres is tankered over every eight days) it is pumped into a heated storage tank – lacto-bacillus likes it warm – where lactic acid is added. This would not be allowed in Scotland; Dr. Swan maintains it makes for greater control, although similar to what happens in traditional fermentation.With the help of other experts from the Scotch whisky industry, white oak ex- Bourbon barrels (200 litre) were sourced from Jack Daniels’, Evan Williams’ and Jim Beam Distilleries , together with a number of ex-Madeira barriques (250 litres) and a handful of ex-Oloroso sherry butts (500
litres) – the latter two as finishing casks. The company established its distillery in a large brick and breeze-block warehouse at Penderyn (‘Pen-derrin’ means ‘the beak of a bird’) on the edge of the glorious Brecon Beacons National Park. Distilling commenced in August 1999, and when I was there earlier this year, part of the site was still under construction. A visitor centre is planned for next year.Small batch bottling of around 6,000 bottles at 46%Vol (non chill-filtered) has been done each month since March 2004, from casks selected by Jim Swan. Currently the whisky is finished in Madeira barriques for the last six months of maturation, and is offered at around four years old.It is astonishingly easy to drink for its age – a sure sign of good wood. The colour is tawny gold – the company refers to this as aur Cymru, ‘Welsh gold’.The first nose is exotically herbal (salad herbs, with sweet basil); water sweetens it, with some vanilla, tomato leaves, sawn wood and a light leathery oiliness. The flavour (straight) is spicy and mouth-cleansing, with some fresh wood in the aftertaste; water brings out a smooth texture;
clean and fresh, with a nice balance of primary tastes – light sweetness, some acidity and a dryish finish.A pleasant drink for any time of day, with a flavour which combines elements of both grain and malt whisky in a way that is wholly its own.Good luck to Penderyn Distillery and the Welsh Whisky Company!