The last time I was in Wales was back in the 1970s when a friend and I decided one mad day to cycle from where we lived in Suffolk to his uncle's farm just outside Llanelli. It took me four days and we decided to camp to save money. My friend gave up half way and decided to take the train. It was only when he had gone that I realised that he had left me with the tent, but taken the poles!
When planning for my trip to Penderyn, I thought the best way this time would be by train and I arrived in Wales after travelling through the four mile Severn Railway Tunnel, which I am reliably informed is the longest railway tunnel going under a stretch of water in the world.
Travelling past the vast expanse of Port Talbot steelworks you begin to understand the importance of job security for the 6,000 people employed there. You start to acknowledge how Wales is in the throes of having to reinvent itself having previously relied so heavily on two industries, that of coal and steel, which are now in steady decline.
I alighted (I recently saw a sign stating 'alight here for'... and have decided to stick with this old fashioned term) at Neath, where Jon Tregenna, Penderyn's press officer met me. We then drove to Laugharne and to Brown's Hotel where a masterclass was put on by Penderyn's distillery manager, Laura Davies, and Stephen Davies, no relation, managing director.
Laugharne is famous for its association with Dylan Thomas who made the Boathouse iconic. He worked in the Writing Shed above the Boathouse which has the most stunning views over the Taf estuary.
Thousands of tourists still come to visit because of the Thomas connection. The first poem he wrote there was Over Sir John's Hill, in which he describes the view from the shed, writing of 'birds stalking their prey
and bringing death in the midst of all this beauty.' To commemorate the centenary of Dylan's birth, Penderyn released a very special single malt which has a sherrywood finish.
Due to the fact that, for instance, the names Jones or Evans are so common in Wales, you are allocated a nickname to differentiate you from the others with the same surname. The beginnings of Penderyn lie with Alun Evans known as 'Alun The Glan', landlord of the Glancynon Inn near Hirwaun, who heard that a unique still was for sale. He gathered a group of close friends in the bar and they decided to buy the still and house it in a building he owned in the village of Penderyn, which happened to have its own mineral water supply. The rest, as they say, is history. Alun sadly died in the winter of 2015, but there are plans to commemorate him officially, in some way, at the distillery.
Stephen Davies takes up the story. "Penderyn whisky was first launched on 1 March 2004. The first time a whisky had been launched in Wales for over a 100 years. Taking what we knew to be a really great taste in single malt, we were really pleased with the spirit and the way that the spirit had matured. It was then a question of getting it branded and then taking it out to the world and building some credibility for a whisky brand from Wales as opposed to a whisky brand from Scotland or from Ireland. I think that was one of the biggest challenges at first. Managing director is the title, but I think its fair to say that chief whisky salesman was probably order of the day for the first few years." On the following morning we drove up to the distillery which is located in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons. The Penderyn still is a unique set-up and was designed by Dr David Faraday, to produce a very high strength spirit with desirable flavour compounds. It has a pot still connected directly to a column (like a Lomond still), then a pipe connecting the top of this column with the bottom of a second column.
The first column has six plates, the second 18. These perforated copper plates allow rising spirit vapour to condense, resulting in a lot of reflux within the still.
As the distillation goes on, the different alcohols and flavour compounds separate to different parts of the column, allowing the master distiller to choose a point to draw off the best spirit with the finest flavour.
The seventh plate in the second column was the one selected, and spirit drawn from this plate is normally above 90% ABV, much higher than Scottish or Irish malt whisky is normally distilled to. This makes the spirit quite light and delicate compared to other whiskies.
It is not really a column still or a pot still, rather something of an in-between.
Penderyn is an innovative, privately owned boutique style distillery, employing around 45 dedicated craftsmen, staff and professionals, and has 60 shareholders. Penderyn's style and flavour is overseen by Dr Jim Swan, who is not only a superb master distiller, but is also a world authority on wood management.
Laura Davies, distillery manager, explains further, "Here at Penderyn we have a pair of very unique stills. These are essentially a copper pot with a column on top and a larger column alongside. We distill the whole length of the column. Being able to put our wash through the still and process it that way makes it a really high strength, very fruity spirit that comes off our stills at between 88-92% ABV. This is an industry high and when we put this spirit in the casks, it gives us a really unusual whisky." When approached about the thorny subject of age statements, there was a resounding no from Stephen Davies, but he stated that there would always be opportunities to do special editions.
In my nearly three years of being the editor of this magazine, I have seen many stills, both column and pot, but I have never encountered a combination of both. Penderyn uses ex-Bourbon casks for all its whiskies and then focuses on finishing them in either Madeira or Sherrywood casks. On sampling the spirit, I much prefered the Madeira finish. With the success of the brand there were talks of expansion, and in June
2016 Penderyn announced that it was working with the local authority to convert some of the heritage buildings on the 12.5 acre former copperworks site in Swansea. These are exciting times for Penderyn, and the plans are to open the distillery in 2018 encompassing a visitor centre aiming for 50,000 visitors a year.
Madeira, 46% ABV
Nose: A classic freshness with aromas of cream toffee, rich fruit and raisins.
Palate: Crisp and finely rounded, with the sweetness to balance an appetising dryness.
Finish: Notes of tropical fruit, raisins and vanilla persist.
Portwood, 46% ABV
Nose: A syrupy port character and notes of milky coffee and dark chocolate.
Palate: Top notes of fresh strawberry and cream toffee, complemented by vanilla, with dates, raisins and jam emerging.
Finish: A lingering sweet finish of honey and sticky treacle emerge in a long finish.
Penderyn Celt, 41% ABV
Nose: Mild aromas of peat smoke, early morning at the rocky seaside and warm marmalade on toast all compete for our attention.
Palate: It begins with great sweetness before the smoky, slightly medicinal flavours descend.
Finish: Slight bitterness follows that leaves a long and lingering fresh taste in the mouth.
Penderyn Myth, 41% ABV
Nose: Fresh and lively, Myth has mixed citrus fruits mingling with apple, pear drops and the merest hint of tropical fruits.
Palate: Sweetness dominates then moves over a little to allow some refreshing bitterness to emerge while the mixed fruits continue to dominate the flavour.
Finish: Gradually all the flavours simply ebb away to leave memories of a lively and light style of whisky that is easy to drink.
Malt: Penderyn malt is unpeated.
Finish: Penderyn spirit matures in American oak ex-Bourbon barrels and finished in a range of barrels, mainly Madeira, sherry, peated ¼ casks, port and red wine.
Mashing: Copper semi-lauter mash tun - 1.5 tonne mash.10-12 mashes per week.
Fermentation: 6 steel washbacks, washback charge 7,500 litres. 72 hour fermentations.<
Distillation: 2 x Penderyn Faraday single copper pot stills - 2,500 litres charge per still.
Distillery capacity: 400,000 litres approximately per annum.