Prized globally for its purity, Welsh gold has a history stretching back thousands of years. But, if you believe what you hear around the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, there is a new Welsh gold which is becoming just as coveted – Welsh wysgi.
Taking its name from the old Welsh village which is its home, Penderyn is the only distillery in Wales and is producing some of the finest whisky in the world today, with each bottle carrying the initials for Aur Cymru (Welsh gold).
Dreamt up by a group of men gathered in a pub, Penderyn distillery began life at the dawn of the new millennium. What they created, with the help of a millionaire backer and a natural water source, is one of the most innovative distilleries in the world.
But despite being the only distillery in Wales today, Penderyn was not the first Welsh malt whisky to grace the lips of the world. That honour briefly belonged to Frongoch Whisky Company, based near Bala, more than a century ago.
But the burgeoning whisky, which received of Queen Victoria, company folded soon after 1900. Mystery surrounds the exact reason for the liquidation of the company but legend tells of the distiller being killed by his horse before he told anyone else how to produce the sought after drink.
After a barren century for Welsh whisky Penderyn began distilling on September 2000, and in March 2004 guests tasted the first single malt whisky to be made anywhere in Wales for a century. Its quality lies in its unique production method.
Whereas Scottish and Irish distilleries use two or three traditional stills, Penderyn uses a unique one pot still, developed by Dr David Faraday, a direct descendent of the father of modern electricity Sir Michael Faraday.
But before you can create a malt whisky, you have to produce a malted barley wash – made by the same fermentation process as beer minus the hops. To create this foundation of their product, Penderyn employs Cardiff brewers S.A. Brain & Co to create a malted barley wash to the distillers’ exact specifications, which arrives at the distillery at 8 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) in tankers several times a week.
Every morning Penderyn charge their still with 2,500 litres of 8 per cent ABV barley wash, and by the end of the day collect back just 250 litres of spirit at 92 per cent ABV.
The distillation cycle lasts nine hours and when the still falls silent only one cask of Penderyn spirit is produced. Once the still has been filled, coils inside heat up and the distillation process begins.
In stages, the steam created reaches a series of condensing plates, concentrating the alcohol and leaving the spirit smoother and more refined. Eventually, at 92 per cent ABV, it is drawn from the seventh plate in the still column.
Far too strong to go into a barrel, it is combined with their own natural water source located underneath the distillery to reduce it to the cask strength of 63.4 per cent ABV. It is at this strength they start off the mercurial maturation process in the barrels to convert it into a celebrated whisky.
But it cannot legally be called a whisky until it has been maturing for at least three years and one day – the one day to accommodate leap years. The barrels used to store the whisky are crucial to the final flavour and colour.
Penderyn uses some of the finest Kentucky bourbon barrels in the world to begin their maturation.
The wood in each cask acts like a sponge, holding up to five litres of whatever was held before, and imparts a rich flavour while removing impurities. Dr Jim Swan, Penderyn’s Master Distiller and one of only five such experts in the world, noses each of Penderyn’s 3,500 barrels and only when he says it is ready will it take its final journey.
The whisky is re-casked into highly prized Maderia casks to develop the whisky’s smoothness and depth of flavour. Around 8,000 whiskies are bottled a month and are sold around the world.
Distillery tour guide Nest Llewellyn, who admits disliking whisky, said despite 25,000 visitors taking the distillery tour each year some locals remain in the dark. “We have had people from America and Korea come and they know about us before they arrive and then we can have somebody from up the road who hasn’t heard of us before. It’s very strange.”
Penderyn Distillery tours (£6 adults, £4 concessions) should be booked in advance. Whisky tasting session included.