Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Wysgi Pilgrim: 25th July, Penderyn

Like a lot of people I got into Whisky through my family. Specifically through my father and his brothers, and my cousin Justin and I have been very attentive students. But when I was growing up I was very much presented with the idea that good Whisky was Scotch, and good Scotch was Single Malt from Islay (or Arran.) In fact, whilst I may be doing them slanderous disservice I would be
willing to bet that I am the only member of my family who has drunk Whisk(e)y from England, Wales, Sweden, India, Taiwan etc. I know my father has drunk Japanese, because I bought him a glass of it, and whilst I suspect that some American and Irish will have been consumed, I imagine it will have been viewed as very much a second class citizen.

Which is a mistake, though one which is very prevalent around the Whisky drinking world. In wine, of course, the equivalent of Scotland is France, and I know huge numbers of people who would shudder at the very expression 'new world.' Which is a great shame, because the number of countries making truly exceptional wine is immense, and the same can be said for Whisky. Now don't get me wrong, Scotch Whisky was what made me fall in love with the Water of Life. My favourite distilleries are in Scotland and more often than not the Whisky I'll buy will be Scotch. But when I think back on my top Whiskies of the last year there have been so many astonishing expressions made by so many countries that exceed the capabilities of so many of Scotland's finest. And one of those is from the only Distillery currently making Whisky in Wales. If you are new to Whisky, or are a Scotland snob, pay attention. This post is important.

It's a glorious day as I set off from my girlfriend's house in Much Dewchurch just South of Hereford. I've tricked her into visiting Penderyn with me, as the camera on her phone is better than mine. She is also a focal point of my attempt to prove that there is a Whisk(e)y for everyone - being a stalwart of the wrinkled nose and disgusted noise brigade if I can find a dram for her I can find a dram for anyone! Huge numbers of roadworks characterise the journey, and the diversion signs are pretty misleading. 'I know, it's crap isn't it?' is the comment of one workman we ask for directions! Eventually though we reach the village and pay for our tour.

In a way Penderyn influenced my decision to start my pilgrimage; with nothing to do one weekend shortly after arriving in Bristol I decided to pay them a visit. Having driven all the way there I was
told that the tours were all full (lesson learned, book ahead!). The lovely lady behind the desk gave me a taste of the whisky however, and in the shop I decided to buy a copy of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible. The effect of reading this book was to make me realise how little I knew about the drink and industry that I love, and many months later we find me back at the distillery, listening to the start of the introductory video. (Which, rather appropriately is a male voice choir singing 'Guide me O thou great Redeemer, Pilgrim through this barren land'!)

Penderyn is not an old distillery; it was only in 2004 that the Whisky was first available to consumers, so don't expect age statement expressions here. What you should expect is superb distillate expertly managed in seriously good casks. One obvious reason for this is that their consultant, Dr Jim Swan, knows about as much about the use of wood for whisky as anyone living. (World Whisky of the Year - the Kavalan Solist is from a cask he selected) Just as importantly though, the quantities that Penderyn make their whisky in makes micromanagement more of an option. Until recently they were only filling one barrel per day with their spirit (happily it is now about three) and I am here to tell you that that is a tiny amount, particularly when you consider that they are also making Gin and Vodka.

The most unique aspect of Penderyn Single Malt however is their stills. Unfortunately due to alcohol
fumes I couldn't get any pictures of them, but where the majority of Scotch is made, as I explained in my description of Auchentoshan, using a two-still process, Penderyn's spirit goes through only one still, which acts simultaneously as pot and column. I won't explain pot/column stills here, as I guarantee that it would bore you, but the upshot is that Penderyn's Spirit emerges at 92%ABV. I tried a sip of this, and whilst I described it as being astonishingly clean and pure, with just a touch of sweetness, you could also probably have used it as a classy way of getting the Apollo missions to the Moon!

Our guide David was absolutely brilliant, and really knew his stuff. He saw me taking my notes during the tour and was only to happy to answer my questions, approaching me and Rachel after the tour for a further chat. He even pointed us in the direction of a good pub to get lunch afterwards! Penderyn is also very tour-friendly - the production all happens in one massive warehouse, which is often conducive to being stuck at the back of a large group and not hearing a word, but here there are microphones at every point, so there's nothing being
lost. Marks down for not being able to go into a cask house I'm afraid, but still a brilliant brilliant tour. We were also shown two tiny pot stills which Penderyn have installed for making Whisky with a completely different character. I imagine based on their size that they will create a massive, hugely characterful spirit, and I can't wait to see if I'm right.

Despite not being taken into a cask house, the casks are an important and emphasised part of the tour. Penderyn source most of theirs from Buffalo Trace, which Jim Murray reckons to be the finest distillery in the world. Their flagship expression is finished in Madeira wine casks, and there are also expressions finished in Sherry and Port. Most interesting for me is the way they create their peated expression; rather than using peat smoke to dry out the germinated barley for malting they simply put the unpeated spirit into casks previously used to house ultra-peaty Laphroaig. Personally I found this a brilliantly innovative way of creating a lightly but distinctively peated whisky with more than a little bit of Islay character.

We were given two 'vouchers' at the end of the tour, entitling us to two tastes or a miniature each. Rachel took a miniature of the Madeira finish, and I opted for a taste of the Madeira finish flagship and a taste of their peated expression.

Penderyn Madeira Finish - Massively clean spirity notes on the nose. Light honey, apples, pears, almost something biscuity with just a whiff of tropical fruit. Oh, and barley. Barley, barley, barley! Fiery but silken on the palate approach; breakfast whisky par excellence! Going back to the nose Rachel is reminded of rhubarb and custard and I can definitely see where she's coming from in this delightful balance of sweet and savoury! The spirit may be pure, but it's super creamy, and that's all to the good. Honeycomb and a touch of white chocolate. Really delicate, really elegant - I keep coming back to the word 'clean.' After it had been in the glass a while massive cocoa arrived with a touch of muscovado sugar on the finish. 46%ABV

Penderyn Peated - 'Diet Laphroaig' is a harsh and untrue thing to write, but one whiff of this and I'm imagining what South Islay would taste like if it was polite, graceful and safe to introduce to your mother! Seaweed, iodine and the sort of salt you get off the West Coast; they're all there, but backed up again by that classically clean Penderyn Spirit. If, like me, you're a Springbank fan then definitely get your hands on this. Less salt, and the fruit is more tropical than citrus, but they'd make a hell of a pretty pair. 46%ABV

Innovation and dynamism are, for me, the two key characteristics of Penderyn's Whisky, as they were of Australian Wine several decades ago. The only rule is...there are no rules, and the only object is that what you create should be really top-end, A-Grade stuff. Take it from me, they have certainly succeeded; this is a Premier League whisky that everyone should be drinking, unhampered by many of the regulations governing Scotch. I cannot wait to see where the next few years take this truly remarkable distillery, and surely if they keep the calibre up it won't be long until there are a few more Wysgi distillers following in their footsteps. This is not some second-class citizen, or simply a quirky alternative to Scotch. This is one of the best distilleries anywhere in the world. And you can tell my dad I said so.

Cheers! - (Or as you should say with this dram, Iechyd da!)


  1. Thanks WP! Excellent blog. The cask warehouse is 3 miles away and is literally a warehouse, but with fork-lift trucks running around, and £15,000,000 of whisky it's a) dangerous, and b) secret! Cheers again, Jon Tregenna Marketing Manager Penderyn Distillery.

  2. Thanks Jon. Makes a lot of sense regarding the warehouse and just me being picky anyway! Rachel and I had such a great day and loved the exceptional Whisky. Have been thoroughly recommending both product and distillery since! All the best to you and all at Penderyn!

  3. Top blog and great Wysgi! Rhys ap W.