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Organic Welsh whisky

By Dominic Roskrow

It should surprise no-one that Wales has a whisky heritage. But a glance at its history shows that no country took more entrenched and diametrically opposed views of uisge beathe. A Celtic country on the west part of Britain and with links to Cornwall and Ireland, and with an abundance of grain and craftsmanship, its distilling skills were a match for anywhere. But a strong temperance movement frowned on whisky to such an extent that distillery workers would go to work at dusk and return before dawn so that could not be identified.

Our ethos is to make only top quality but at an honest price

The Temperance Movement won and the distillers left for other parts of the world - Evan Williams and Jack Daniels both had Welsh roots - and it wasn't until Penderyn emerged that Welsh whisky returned.

Now if organic farmer John Savage-Onstwedder gets its way, Wales is set to get an array of Welsh whisky styles, all made using locally-sourced organic products. In mid July production of gin started in earnest, but that's just the tip of a pretty tall Welsh mountain.

"As a Celtic country Wales would have distilled whisky more than a century ago and there is no reason why this should not happen again," says John. "It is our intention only to make whisky from indigenous Welsh barley varieties and other grains grown in Wales, such as triticale. There is no point in trying to imitate the Scots or the Irish. We must make something distinctive.

"Here at the Da Mhile artisan, farmhouse distillery our ethos is not to make 'mediocrity' but only top quality but at an honest price. With our state of the art bespoke potstill we can make any product: so, it is our intention to make: gin, brandy, rum, eau-de-vie and a whole range of liqueurs based on our spirits."

This is not the farm's first foray in to whisky. A few years back John work led with Springbank to source an organic Scottish single malt, and there is still stock left. But the organic angle is important here, and the next logical step for John was to produce an organic product with the provenance of Welsh raw materials.

"As an organic farmer who has seen the whole development of organic products from the 1970s starting with the basics i.e.: bread, milk, butter, cheese etc. I slowly saw a foray into more luxury products: beers, wines, chocolate etc, I thought that it would be a good idea to produce the world's first organic whisky to celebrate the new millennium. After doing my research I ended up at Springbank distillery who were willing to do it. It is called Da Mhile (Gaelic for two thousand!)

"Organic is important, because conventional farming has made a mess of things by depleting the soil of vital minerals and humus. Just think of the bees: in decline; song birds in decline; wild flowers in decline; butterflies in decline; beetles and insects in decline. These are all indicators that something is wrong with our countryside!

"The rise in modern diseases, especially cancer. Intensive farming methods have led to all sorts of diseases in animals; mad cow disease, foot and mouth, bovine tb etc. The future must be green or there will be no future. It is as simple as that."

John's common sense, intelligent and responsible approach may well have been the catalyst that allowed him to start distilling. The widely held view that distilling cannot be carried out on stills under 18 hectolitres in size has started to be challenged - and the organic Welsh whisky producer is an early beneficiary.

"I read an article about micro-distilleries in Austria -about 20.000 of them! Nearly every farm has their own still to make schnapps, eau-de-vies etc. And the article ended with the comment that perhaps someone in the United Kingdom should try doing this. I am one of those people! And Da Mhile is an artisan, farmhouse distillery.

"But the first hurdle to overcome was getting a distiller's licence from HMRC. Otherwise there would be no point. The still I was applying for was only 350 litres, well below their minimum requirement. Nonetheless, I thought I would phone my local guy and when I mentioned their own regulation he said: 'Those regulations were introduced when we were still roaming the Scottish hills with muskets trying to sniff out the illegal stills! Put in your application and see what happens.I did and lo and behold I was granted a licence!"

 With botanical gin in production John looks to an exciting future which will include single malt, single grain, rye whisky, and triticale whisky - and he promises that he has a few tricks up his sleeve.

"Don't forget we still have casks of the original 1992 Springbank, and 2000 Loch Lomond organic to tide us over," he says with a smile. "And we have sourced some organic wine barrels from France - both red and white - and also some organic Jerez and organic port barrels, so, something to look forward to!"

He's not kidding. Watch this space.