Penderyn's management took the brave decision to make whisky in a unique way. Now the distillery's going from strength to strength. In late February distiller Gillian MacDonald wrote to me to say she was joining Bill Lumsden at Glenmorangie. That says lots about her talent. This, then, is her last interview as distiller at Penderyn.
When the Welsh Whisky company decided to launch a single malt, the one place it didn't look for inspiration was Scotland. And once it had decided it wasn't going to join 'em, it set about trying to beat 'em instead.
There didn't seem any point in just doing what the Scots were doing
"There didn't seem any point in just doing what the Scots were doing," says master distiller Gillian Macdonald, who is Welsh but since she started making Welsh whisky a few years ago, has married her Scottish, partner, proving the competitive streak at Penderyn isn't personal. "We wanted to do something that was unique and could be adopted as truly Welsh."
The first thing they did was call in Dr Jim Swan. He's whisky's Mr Fixit, an expert on science and stills who travels the world advising on distillation methods, overcoming local obstacles and challenges, and trouble-shooting where necessary. The distillery's modus operandi for the new whisky: It's malt, Jim, but not as you know it.
To put clear blue water between Penderyn and the traditional pot still systems for single malt production in Scotland the company called in Dr David Faraday - a direct relation of the scientist Michael Faraday of electricity fame - to invent a brand new distilling system, and in doing so went off in to seriously unchartered territory. Macdonald - not the only female distiller now or then but still a statement of fresh intent because a female distiller was something of a rarity when she was appointed - explains why the distillery is so different.
"There are several main points of difference to Scotch whisky," she says. "Firstly, the start of the process – the brewing – is not done in-house but is carried out by an independent brewer to our specification. In Scottish law there is a requirement to have this onsite at the distillery. Brains Brewery in Cardiff sources the malt (from the United Kingdom only) uses its own strain of brewers yeast in the fermentation process producing a full flavoured fruity malted barley which is then transported to the distillery.
"Then there's our Faraday Still – Penderyn has a single pot still and two columns. Traditionally for malt whisky production you would expect a two pot still setup so this single pot system is unique to Penderyn. It produces a spirit strength of a much higher strength than the traditional two pot set up. Our product cut is 92%-86% abv compared to a typical Scottish product cut of 75%-65% and as a result produces a different style of spirit – lighter in style than the typical scotch – retaining the fruity character of the malted barley wash. The reason for our location is the natural water source that lies beneath the distillery – the Brecon Beacons National Park is famous for its water and we draw our water up from our own private borehole in the distillery's grounds."
There are differences in the way the whisky is matured at the distillery, too. American bourbon casks are used for most of the maturation, but for the last six months the whisky is placed in Madeira casks. Some whisky is matured in American oak casks that have been previously used for unpeated Scotch single malt.
Such has been the demand that after four years of maturation - a short time compared to Scotch but enough for this part of the world and not out of keeping with many distilleries across the world - all the dumped whisky is bottled. It means that because maturation varies from cask to cask and there is no scope for balancing casks for consistency as all casks are used, and as a result the flavour profile varies slightly from batch to batch and as a result a month and year date are put on each bottle.
The distillery has kept back a small number of casks but in the main makes three styles of whisky - the standard one outlined above, and a sherry wood and peated whisky. But again, not peated in the normal Scottish sense. "Our Penderyn Peated Edition is in essence an unpeated peated," says Macdonald, cryptically. "We do not peat any of our malt at Penderyn and the peat flavour is imparted to the whisky via the use of ex Scotch casks that previously contained a peated whisky. The spirit is either fully matured in these peated ex Scotch casks or transferred in to them for an amount of time for the peat flavour to be extracted by the spirit. We take a number of peated casks combine these together and then use ex buffalo trace casks to balance the delicate light fruity flavour of Penderyn against the peat. We do not want the peat to overwhelm the subtle fruity flavours of Penderyn. We produce approximately 5-7000 70cl equivalents of this expression a year." Still a relatively young distillery, its aromatic and fruity whiskies are just starting to come in to their own. some older whisky and some experimental and cask strength bottlings are turning out to be a revelation. Though she's more than capable of running the show, Macdonald's glad to keep Dr Swan involved.
"I still meet up with him on a number of times a year and am in contact with him between visits as needed," she says. "Jim’s knowledge certainly on the wood management is invaluable to the company and I have learnt a great deal from him over my years of working with him and this has helped me to fully develop in to my role within the distillery.
The distillery is also benefitting from its location in a National Park close to the picturesque Brecon Beacons hasn't hurt the distillery either. It has a visitor centre and benefits from the big influx of tourists.
"It is a wonderful setting to be in and the area attracts a large number of tourists each year. When it is too wet to climb the beacons (quite a lot of the time) we are the ideal alternative and our visitor centre is attracting 25,000 per annum. It was officially opened by Prince Charles in 2008 and we run a range of tours and in depth master classes to cater of the range of visitors we attract. It has been the ideal facility to allow us to explain the story of how the company began, the history of distilling in Wales and of course takes the visitor through the magic process of making whisky and finished with a tutored tasting."
As to the future, the combination of being an independent Welsh distillery and part of a growing movement in world whisky can't hurt Penderyn, says Macdonald.
"Being the only distillery in Wales is really amazing. The Welsh people, since the launch on St David’s day 2004 have embraced everything about Penderyn and supported the company’s growth. It is really becoming an icon that Wales can be very proud of and is now exported to over 25 countries. It is great to see more distilleries opening in the United Kingdom and others abroad as it adds to the ever growing diversity in the whisky world. The more the merrier!! I think the consumer has evolved as the world of whisky has also evolved – people are interested in finding out as much info as possible and also realise that you don’t have to be a Scotch to make a great quality whisky. The consumer is interested to find out about the different ways in which you can make whisky and this takes them all round the world."