“You’re going where? Why?” This was the most common reaction from friends who knew I was going to visit Wales. Well, I’ll tell you why. Wales has a very chequered history, spanning from the Neanderthals around 230,000 years ago to Homo sapiens around 33,000 years ago to the Roman invasion beginning in 48 AD. When Roman rule collapsed in the 5th century, many different kingdoms rose and fell but one important part survived, despite evolving: the Welsh language.
It survived because the country is remote, not easily accessible and, even today, relatively free from foreign influences. Wales is simply beautiful, with a wonderful coastline, superb fairy forests, distinct mountains and gorgeous, windy roads – an adventure in the making.
It also happens to have the best restaurant I’ve ever been to called Ynyshir, in the village of the same name, where chef Gareth Ward leads a superb team adhering to his motto: “Ingredient Led. Flavour Driven. Fat Fuelled. Meat Obsessed”. Ward presents a 20ish-course degustation with wine pairings that will blow your socks off.
And yet the real reason I went to Wales was to visit the Penderyn Distillery (penderyn.wales) and to see what other distilleries I could find.
Distilling in Wales seems to have emerged in the Middle Ages, but by the turn of the 20th century not a single distillery had survived. For nearly a century there were no spirits being produced in Wales. It took a bunch of friends chatting in a pub in the 1990s to take the first step and build a distillery, choosing the village of Penderyn on the southern tip of the Brecon Beacons.
The location had a great supply of natural spring water, and the group had a unique single-pot copper still designed by Dr David Faraday – a relative of 19th-century scientist Michael Faraday, known for discovering a crucial element to electricity, electromagnetic induction.
In the group’s own words, they “dreamt of creating a whisky as pure and precious as Welsh gold”, and I reckon they’ve succeeded. Penderyn’s range currently includes four single malt whisky labels.
The Dragon label is named after the Red Dragon, Wales’ national flag, and has three whiskies all bottled at 41% ABV. The Legend single malt in this range was finished in ex-Madeira casks, the Myth was finished in ex-red wine casks, and the Celt was finished in ex-peated quarter casks.
The Gold label single malts are all bottled at 46% ABV and include what’s billed as the “house style”, a whisky aged in ex-Bourbon barrels and finished in ex-Madeira casks, plus the latest addition, Rich Oak, which has been matured in Bourbon casks and finished in a selection of the finest rejuvenated European ex-wine casks.
There’s also the Icons of Wales label – special bottlings that celebrate Welsh history – and finally the Single Cask and Limited Editions. Penderyn’s Distillery Manager, Laura Davie, Blender, Aista Jukneviciute, together with Trainee Distiller Bethan Morgans, occasionally select one or two of the very best single cask whiskies as outstanding examples of Penderyn’s world class single malts.
Penderyn whiskies, in my opinion, rank among the best single malts in the world. They produce an impeccably clean new make, oversee a superb wood regime and bottle when the whisky is at its peak.
Penderyn was the pioneer of modern Welsh spirits and there are now quite a few distilleries in the region, mainly making gin, with some also branching out to akvavit and rum. One of them caught my attention, not for their gin but rather their outstanding whisky: Dà Mhìle.
Dà Mhìle (pronounced da-vee-lay) started as a dairy, called Teifi Cheese, and still produces some of Wales’ best cheeses. The Dutch patriarch, John Savage-Onstwedder, eventually branched out into distilling and Michael, the head distiller, produces some outstanding whiskies.
They use a very interesting still, which is a combination of a pot still and a non-continuous column still, producing an excellent Single Grain Welsh Whisky and an equally stunning 16-year-old Single Malt, both bottled at 46% ABV.
So if anyone tells you not to bother with visiting Wales just smile, knowing better, and go anyway.
Penderyn Rich Oak Single Malt Welsh Whisky, 50% ABV
Cask strength ABV, non-chill filtered. Drink it straight and at room temperature in a wine glass. Pass me the bottle, please.
Nose: Dark spices and tropical fruit.
Palate: Immediately mouthfilling and slowly getting sweeter. Cinnamon and vanilla flavours mingle with a silky, creamy texture and some strong undertones of hazelnut and toffee.
Finish: Long, steady, sweet and ending with a note of vanilla.
Dà Mhìle Single Grain Welsh Whisky, 46% ABV
This is Chwisgi Cymreig, according to the label, which translates to ‘Welsh Whisky’ in the local language. One of the best single grain whiskies currently made.
Nose: Peat, a touch of smoke and spice.
Palate: The smoke persists and mingles with sweet vanilla and roasted hazelnut flavours.
Finish: Quite dry and long, with a salty note on the end.
Old Fashioned with a Twist
1 sugar cube
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
2 dashes of Angostura Orange Bitters
Place sugar cube at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass and saturate with the bitters. Muddle until dissolved, then add ice cubes and whisky. Garnish with a slice of orange.
1 sheet of toasted seaweed or laverbread
20ml orange syrup
20ml fennel syrup
1 mint leaf
Infuse the seaweed into the whisky for 24 hours, strain and discard seaweed. Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a wine glass and garnish with a mint leaf.