Whisky in Wales: The birth of Wisgi Cymreig

Whisky in Wales: The birth of Wisgi Cymreig

As Welsh whisky starts to carve out its place on the world stage with an application for protected status, we explore its heritage and the key players

Regional Focus | 21 Dec 2022 | Issue 188 | By Jens Tholstrup

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Welsh whisky is a story of difference and entrepreneurship, of great opportunities and challenges. While consumers have an idea of what to expect from Scotch and Irish, it is not the same for Welsh whisky.

When asked if people truly understand Welsh whisky, Penderyn’s chief executive Stephen Davies responded, “Not really. Not as a category. Penderyn is known for a style that is lighter [and] fruitier, but it is niche knowledge.”

This burgeoning industry is working towards greater recognition, though. Led by Penderyn and Aber Falls, Welsh distillers joined forces to create the Welsh Whisky Organisation, and after exhaustive discussions and public consultation the organisation applied for a geographical indication (GI) of ‘Single Malt Welsh Whisky’ (or ‘Wisgi Cymreig Brag Sengl’ in Welsh) in August 2021. If it secures approval from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the GI will be enshrined in law.

Checking in on the distillation at Dà Mhìle. Credit: Heather Birnie

The application states that Welsh whisky must be made from Welsh water and must be distilled, matured (for a minimum of three years) and bottled in Wales. The document also specifies that single malt Welsh whisky possesses a “lightness of character” akin to other New World whiskies. Distillation style and high cut points are key to reaching this lighter character for all Welsh distilleries. The evolution of this style is entwined with the unique distilling heritage being established in Wales, with a love for high-strength cuts at the core and a lot of stainless steel and columns involved – although always with plenty of copper on the inside.

There are currently seven whisky distilleries in Wales, with Penderyn due to open the country’s eighth (and its third) distillery in an old copperworks in Swansea in the first half of 2023.

Davies expects more artisan distilleries to start up in Wales, but “probably not any big players”. “We are all learning to work together,” Davies explains of the process of starting up the Welsh Whisky Organisation, while praising Aber Falls for being proactive and supportive like the other distilleries. There is a friendly aura hanging above these Welsh distillers, most of whom are in their early days. Davies claims they are “all learning to work together”. Penderyn was first and is heralded by many as the category’s catalyst – and just look where we are after 20 years. Even drinkers in Taiwan now talk about Welsh whisky. This should serve as an inspiration for all new distilleries, many of which have yet to be ‘discovered’.

An advertisement for Royal Welsh Whisky, after its creation in the 1890s

A royal history

At a time when distilleries were being founded almost every month in Scotland, Welshmen Richard John Lloyd-Price and Robert Willis decided to build a distillery in Wales. In 1889, they founded the Welsh Whisky Distillery Company at Frongoch near Bala in North Wales. The distillery was ready to produce the following year, complete with maltings, kilns, and offices and boasting 30 employees. Queen Victoria was presented with a cask when she visited the area in the distillery’s early days, with the Prince of Wales receiving another cask in 1894. Following these deliveries, the Welsh Whisky Distillery Company was granted a royal warrant in 1895, and ‘Royal Welsh Whisky’ was born – a great early marketing stunt that could secure recognition throughout the Commonwealth. The distillery was well planned in terms of logistics, being close to both railways and ports. This was no small-time operation: a healthy investment had been secured from the outset and the capacity was almost 700,000 litres, firmly bringing it into the top 20 biggest malt distilleries of the time.

The original Frongoch Welsh Whisky Distillery, which closed in the early 20th century

The Frongoch distillery advertised its Royal Welsh Whisky in the newspapers, complete with a note from a chemical analyst guaranteeing its purity and describing the spirit as ‘soft and pleasing’. Not only that, it was also guaranteed to be five years old (after a year’s production, there was a quality requirement that the whisky had to mature longer before being sold – and this was before laws dictating minimum maturation time).

Yet somehow it did not work out. Perhaps it was due to the strong local temperance movement, or the insistence on long maturation.
Frongoch used pot stills, which was nothing unique before the turn of the century, but it was a period where blended whisky was gaining significant traction due to the use of column stills. They were more efficient, making a lighter, more approachable (and more competitively priced) whisky when mixed with pot still malt whisky. With no grain distilleries in Wales, the lack of a blended whisky might also have been a factor in the demise, along with the fact it was not from a known whisky-producing country. Frongoch barely made it into the 20th century. By April 1900 it was closed, and a liquidator offered £10,000 for the company and its assets (the initial investment had been £100,000). It was eventually sold to a local man, William Owen, who did not manage to reopen the distillery, but no doubt enjoyed the substantial amounts of whisky in the warehouses.

A selection of Penderyn whiskies

Penderyn Distillery

Almost a hundred years after its closure, a still designed for the Welsh Whisky Company was put up for sale. This was the original Faraday still: a modern era-defining piece of equipment combining elements of pot and column stills which was named after its inventor, Dr David Faraday from Surrey University. (And yes, Faraday was related to the 19th-century scientist Michael Faraday, most known for his electromagnetic discoveries.)

A group of friends heard about the sale of the Faraday still, and the idea of establishing their own distillery began to take shape. It came to fruition in 1999, making theirs the first distillery in modern-day Wales. The friends chose Penderyn as the location for their distillery. As well as being close to home for them, the area is renowned for its spring water and is on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, ideal for tempting in visitors.

Penderyn blender Aista Phillips noses a whisky sample

The always-unsmoked malted barley is ground, mashed and then fermented for three days before the wash is sent to either one of the Faraday stills or to the first of the pot stills (a wash still paired with a spirit still, as in Scottish distilleries). If the wash goes through the pot stills, the middle cut is collected from 70–78% ABV. It is quite different in the Faraday stills: there are six plates in the pot and 18 perforated copper plates in the column. The spirit is taken off at the seventh plate at 92% ABV.

The resulting liquid is light, clean, and elegantly aromatic with restrained or quiet malty notes. This is a ‘quiet malt’, reminiscent of the ‘silent malt’ made from malted barley at Scotch grain distilleries around half a century ago. It has more body than silent malt had, or grain whisky has, but is subdued compared to traditional pot-distilled malt whisky. Penderyn whiskies are generally released without an age statement, although as a rule of thumb the whiskies are aged between five and seven years old including a finishing period of six to 12 months.

The Llandudno Lloyd Street Distillery, Penderyn"s second production facility

Llandudno Lloyd Street Distillery

In 2021 Penderyn opened a second distillery in Llandudno, North Wales. Here there is only one still, a replica of the Faraday still, but there is a clear difference in the resulting liquid. The barley is peated to 50 ppm, yet after running through that still the resulting liquid is light and aromatic, with a dry smoky note. The distillery is too young to have released its own malt.

Staff at Dà Mhìle Distillery. Credit: Heather Birnie

Dhà Mhìle

Dhà Mhìle was founded by the Savage-Onstwedder family on Glynhynod Farm, which is also home to the award-winning Caws Teifi raw milk cheese. Notably, this establishment only deals in organic produce. In fact, if anyone ever deserved the title ‘godfather of organic whisky’, it would be John Savage-Onstwedder. It was he who approached Springbank Distillery to make the first batch of malt whisky from organically grown barley in the modern era, and Springbank’s John McDougall distilled 18 casks’ worth in 1992.

In 2000, Savage-Onstwedder did another one-off organic batch with Loch Lomond. In 2012 the family installed their own still in a small farm outbuilding. There is no room for milling, mashing or fermentation, so this is done with organic barley at the Brecon Brewery before going to the distillery and its Kothe combined pot and column still. A slow six-hour distillation leads to a cut point of 90–92% ABV and a very clean spirit perfectly fitting the official description of Welsh whisky. Dhà Mhìle fills approximately 10 casks per year, though only one cask is released each year, the first in 2019.

Watching over the still at the Aber Falls distillery

Aber Falls

With its address in Abergwyngregyn by Llanfairfechan, Aber Falls, from 2017, reveals it is well and truly Welsh, despite being fitted with Scottish-made copper pot stills. It is so Welsh, in fact, that it only uses Welsh barley – a feat that is not part of the coming rules for single malt Welsh whisky. The Aber Falls copper pot stills have copper pot condensers, with the (albeit rarely used) capacity to shift to stainless steel condensers which attach to the end of the lyne arm. These can be used to make a heavier spirit, a deft and challenging counterpoint to the ‘lightness of character’ that Aber Falls has agreed with the other Welsh distilleries should be the core description of Welsh whisky.

The twice-distilled spirit is collected from 63–70% ABV. The new make is filled into casks at 63.5% ABV and matures locally close to the Menai Strait and fresh sea breeze. It is still young but has depth, complexity and balance, not to mention great potential. In a blind tasting it would challenge many of the young Irish and Scottish single malts on the market – and it has also thrown down a gauntlet to its near neighbours with its relatively low price point.

Ffion Lewis, lead distiller at In The Welsh Wind Distillery

In The Welsh Wind Distillery

In The Welsh Wind Distillery was founded in 2018 by Ellen Wakelam and Alex Jungmayr in a rural pub outside Cardigan. All its barley comes from a local farm and is malted, ingeniously, on site, using a trough developed for cheese manufacturing. The barley is not dried after malting, and the wet green malt is a challenge for a normal mill, so a meat grinder is used instead. After this unusual beginning, the ground malted barley is filled into the cubistic and futuristic 5,000-litre iStill, which doubles not only as a mash tun but also as a fermentation vessel before it is used for distillation. To ensure the ‘lightness of character’, In The Welsh Wind has installed copper tubes in the still neck.

The distillery is so young that there is no whisky on the market yet, but it does on rare occasions let visitors sample the new make. It is good and wholesome, with the heart cut between 82% and 78% ABV showing a delightful gracefulness – this could be from hitting that unusually high cutting strength, or from the distillery’s entrepreneurial production methods.

A bottle of Coles Welsh whisky

Coles Distillery

Coles was established in 2012, named after the family that built and runs it. Production takes place on the site of the 14th-century White Hart Inn in Llanddarog, Carmarthenshire. Stepping inside, the visitor is greeted by a family of big, warm personalities. The entire Cole family owns and works in the pub, but it is Marcus and Cain that are in charge of the whisky. Cain is an engineer and inventor – he designed and built the distillery’s 2,500-litre still himself. The still can produce up to 365,000 litres a year (but doesn’t).

The stainless steel still comprises a pot still leading into a column with 20 copper plates, ensuring the removal of sulphury notes and the ability to reach a cut point of 89% ABV. The resulting whisky has a truly Welsh lightness of character. It is certainly not a silent malt, but perhaps a quiet malt, and definitely a recommendable subtle malt.

Admiring the view at Anglesey Môn Distillery

Anglesey Môn Distillery

Wales’ smallest distillery, Anglesey Môn, does not immediately look like a distillery. There are no overt signs of distilling, not even any signage on the Tyn Pwll farm where Dafydd Thomas established it in 2017. Arguably the most entrepreneurial man in Anglesey, Thomas also runs his own water bottling company, using water from an underground source on the farm. The distillery has eight 28-litre stainless steel and copper-domed stills. Its mash bill is a combination of malted barley and unmalted wheat, distilled to a strength of around 65% ABV. The new make is filled into casks at 44% ABV.

Anglesey Môn is the only whisky distillery not part of the founding group of the Welsh Whisky Organisation, although at the time of writing the group was reaching out. There may be a few things to discuss, such as cask filling strength, maturation time and wheat in the mash bill. This would not qualify as single malt Welsh whisky, but is certainly Welsh whisky.
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