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Frongoch Distillery – The Royal Welsh Whisky of Old

The Royal Welsh Whiskies – Picture from Penderyn Distillery

Wales is not high on the whisky map. It is well-known as an industrial country with coal mines, and gold. Whisky was never one of their “virtues”.  Many people did not even know where Wales is or that it exists.

Wales has a short whisky history. The current distilleries are Penderyn Distillery, located in the Brecon Beacons in Southern Wales, and Dà Mhìle Distillery in Western Wales. Penderyn is the only distillery exporting its Welsh whiskies outside of UK, to countries such as the United States, Germany, France and Singapore.

The History of Whisky in Wales

Unknown to many, Wales was home to a whisky distillery about one century ago. Known as Frongoch Distillery, its location was about two and a half miles from Bala on the way to Trawsfynydd. R. Lloyd Price, the owner of the Rhiwlas Estate and Robert Willis, a pretty unknown person, registered the Welsh Whisky Distillery Co in Frongoch, Bala, in 1889 and built the Frongoch Distillery.

The Rise and Fall of Frongoch Distillery

An Old Picture of Frongoch Distillery. Picture from BBC.

Frongoch was the perfect site for the distillery due to two crucial things – the pure, peaty water from the Tryweryn River, and the readily available transportation network via the nearby railway station and ports. The first Welsh distillery was a magnificent building in its heydays as it received fundings of £100,000 to build and run it. When it opened its doors in 1890, it was a beautiful place with a malthouse, kilns, peat store, offices and accommodation for its 30 workers. There was also a dedicated excise officer located on site.

Sadly, the distillery did not survive. The company went bankrupt in 1910 and Frongoch Distillery became an empty shell. The premise remained uninhabited until the outbreak of World War One in 1914. During the war, the distillery and its grounds became a prisoner of war camp for captured Germans and Irish.

In 1916, during the Easter Rising in Ireland, the English army detained some of the most prominent figures of the uprising at Frongoch. There were two camps on the premises, the North and South camps. The South Camp was in the old buildings of the distillery. The prisoners included Terence MacSweeney and Michael Collins. Frongoch Distillery in Wales remains a vital link in the history of Ireland even up to today. As a prison during the war, it held the best of Ireland’s revolutionaries for the freedom of Ireland.

The Whisky of Frongoch Distillery

It was said that full production at Frongoch would reach 150,000 gallons per annum when the distillery opened. The first Welsh whisky went to customers in 1891. All of them went to North Wales and the border counties. The owners changed their policy after the first batch, choosing to increase the years of maturation. This was a time before rules and regulations came into the whisky industry; such a move from the owners showed their passion and dedication to the craft of whisky-making.

Interestingly, the Welsh Whisky Company Co. received a royal warrant from the Queen on 26 July 1895. As a result, the prefix “Royal” could be used in front of the whisky. Hence, the Royal Welsh Whisky was born. Shortly after the receipt of the royal warrant, the market released the first Royal Welsh Whisky in the history of Wales.

 

Advertisement of the Royal Welsh Whisky. Picture from WhiskyInvestDirect

Details about the flavours and taste of the whisky did not survive the years, unfortunately. Advertisements such as the above picture tell us that the distillery released the whisky as a five years old malt made from the finest malted barley, but there was nothing that spoke of its flavours or taste.

Based on the location of Frongoch, the ample peat available likely meant that the whisky was peated. It was also comparatively more expensive than the typical Scotch whiskies of the time. The old report of the Wine & Spirits Trade Record also pointed to the fact that the Royal Welsh Whisky might have been more similar in style to their Irish counterpart than Scotch in terms of their choice of using a “Pot Still” and selling the whisky both in bulk and in bottles. Sadly, there were no concrete details to find out more.

The modern Royal Welsh Whisky

The Royal Welsh Whisky of Penderyn. Picture from Spirits Castle

Fast forward to the modern era, and we have Penderyn Distillery as a successor. As the first Welsh distillery to export its whiskies outside of the United Kingdom, the distillery owns one of the original Royal Welsh Whisky bottle (picture at the top of the article). There are three other surviving bottles. One of them is a resident at Cardiff’s St Fagans National History Museum. The other two belong to private collectors who bought them in an auction at £7,300 and £7,200 respectively in 2016.

In 2019, Penderyn Distillery decided to honour the history of whisky-making in Wales with the release of their version of the Royal Welsh Whisky. It is part of Penderyn’s Icon of Wales series and released in March 2019 to celebrate St David’s Day. The new Royal Welsh Whisky sports a peated Portwood finish.

We wonder if the distillery opened the original bottle to try before deciding on the flavours, although it would be very much like drinking a historical relic. Nonetheless, we are excited to try the newly-minted “Royal Welsh Whisky” from Penderyn Distillery.

Royal Welsh Whisky from Penderyn Distillery

Nose: Guava, melons, pineapples surface with black pepper in the nose, with a very muted peat note at the back. With time, vanilla surfaces with soft peat.

Palate: Tropical fruits, muted peat and hints of smoke at the forefront. With time, vanilla cream, peat and smoke come together in a harmonious and beautiful expression.

Finish: Oaky with sweet fruits that develops into fruit peels. With time, the finish is long, and wisps of smoke come and go elegantly.

The Royal Welsh Whisky will benefit from patience and airing time. The dram evolves over time, with the characteristic of its Portwood finish disappearing after 30 minutes and the Peated finish comes full power. It is a beautiful dram that changes with time, giving you a surprise at every turn.

 

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Weekend Rendezvous with Penderyn Single Malts

We had an awesome weekend with Michael Wheeler, Global Brand Ambassador of Welsh Single Malt, Penderyn in early March. As Wales celebrates St David’s Day on 1 March of every year, Penderyn importer, Spirits Castle Pte Ltd, decided to bring the celebration to Singapore with a couple of whisky tastings amongst other activities.

Pre-Celebration Drinks

The celebration started at The Providore, Downtown Gallery, where Michael held an impromptu lunchtime tasting of two best-selling whiskies in Singapore, the Sherrywood and Rich Oak.

Set up at The Providore, Downtown Gallery

While most people were not keen to start drinking at noon, more interested drinkers came at around 1 pm. Michael had a good time speaking with them about Welsh whiskies, and some of them walked away feeling that they have found gold! He also spoke with two seasoned drinkers who thought that the Sherrywood was quite similar to some of their favourite Scotch whiskies!

Whisky Pairing Dinner @ Conrad Centennial Singapore

WhiskyGeeks invited ourselves to the whisky pairing dinner at Conrad Centennial Singapore on 1 March 2019 because we had to (wink!) and of course, we were glad that we went! The event was a collaboration between Conrad and Spirits Castle with Conrad doing most of the job. When we arrived, we saw the team at The Lobby Lounge busy working on the set up for the evening. What impressed us though, was that their General Manager was helping out as well! We seldom see a GM who is so hands-on and respected the man who is so willing to serve.

The completed set up

First…the Dragons

The Dragon Range (from left to right): Legend, Myth, Celt

The whisky dinner started with a series of canapés and the Dragon Range from Penderyn. The Dragon on each bottle represents Wales and what it stands for. The dragon is, of course, the one gracing the flag of Wales. Michael spoke about the range and intrigued audiences with tales of dragons and myths.

Michael and his audiences

The Legend was the first whisky we tried. Matured in a bourbon cask before having a finish in Madeira casks, this whisky is light and fruity, with a hint of oakiness. The Myth is sweeter, with a rounded balance of fruits and candy because it is a bourbon-matured whisky that is finished in red wine casks. The Celt is the most interesting, with light peaty smoke and sweet ripe fruits. Michael explained that this whisky was finished in ex-Islay casks! All the whiskies in the Dragon range are bottled at 41% abv.

The Golden Dinner

The food prepared by Conrad’s Chef

The actual dinner pairing worked with Penderyn Gold Range – a series of 5 different whiskies bottled at 46% abv. Chef Mandar worked extensively to come up with each pairing, and all of them were fantastic!

Conrad’s Penderyn Pairing Dinner

Our favourite was the Pork Belly with Sherrywood as the pairing worked so well! The tender pork belly infused with coffee enhanced the flavours of Penderyn Sherrywood, while the whisky helped to remove the sweetness of the sauce perfectly. We also like the dessert, because the chocolate cake was divine! It was so good that we almost forgot about the whisky!

Michael speaking about the whiskies

Michael talked about the whiskies at every course, and he regaled tales of the distillery’s history and blunders in a humourous manner. He told us about Penderyn Peated – a mistake that turned out to become a popular whisky in the core range! It was said that the person-in-charge of buying casks for the distillery made a terrible blunder and purchased a batch of casks that were once holding peated whisky on Islay. When the distillery discovered the mistake, it was too late, and they had to release the whisky as a “one-off” experiment because they cannot just throw away good whisky. It turned out that people love the whisky so much that they begged the distillery to continue the production, and so today, it is part of the core range.

The Final Frontier

We ended the dinner with a special cocktail, one which the bartender at The Lobby Lounge did for the event. It was a Manhattan but done using the Penderyn Celt. Sweet and smoky, the cocktail was the perfect drink to end a lovely evening at Conrad Centennial Singapore.

A Whisky Journey to Wales at Wala Wala

Wala Wala’s Bartender with Penderyn

2 March 2019 was equally exciting because Penderyn did a tasting at Wala Wala, Singapore’s iconic bar at Holland Village! We understood that Penderyn distillery (and Spirits Castle) is absolutely delighted with Wala Wala’s support of their whiskies.

Wala Wala Cafe Bar is a place that most of the 80s and 90s kids know fondly. It is THE place to hang out, and some of us did more than hang out there – we slept on the floor, drunk, of course! The event was a collaboration between Wala Wala and Spirits Castle. Again, Wala Wala was the one who did all the job of setting up!

The Actual Event

Michael led the group gathered at Wala Wala on a journey to Wales, where he waxed lyrical about the country and the beautiful places that surround Penderyn Distillery.

Mike with the attentive audiences

The focus at Wala Wala was the five Gold Range expressions, but participants were greeted with a cocktail done with the Myth! The crowd at Wala was curious about Welsh whiskies, with many of them hearing about Penderyn for the first time. Therefore, many questions flew at Michael, who happily answered them all.

He also showed them some interesting elements of the distillation method at Penderyn and explained why the whisky tasted so different from the others.

Studying the elements of distillation

Interaction with our resident WhiskyGeeks

Michael also had a chance to speak with our guest writer of WhiskyGeeks – Hongfu aka Panda. He was delighted to find someone who loves whisky so much that questions came nonstop! It was enjoyable to see them interact with each other and to know that WhiskyGeeks will always have someone to fall back on should we fail to deliver in future! Hahaha!!

Michael with our resident whisky geeks

All of us enjoyed ourselves at Wala Wala, and we are awed by the generosity of the owner – Stanley when platters upon platters of food came from the kitchen after the presentation was over. It was an endless parade of food, and needless to say, we were all stuffed by the time the event ended. So many questions, so much food…Whisky flow aplenty as well, and out of the five, Sherrywood naturally came out tops, again!

We had an enjoyable time, and appreciated the efforts that Wala Wala had put in to make the event so fun!

Till the next time…

The weekend rendezvous with Penderyn was excellent, and we hope to do it again! Conrad’s dinner pairing was a luxurious, one of a kind event and Wala Wala’s laidback environment was a complete opposite to it. Both events left deep memories of the place, the whisky and the food. We can’t wait to do this again! Till the next time, folks!!

 

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The Liquid Gold of Wales – Penderyn Distillery

We interview Dr Giancarlo Bianchi, Technical Director of Penderyn Distillery previously, where we spoke briefly about Penderyn Distillery. It is now time for us to formally introduce the Penderyn Distillery to our readers since their products are coming to Singapore shortly.

The Birth of Penderyn

Wales, England had lost the art of distillation for over a century since it stopped in 1894. The people of Wales need to have a distillery to call their own, their pride. In the late 1990s, a group of friends met at a pub in a small Welsh valley town for a catch-up session over drinks. As the night progressed, the talk turned serious, and this group of friends began to conceive the idea of building the first whisky distillery in Wales. It would be a Welsh distillery that creates “a whisky as pure and precious as Welsh gold” and one which the people of Wales will be proud of.

The group of friends already have a location in mind – the historic village of Penderyn on the southern tip of the Brecon Beacons. The site is perfect because it has its supply of fresh, natural spring water. They knew that it is the ideal place for a distillery. What’s more, this resourceful group of friends also have access to a unique copper single-pot still designed by Dr David Faraday. He is a relative of the famous 19th-century scientist Michael Faraday.

With the resources and plans ready in hand, the group of friends began the construction of Penderyn Distillery and established the home of the Welsh’s liquid gold on 1 March 2004 in the presence of HRH Prince Charles.

Penderyn’s Unique Copper Still

How is Welsh’s liquid gold made? Well, remember we spoke about Penderyn’s unique copper single-pot still designed by Dr David Faraday? It is this very still that makes gold for Penderyn.

Penderyn distillery has a pair of copper single-pot stills called the Faraday Stills. The stills are designed by Dr David Faraday, who is a relative of the famous Victorian scientist, Michael Faraday. The single-pot still produces a clean and flavourful spirit of extraordinary strength that becomes Penderyn’s signature style of whisky.

The Distillation Process

The distillery charges malted barley wash into their copper stills every morning. The still is heated with hot steam. As the liquid reaches boiling point, the vapour rises into a copper column above the still. The column has seven perforated plates, and the vapour condenses on the first plate before falling back into the still. The process continues, with the vapour that condenses on the first plate becoming purer and rising to the second plate before condensing. This delicate process continues until the vapour reaches the 7th plate, where it condenses and is collected into a glass spirit safe, drop by drop.

The entire process helps to purify the final spirit and imbues it with great complexity, depth, and body. The copper still also removes many undesirable chemical compounds. The magical process creates a clean spirit of extraordinary strength. The new make at Penderyn arrives at the spirits safe at a staggering strength of 92% abv, one of the industry highest.

Wood and Cask

The new make from Penderyn needs a home after they are born. Penderyn takes great care to ensure every drop of liquid has a quality home to rest in. The distillery’s house style comes from the use of two kinds of casks. The primary residence of the new make is an excellent hand-selected bourbon barrel that comes from either Buffalo Trace or Evan Williams Distillery. Both of them make some of the finest bourbons in the world. That makes their ex-bourbon casks perfect as the first home for Penderyn’s whisky.

Penderyn uses Portuguese barriques that held a rich Madeira wine to finish their house-style whisky. The rich Madeira casks imparted subtlety and complexity to the whisky. They also use other types of casks to create a range of products to suit everyone’s palate. The distillery uses Scottish peated casks, Portugal port wood barrels and Spanish dry oloroso sherry casks.

Penderyn’s Range of Whisky

Penderyn has a large range of whisky available for every whisky drinker. At a glance, there are three ranges of whisky on offer as well as other spirits such as gin and vodka.

First up, there is the Dragon range. It showcases the pride of Wales as the red dragon is the national flag. Under the Dragon range, you can find Legend, Myth and Celt. Legend mirrors the house-style of Penderyn’s signature malt, with ex-bourbon and Madeira finish. Myth is matured in ex-bourbon and ex-red wine casks. Celt is the lightly peated version of Penderyn’s single malt.

There is also the Gold range, which is made up of Maderia, Port wood, Sherry wood and Peat. Every expression is matured in ex-bourbon cask before getting a finish in their respective casks.

Besides the above seven expressions, Penderyn also has limited edition releases named Icons of Wales which showcase either a person, milestone or event from Welsh history with international significance. So far, the distillery launched five expressions with number six coming along in the near future.

What will be Available in Singapore?

We understand that Penderyn whisky will be launched in Singapore in October 2018 with seven expressions from the Dragon and Gold range. The dates are not confirmed, but we will be releasing them as soon as we know. Stay tuned for more!

 

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Interview: Dr Giancarlo Bianchi, Technical Director, Penderyn Distillery

Picture from Penderyn Distillery

Penderyn Distillery is a boutique whisky distillery located in Wales, in a small but historic village known as Penderyn. A group of friends conceived the idea of setting up the first whisky distillery in Wales in the late 1990s. The idea became a reality on 1 March 2004, in the presence of HRH Prince Charles.

Penderyn Distillery will be exhibiting its whiskies for the first time in Asia during the ProWine Asia 2018. The exhibition can be found at Expo Hall 10. ProWine Asia is held together with the Food & Hotel Asia 2018 which will span two locations at Singapore Expo and Suntec City Convention Hall. Both events will be held from 24 April to 27 April 2018. WhiskyGeeks gets to speak with Dr Giancarlo Bianchi, the Technical Director of Penderyn Distillery before the exhibition.

Penderyn Distillery and its unique single copper-pot still

Picture Credit: Penderyn Distillery

The distillery boasts of a few things which other distilleries do not have. One of their prized possessions is their single copper-pot stills. Penderyn produces whisky from the copper-pot still and yields a flavourful spirit of high strength and purity. Dr David Faraday, a descendant of the famous Victorian scientist, Michael Faraday, designed the copper-pot stills. The picture above shows the launch of the new copper-pot still in 2013.

The Special Distillation Method at Penderyn Distillery

Picture Credit: Penderyn Distillery

We spoke to Dr Giancarlo Bianchi on Penderyn’s distillation method and learned the intriguing technical process. We understood that the distillery uses steam to heat the copper-pot stills. Once the wash heats up, the vapours rise into the copper column above the still and move into a second column. The unique second column has perforated plates. Some of the vapours condense as it runs through the first plate while others continue the journey up to the next plate.

The process continues, with some vapours condensing and others moving higher up to the next plate along the copper column. Eventually, all the vapours condense and fall back through the still. As the spirit goes through the process, it becomes smoother, softer and more refined with each step. Finally, the spirit is drawn from the seventh plate in the still column and piped into their spirit safe at a staggering  92% abv! (Refer to above for a graphic depiction of the process)

The Difference between Welsh Distillation Methods versus Scotch and Japanese Method

We wondered aloud how different the distillate would be between Penderyn and the traditional Scotch and Japanese whiskies. Dr Bianchi happily picked up the question and explained the difference. “Most Scottish and Japanese distilleries use a conventional two or three-pot still system, but at Penderyn, our single copper-pot still allows us to produce an extremely clean, flavourful spirit that sets it apart from the Scotch and Japanese spirits,” Dr Bianchi said. “This magical process not only imbues our raw spirit with great complexity, depth and finesse but also removes many of the undesirable chemical compounds – something that conventional pot-still systems cannot achieve,” he continued. The clean spirit, we understood, help Penderyn distillery during cask ageing as the absence of undesirable compounds makes it easier to achieve the flavours that Penderyn’s whiskies are famous for.

The Range of Penderyn Whisky Available

Picture Credit: Penderyn Distillery

As the range of Penderyn whisky is relatively new to Asia, especially in Southeast Asia, we ask Dr Bianchi for recommendations. There are two core ranges of products from Penderyn Distillery. The Dragon Range comprises three expressions bottled at 41%. Their names are Legend, Myth and Celt. These are the brand’s light and fruity whiskies, which are perfect for beginners as well as whisky drinkers who like gentle and easy to drink whiskies.

The other range is the Gold Range (shown above) which includes four expressions bottled at 46%. The Gold Range comprises of the Madeira Finish (which is the house style of Penderyn), Sherrywood, Peated and Portwood. With the higher abv, the range is more suitable for whisky drinkers as well as the adventurous beginners who want to move ahead in their whisky journey.

Whisky Trends in 2018

Geek Flora is excited to pick Dr Bianchi’s brains regarding whisky trends in 2018, especially that of boutique whisky in non-whisky producing countries. Dr Bianchi explained that there is a long-standing trend in Europe for consumers to explore single malts outside of Scotland and Japan. Considering the numerous distilleries popping up in Germany, France and England, it is indeed heartening to know that consumers are now more open to whisky produced in other non-traditional whisky-producing countries. “For the younger generations, age statement and country of origin are not going to be the key criteria,” said Dr Bianchi, “Taste, and a true, honest brand identity generate interest instead.”

As for the market outside of Europe, Dr Bianchi admits that it is still somewhat an age-statement market that sticks to the traditional core producing regions of Scotland and Japan. However, he believes that with more chances to meet and encourage drinkers to try the whiskies from the “new world”, more people will eventually come to understand and appreciate the whiskies made outside of the core producing regions.

Non-age Statements (NAS) versus Age-Statements Whiskies

We cannot resist the age-old question (pun intended) of the NAS versus age-statement whiskies. We asked Dr Bianchi what he thought about the on-going debate within the whisky community. Dr Bianchi said, “We recognised early on, that while age is important, its absolute value is not linearly related to whisky quality.” He went on to explain that the distillate is the most important. With a clean distillate such as the one from Penderyn, the whisky does not need to mature for an extended time. Given such, Penderyn chooses to launch NAS whiskies and will continue to do so.

“NAS whiskies are perhaps fashionable, but they do not mean lesser quality. They allow small, craft distilleries to carefully select their limited stocks flexibly to maximise quality without getting tied to a specific age,” Dr Bianchi continued. Dr Bianchi believes that NAS and age statements both work well in the global community as they appeal to different groups of drinkers. As long as NAS whisky producers continue to communicate and put forth good quality whiskies, everyone, even those who are against NAS whiskies now, will come to appreciate the care that goes into each bottle.

Challenging Scotland and Japan

As more whisky distilleries popped up around the world, we are interested to find out if these boutique distilleries are a threat to Scotland and Japan, the traditional whisky-making regions. When we put the question to Dr Bianchi, he laughed and said, “The whisky market worldwide is growing, and there is still room for everyone.”

We have to acknowledge that Dr Bianchi was right.  The small distilleries are far from challenging the established giants in both Scotland and Japan as their capabilities are nowhere near the big ones in either region. Nonetheless, they are threatening age-old production techniques and forcing the traditional producers to rethink both their production techniques and their marketing methods.

The Future of Whisky

Finally, we asked Dr Bianchi what his views are for the future of whisky. He made an important point – whisky is around for a long time, but it is essential that whisky producers continue to innovate. Variety is vital in a market where consumers are always looking for something new. Such trends are beneficial to smaller producers like Penderyn because consumers are more willing to try new varieties from boutique whisky distilleries.

While it is still a question mark on whisky’s future, one thing is sure. Producers will strive to make good whisky to intrigue the world and convert more drinkers in time to come.

Moving Forward

WhiskyGeeks will be attending ProWine Asia 2018 to provide more updates to all our readers! Stay tuned for more!

 

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