What’s the deal with the stills at Penderyn?
With its inception occurring in a pub in Wales in the late 1990s, the idea was an ambitious one – to revive the whisky industry of an entire country! When it started distilling in 2000 in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales, Penderyn was the first whisky distillery in Wales in over a century. Not only is it a trailblazer but it has a unique still set-up, so we grabbed a minute with CEO Stephen Davies to learn all about it.
“When people who are well-versed in drinking single malts try Penderyn, they are surprised – they’re not expecting it,” Stephen Davies tells me. This is because, unlike many Scotch distilleries (and beyond), Penderyn single malts are distilled in something called a Faraday still, designed by Dr. David Faraday at the University of Surrey. Essentially it’s a cross between a pot and column still, consisting of a single copper pot with two columns. “It’s the essence of Penderyn in many ways, because it gives us a very light, fruity spirit.”
New make spirit comes off the still at a generously high 92% ABV (pot still spirit is generally between 60%-80%), and the Penderyn team cut it at 88% ABV. Why is this unique? “It gives us a very light spirit that is capable of taking on the character of whatever cask it’s put in,” Davies answers. “It’s definitely not better or worse than traditional pot stills, but it’s different, and that’s the most important thing.” It works in that the pot is like a big kettle, and then through a chain of sieve plates in the columns you’ve got a series of evaporations and condensations. The vapour evaporates through the holes in the plates, and then condenses back to a liquid, while the heat below is driving it further up the column. For my chemistry friends, you’ll know that as fractional distillation. “Surprisingly, even when you draw it off at 92%, it’s still got plenty of flavour.” If it got to 96% it would essentially become a vodka, but that 4% difference retains a lot of character.
“It’s nice to have this point of difference – we’re not trying to make the same whisky as north of the border,” says Davies. But after around 13 years, the distillery wanted (and needed) to expand. “Dr. Jim Swan was our guiding light in those days, and he said: ‘If you really want to keep making whisky, and larger amounts, you probably need to have some heavier spirit to give a bit more body.’ Meaning we should add a pair of pot stills.” Davies wasn’t so sure about that! “That was exactly the opposite of what we’d been saying to the industry for the last few years.”
The Faraday still (and spirit) wasn’t going anywhere, but the distillery was simply going to have more options in terms of flavour and style. So they added an additional Faraday still in 2013, and a pair of pot stills in 2014. They were lantern-shaped (“like the ones at Glenlivet, but a lot smaller!”), designed to produce spirit at the lighter end of the pot still spectrum, but still heavier and oilier than the Faraday new make. At the same time as the extra stills, the distillery also got its own first mash tun, as the mashing was previously being done at a Welsh brewery up until 2013. “I have to say, we learnt a lot, and it was a very good move,” Davies recalls. The team now had more control than ever before.
Each spirit is matured separately, giving master blender Aista Phillips a great portfolio to work with. Davies explains: “We don’t want to lose that identity we created for ourselves, but we wanted to be able to grow the family a bit in terms of styles.” Only now are they really seeing the benefits though as the first pot still spirit is just turning six years old, with Davies noting that he believes that it needs to be older than the Faraday spirit.
While they’re working with DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to draft a GI document to protect what it means to be a Welsh whisky, Penderyn certainly doesn’t believe its unique Faraday spirit speaks for all the country’s whisky distilleries. “I think you’ve got to be realistic, other producers who come in will be using pot stills, so they’re not going to have the same style,” says Davies. “It does try to cover a reasonably wide definition, because of the different styles you’re going to get.” Excitingly, they’re just waiting for the feedback from DEFRA now.
Having said that, the team are opening two new distilleries giving them new opportunities to explore new styles. “In terms of single malt whisky, we still feel that we’re really well positioned in terms of quality,” Davies notes, and single malt will always be the core and priority. But with the Llandudno distillery newly-opened and producing peated whisky, a distillery set to open in Swansea in 2022, and Davies hinting that a Welsh rye is even on the cards, innovation isn’t taking a back seat either! What you can rely on, however, is that the Faraday spirit was still front and centre at Penderyn: “There’s a lot to be proud of and to protect.”