Food & Drink
From its base in the Brecon Beacons, Penderyn has spearheaded the revival of the Welsh whisky industry. Laura Davies, who heads the distilling team, explains how business success has been driven by bold innovation and a willingness to experiment.
We’ve always taken pride in being innovators. When Penderyn started in 1999, it was the first whisky distillery in Wales for more than 100 years. There was a conscious decision to try to create a distinctive Welsh style of whisky. The founders didn’t have much industry knowledge at the time – that expertise came later – but they were passionate about Wales and wanted to produce the best product they could.
The way we distil and cask our whisky is unique. The Scotch whisky industry generally uses pot stills, which produce a spirit at 70% to 76% strength. At Penderyn, we use a specially commissioned column still, and our spirit comes off at 89% to 92% alcohol by volume. One of the reasons you cask whisky is to remove impurities, but because our spirit is lighter, it doesn’t have as many of those harsh notes in the first place. The cask doesn’t have to work so hard, so we can get a quicker maturation, and we end up with a balanced whisky that picks up just the right amount of wine and wood flavours.
When I first joined the company in 2012, our range of products was considerably smaller. Today, our range of expressions is growing. This allows us to reach a wider audience, and to exercise a lot of creativity with our distillation, mashing and maturation processes. Our Icons of Wales series – special releases that celebrate a person, milestone or event from Welsh history – has proved very interesting from a marketing point of view, and it has certainly helped us tap into both the whisky market and the loyal Welsh expat community.
It’s not just a matter of marketing. Our Bryn Terfel whisky came in beautiful velvet packaging, and I’m sure this will have led some people to wonder whether what’s inside the bottle matched the outside. But that expression of Penderyn won multiple prizes (it was European Whisky of the Year 2018) and was given a very high rating by Jim Murray, one of the world’s most renowned whisky writers. In a business like this, there has to be substance to what you do.
More and more distilleries are springing up in Wales. Around 25 spirits licences have been granted throughout the country – not only for whisky, but vodka, gin and other products. The Welsh Government has been very supportive of us and of the industry. We had valuable help when we set up the visitor centre in 2008 and tripled our production capacity in 2014, and they do a lot to promote us around the world.
We don’t try to emulate the Scotch whisky market. That has been there for a very long time, and has an export value of around £5 billion. But increasing our production in Wales is good from both a manufacturing and tourism point of view, and we’re currently planning new Penderyn distilleries in Swansea and North Wales.
We don’t have problems with recruitment. If you’re in Scotland and you’re looking for a new distiller or member of the technical team, you can find lots of people with specific skills and experience. We don’t have that in Wales, but we do have a talented workforce that’s willing to learn. We can train our people from the ground up; and in some ways that’s better, as they really get behind our brand and our values.
I certainly had no experience of whisky before I came here. We have an all-female technical team at the distillery, including distilling and blending, purely because those individuals were the best people for the jobs. We are recognised for the jobs we do rather than for our gender, but I’m very keen to use our example to encourage women to come into the industry and become part of it. I think it bodes well for the future of Wales as a whisky-producing nation.