I try not to wax lyrical about whisky too often (seriously, it just slips out) but it does seem that we are living in a golden era of whisky (no pun intended) despite the fact that the world itself has gone and turned on its head.
World Whisky Wednesday affords me the time to look at those countries that are not as well known for their distilling and those that may have only started distilling recently. But, every now and then, we get a chance to unearth something and have a look at a piece of history from around the world. For today’s World Whisky Wednesday, I’ll be staring into a glass of the Penderyn’s the Royal Welsh Whisky from their Icons of Wales Series, No.5.
Actually, I lied a little there.
We’re not necessarily staring into a bottle of historical spirit, but rather a recreation of it. If you’ve previously read my reviews, you likely know that to call me a fan of Penderyn Distillery is an understatement, in particular my love of their Icons of Wales releases. It’s a curious thing really. Not a day goes by where we are not bombarded by distilleries releasing everything under the sun, talking about plans, discussing their thoughts on barrels, barley, yeast, distillation and how they are something different, though Penderyn have gone down a different track.
The Icons of Wales series, celebrating figures, dates and events crucial to the Welsh identity has gone largely unnoticed, down to the fact that Penderyn has done next to nothing to advertise it (barring a fantastic video with Welsh acting icon, Julian Lewis Jones).
But let’s ignore that for now and dive into this whisky.
What we have here is not a bottle from the past itself but rather a replication of what that whisky may have been. Each of the Icons of Wales Series focuses on a particular moment, with this bottling focusing on the royal welsh whisky distillery.
So, who were they?
Whisky has a curious history in Wales, with legends about the Great Welsh Warrior Reaullt Hir distilling ‘Chwisgi’ (Welsh for whisky) from Monk brewed braggot, an old style of mead made with honey and hops. Though this is unlikely, Welsh whisky has garnered a reputation for being quite sweet, much like braggot, due to Penderyn’s use of Madeira casks in their maturation.
As far as history is concerned, the last great Welsh distillery of note (before the Penderyn revival) was the Welsh Whisky Distillery Company in the heart of the Welsh distilling industry, Frongoch. Founded in 1889 by Richard John Lloyd Price (Price is most notable as the organiser of the first sheepdog trials within the UK), the distillery was visited by Queen Victoria in 1891 and received a Royal Warrant on the 26th July 1895, thus the company’s ability to add the ‘Royal’ prefix.
The amount they paid for the distillery at the time equates to £10,000,000 in the 21st century, including the standard malthouse, kilns and stores of the time but also a railway station. The distillery was established in order to challenge perceptions of the whisky industry at the time, particularly the industries of Ireland and Scotland (not unlike a more recent eastern European whisky made to challenge the whiskies of the west).
Unfortunately for Welsh Whisky and Mr Price, a heavy temperance movement within Wales saw the closure of the distillery in 1900 and a sale of the site to William Owen for £5,000. Despite this move away from alcohol, a reporter wrote on 25th June, 1910 in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette:
‘Welsh Whisky is the most wonderful whisky that ever drove the skeleton from the feast, or painted landscapes in the brain of man. It is the mingled souls of peat and barley, washed white with the waters of the Treweyn. In it you will find the sunshine and shadow that chase each other over the billowy fields, the breath of June, the carol of the lark, the dew of the night, the wealth of summer, and autumns rich content, all golden with imprisoned light.’
Following this, the distillery would be liquidated. It would become an internment camp for German Prisoners of War from the First World War and then, after the Easter Rising, would hold some 1,800 Irish prisoners, notably including Michael Collins and Arthur Shields.
So, what do we have in the bottle?
The liquid is obviously not an original Royal Welsh Whisky as only four are currently known to exist (one at Penderyn, one within Cardiff’s St Fagan’s National History Museum and the remaining two in the hands of private collectors). The whisky has been replicated to the best of Penderyn’s abilities. What little is known about the original Royal Welsh Whisky is that it was five years old, most likely single malt (though it is listed in The Wine & Spirit Trade Record of the time as ‘Pot Still’, which is either correct or a put down via labelling) and with the same peated influence that most whiskies from around the UK and world would carry at that time.
Rather than running a peated wash, Penderyn have opted here for an interesting alternative by maturing the whisky in ex-bourbon barrels, then finishing it in peated port wood which once held one of the more boisterous Islay whiskies. It drops into the bottle at 43%, and now, it’s time to get tasting.
The nose touches off with light raspberries and chocolate, hints of fudge. Jam Welsh tea cakes. There’s an artificial sweetness, some raspberry cream sweets, and a nice coffee hint as well. The smoke is very delicate, struck match sticks and singed stone fruits. Interesting vanilla custard, a touch of pineapples lumps and some candewax. Light on the floral notes and then some delicate Turkish delight, a tiny touch of burnt strawberries at the end there.
On the palate it hits the tropical fruit notes quite well, bringing in some mango and the spicy, zesty mouthfeel of pineapple juice. It’s chewy in a way as well, the fudge returning and opening up with plenty of sticky taste, sweet sugar. The smoke does hit a bit more on the palate but it’s still quite marginal, an afterthought. Think roasting marshmallows over some smouldering coals, it’s there but leaves you short of the full peat, the big smoke. Some grapefruit as well, a hint of peaches and cream, before a very nice but troubling short finish of pineapple, raisins, pepper, vanilla and a hint of Russian caravan tea, disappearing like smoke through the fingers.
I wish the whisky had some more peat.
That’s really all I want more from on the taste, but then I’m a fiend for peat. The port wood adds just enough that I’ll be sipping this long into the night after resting it against the heater to see how it opens up and I’m very pleased with that. In terms of how it stands up to the Rhiannon, it’s not as good but a damn sight better than most whiskies at that price. On that note, let’s talk about that.
This bottle cost me just shy of £50. For a standard bottling I would think it was a bit much but for a limited edition? Bloody oath, I keep thinking I’ll be having to pay twice as much at least. Penderyn’s Icons of Wales Series is damn affordable, damn good, and there are still bottles floating about, which brings me to my final question: why the hell aren’t Penderyn advertising this?
As I said at the start of the review, we are bombarded daily with special releases from everyone under the sun and there is no end in sight of the experimentation. On the other hand, there’s Penderyn, bottling bloody good whisky they believe in, that mean something to the company, mean something to the country, though you are forgiven if you have never heard of it.
Penderyn’s Royal Welsh Whisky from their Icons of Wales Series No.5 is a standout. It is a fantastic whisky at an easily affordable price and with a fascinating history behind it. And, if you can sip a great whisky while learning some amazing history then you shouldn’t need much else to make you happy.
This review is not sponsored or endorsed by any whisky or distillery, Penderyn Distillery or otherwise, and is entirely the thoughts and opinions of the authors Somewhiskybloke.