Early history of Welsh Whisky
Like so much of Wales, Wisgi Cymreig or Welsh Whisky has a long history and traces it’s roots back to AD 356. During this time the Welsh Warrior Reaullt Hir is said to have distilled the mead made by the monks of Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), having learned the process from the Greek merchants, thus creating chwisgi. Unlike today’s whisky, this drink used herbs and botanicals to create a more flavoured drink, more akin to a malt gin. The next occurance of the welsh whisky, is from 1705 when a small commercial distillery opened at Dale in Pembrokeshire. Owned by the family of Evan Williams, who later emigrated from Wales to the USA and helped found the Kentucky Whiskey industry and whose name is still attached to a number of high quality current day bourbons. Welsh Whisky next became a commercial venture in 1887 when Richard John Lloyd Price, best known as the organizer of the first sheepdog trials, established the Welsh Whiskey Distillery at Frongoch. The distillery, located just outside of Bala in North Wales, operated from until 1906, when hit the Temperance movement, which substantially reduced the alcohol consumption in the area. The sale of alcohol on a Sunday had by that time been forbidden from 1881, with devout believers further promoting a staunch ‘no-alcohol on any day’ stance, especially in Wales. Indeed, archives suggest that by the time the distilling industry in Wales shut down in 1903, nearly a tenth of the British public was teetotal. (Does Penderyn have a bottle of this?)
1970’s to mid 1990’s
Whisky production started again Wales, in Brecon in 1974, from a small brewhouse at the Camden Arms, and in 1976 Swn y’Mor came on to the home market. In 1982 the company moved to the Ffrwsgrech Estate and in July 1986 this fine whisky Prince of Wales was released and is one of the rarest whiskies in the world. This distillery was run by Dafydd Gittins, who used to own a pub in the mountains of Brecon Beacons National Park, where he made mead for local castle owners, who sold it to tourists. While making a delivery to a castle in the mid-’70s, Gittins noticed an old bottle of Welsh whiskey in a glass case. Gittins had never heard of such a thing, so he set about researching the history of the drink. In every reference he read, Gittins always found mention that herbs were used in the distilling process. ”They didn’t take the time to age the whiskey back then,” said Gittins. ”Instead, herbs were used to make it smooth and mellow.” Researching Gittins, most information can be found from a trip to the US in the mid 80s, presumeably to promote the whisky.
After six years of experimenting with different herbs and various proportions, Gittins came up with what he believes is a recipe similar to the original. The ingredients are a closely guarded secret, but a spokesman for the Welsh Whisky Co. revealed that two of the seven herbs are leaf cow parsley and safri fachs. The herbs are used after the whiskey has been aged for 10 years in wooden casks. The whiskey is filtered through the herb mixture into a vat, where more herbs are added.
Initially, Gittins sold Prince of Wales, which he named for Owain Glyndwr, the first prince of Wales, only from his pub. Then, one day, the men from Welsh customs showed up charging Gittins with producing whiskey without a license. They were pretty sure he didn’t have a license because none had been issued for more than 100 years. However, an old license was located and sold to Gittens, who, overall, was pleased with the way the problem was resolved: “The last guy caught without a license was hanged, but that was more than a century ago”.
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His customers were guinea pigs, “Those guys drank some pretty horrendous stuff before we were able to break the hardness” (The whisky is) twice distilled in traditional copper pots from maltered barley then aged in oak casks for 10 year, then pumped through a filter of botanicals and herbs to give it the true welsh whisky flavour.
“The scotch whisky association went ape when they heard about Welsh whiskey. They said, ‘there’s no such thing: you can’t put herbs in it and call it whiskey.’ The went to the standards department, and a local newspaper got hold of it…the the London times, Telegraph and the Guardian…Soon the issue of Welsh whiskey was raised in Parliament. “That was millions of pounds in free publicity. I doubt if we’d ever gotten off the ground without it!’
And this version of Welsh whisky did well. Looking for expression of this whisky today you will find details of “A unique method of filtering the whisky through natural herbs gives Prince of Wales its distinctive smooth and mellow flavour. It allows the full flavour of the malt to come through and produces a pure, clean, rich taste. There were Special bottling to commemorate the Normandy landings, Arnhem and the liberation of Europe and it’s even suggested that State leaders such as former US President Jimmy Carter and former British Premier John Major praised his whiskies. But looking further, it turns out it wasn’t the complete truth.
In the 1970s, Dafydd Gittins attempted to bring back Welsh whisky by blending Scottish-distilled malt whisky with Welsh-distilled grain spirit. The result was called “Swn Y Mor,” which the Welsh believe means “sound of the sea.” Unfortunately, since there were no distilleries in Wales, a certain amount of suspicion arose over where the Welsh-distilled spirits were coming from. The answer, it would seem, was Scotland. By blending Scottish whisky with Scottish whisky and filtering them through “a secret mixture of seven Welsh herbs” the whisky acquired a certain Welsh flavour. Next came a single malt called “Prince of Wales” manufactured in a similar fashion.
The whiskies sold well, even if they weren’t “Welsh” in the strictest, actually-distilled-in-Wales sense, and in 1991 the company moved to new premises where they built a visitors’ centre and commissioned a new kind of still from the University of Surrey in Guildford. All in all, a pretty good plan — except for the law suit by the Scotch whisky industry. When it was over the courts levied a duty fraud of more £250,000, sent three of the company’s directors to jail for 8 months, and essentially put the company out of business.
Today, Perderyn whisky is the (most famous) of Welsh Whiskies. Penderyn Distillery is situated in Brecon Beacons National Park and is considered the smallest distillery in the world. The company obtains its wash from Brains Brewery, a process which makes it unique from Scottish whisky, which stipulates that the wash must be brewed at the distillery premises. The company opened up a visitors centre in June 2008, with Prince Charles, Prince of Wales leading the proceedings.
Although not the yet producing whisky, the Dà Mhìle distillery in Llandysul is looking to start creating whisky this year, although it will of course not be ready until 2017. In the mean time, whisky is still an emerging in Wales and hopefully has a strong future ahead to it. To quote the First Minister on his opening of Dà Mhìle
“People generally tend to think of Scotland and Ireland when you mention whisky, but up until a century ago the spirit was produced here in Wales and today marks another step in the return of that tradition. Let’s hope it’s the start of a Welsh whisky renaissance”.