On Saturday 15th February, we were delighted to attend a ‘soft opening’ tour of the Dà Mhìle distillery. Six Swwiggers attended the tour, and without doubt it was one of the most informative distillery tours I’ve attended.
Dà Mhìle (pronounced da-vee-lay) is Gaelic for 2000 and is the brain-child of John Savage-Onstwedder, who commissioned the Springbank distillery in Cambeltown to create the first organic single malt scotch whisky in the modern world to celebrate the Millennium. The original batch was created in 1992, with a second being created by the Loch Lomond distillery in the year 2000.
John is now entering the next phase of his whisky journey by building a distillery to create his own spirits and bring the first production of Organic Whisky to Wales – malting, mashing, distilling and bottling everything on site.
Glynhynod Farm, where the Dà Mhìle distillery is located down a small, single track road outside Llandysul, in Ceredigion – just follow the signs to the cheese farm and you can’t miss it. We arrived just after 1pm and were greated by John, who commented that 4 people brought two cars from Cardiff – ironic when visiting an organic and ‘green’ focused company. We explained it was just to make sure we had enough space for our purchases!
We began the tour in the farm building that’s been turned into his bottling/labelling plant, still house, warehouse and tasting room. This is not industrial by any sense and nor should it be. John explained that years ago in Austria there were some 20,000 farm micro-distilleries around the country, so this is not uncommon, but still unique in Wales (and possibly the UK).
John explained his past, being raised in Holland, how he saw the ‘organic’ movement at its roots and was keen to bring this knowledge to the UK when he moved to Wales in the early 1980’s. Here he began his cheese business under the organic ethos which has gone from strength to strength and has won many prestigious awards. Being 50% Scottish, he then decided to put the same formula into creating a whisky.
In 1992 he approached Springbank to sell them the idea of the first organic whisky of the modern era (in the past, it would have been organic by default) which started his first venture into whisky.
Moving down to the still John explained about how their still from Kothe distilling allows for 7 times installation in one process. John-James, (John’s eldest son) is the head distiller. He trained with Kilchoman distillery in Scotland and with Dr. Klaus Hagmann who has a PhD in distilling in Germany and designed the still. As the still wasn’t running, we also got to have a look inside, which is a first.
Dà Mhìle’s still actually marks a key moment in distilling in the UK. When John applied for the still license, the form stipulated that the minimum still size had to be over 1500 litres, but the one he was looking to purchase was only 350 litres. He contact HMRC, who said to just amend the form, as that rule dated back to the days when Customs Officers were chasing people on horseback. John’s license was approved, and thus removed the minimum size for a still in the UK. This should make it much easier for smaller distilleries like Dà Mhìle to startup around Britain – great for us whisky lovers.
The tour then continued into the warehouse where we were shown the Loch Lomand 12 and Springbank 22 barrels, as well as the other barrels he has been developing. As part of an environmental decision, he is not looking to create a true peated whisky, but as part of his smoked cheese process, he is looking to create a smoked whisky by pre-treating the barrel in a smokehouse. This is similar to the ‘mistaken’ barrel produced by Penderyn that created their peated version.
For the final section of the tour, we ventured upstairs to the tasting room. Despite still being setup, you can tell this is going to be an amazing place once complete. The still protrudes from below, so when it’s fired up, you’ll have all the aromas flowing around the room. In the centre of the room is a large rough cut oak table surrounded by stools create from old barrels. I think many of us would be interested in owning these if it was something they would look at selling as well. John hopes to have local artwork around the walls which will complete the room. You can almost imagine the landscapes there already.
Stood around the table, we sampled the 12 year old grain, malt and blend, which is a mixture of the 12 and the 22 year old (70/30 split), as well as the 22 year old on its own. We had tried the 12 a few weeks ago at the Six nations tasting evening, and we really weren’t that impressed with the one that Mike and Claire had picked up last year. This one on the other hand was a completely different colour, nose and taste and we all liked it much more. It’s amazing the variety that can come between different barrels.
We also tried the orange liquor, which was very fruity, but fresh, like a Cointreau but not as sugary. We also had a small sample of the two gins, both the botanical and the seaweed. The standard gin has some amazing flavours and is also menthol on the palate, whilst the seaweed doesn’t add a flavour as such, but just emphasises all the botanicals even more. It would be a shame to drink this any other way but neat, or with a little ice. The Seaweed gin is available from 1st March so unfortunately we weren’t able to buy any that day.
New Welsh Whisky
They hope to start making their first welsh whisky sometime this spring/summer after they source some local barley. John is looking to try and use the pipkin variety which is grown by Aberystwyth University farm which would make the whole product local, although this is still ongoing. After that, the whole process will be kept on site right through to bottling. I can’t wait to see what the new-make and malt spirits taste like, but it’ll be some time before we see an official whisky release from them
We arrived at 1pm, but didn’t leave until we past 4pm and the time flew by. John has some amazing stories from the world of whisky and his past in general. Despite still only running in soft opening, the tour was very interesting and I imagine will be very popular, simply for how close you can get to the production. The tasting area is a great place to end the tour and most importantly they’ve got some great products to sample and purchase. I wish them good luck for the future and can’t wait to see how their whisky turns out.