Welsh Whisky might not be buzzing like Irish or English varieties right now, but if Penderyn has anything to say about it, they will soon. Located in the Cynon Valley, Penderyn is essentially responsible for the return of Whisky production to Wales. In 2004, the distillery released its first expression, 110 years after the last bottle of Welsh Whisky had been bottled. Since then, the distillery has gone from strength to strength, delivering one quality whisky after another. The finest offerings come from their annual, limited-edition Single Cask range, which, in 2021, consists of top bottlings: Penderyn 15 Year Old Bourbon Matured Single Cask and Penderyn 13 Year Old Rich Oak Single Cask.
The 2021 Penderyn Single Cask Whiskies are as unique as they come. The 15 Year Old Bourbon Matured Single Cask is the first 15-year-old whisky bottled in the distillery’s history. The 13 Year Old Rich Oak Single Cask, meanwhile, might be the perfect whisky for the American palate with its rich flavors.
Like India’s Amrut, Kilchoman on Islay, and Taiwan’s Kavalan, the late Dr Jim Swan–the creator of the STR cask and all around world whisky genius–was involved with Penderyn. He was the master distiller of the Welsh distillery and trained current Master Blender Aista Phillips (as well as Distillery Manager Laura Davies) himself. In this week’s Bottle Breakdown, we talked with Phillips about the 2021 Penderyn Single Cask Whiskies and learned what we should be looking for in the releases, and why the offerings are so unique.
Spirited Zine: Just to get started, what was your first experience with Whisky? And how does that memory impact the way you view Penderyn Whiskies?
Aista Phillips: I was born in Lithuania and gained a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from the Kaunas University of Technology. I moved to Wales and worked for a pharmaceutical company based in Brecon, before joining Penderyn Distillery in 2012 as a Trainee Distiller & Blender. My first drink was a Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 brand whiskey and coke. I took a sip and felt the warmth spread through my chest and it was nice as a cocktail. My next taste of whisky was Penderyn Sherrywood after I bought it for my dad’s birthday to take home to Lithuania. That was 2 years before I started working for Penderyn Distillery.
Working in Penderyn, I have learned so much about whisky. I have learned how to taste, what to look for when tasting, how to nose and how to recognize flavors. So my JD and coke is a distant memory and not really related to the job I do now.
SZ: Scotch obviously has quite the reputation, and Irish Whiskeys and English Whiskies are currently having a moment in the sun. But what about Welsh Whisky makes it distinct and unique?
AP: Penderyn uses a unique Faraday Single Copper Pot still, which produces a spirit with highs of around 92% ABV (184 proof). This means the heavier oils and impurities have vanished. This means our whiskies are light, fresh and flavorsome, and interact with the barrel wood much more quickly than spirits from traditional pot stills.
SZ: Penderyn has established itself over the last couple decades as a truly top-of-the-line Whisky. Can you tell us a bit about the terroir of Penderyn and the flavors and aromas it delivers to the Whiskies?
AP: Our house style is a Madeira finish. This was suggested by the late great Dr. Jim Swan when he first nosed our spirit. Dr. Swan was our Master distiller and trained our Distillery Manager Laura Davies, and myself. This whisky is fruity and also has a creamy toffee finish. We also finish in casks that have held sherry, port and peated whiskies, as well as experimenting with other casks.
When it comes to terroir, this may extend to the pure water we use, which originates in the hills of the Brecon Beacons National Park we are in. However, we are not huge believers in terroir for whiskies, especially when our newly distilled spirit at 184 proof would make it very hard to discern differences in soil conditions.
SZ: Penderyn Single Casks are unique amongst the distillery’s lineup. How do you go about choosing the Whiskies that will be included in these releases?
AP: All our whiskies have reached perfection when we bottle, but sometimes we have a cask that totally encompasses what Penderyn stands for, and we use these for our single cask range.
We are still a small distillery compared with others and prepare small batches for bottling. To prepare a batch, I taste individual casks and in that tasting process, I find examples that stand out. They might be a darker color or richer flavors that stand out more than usual. Those casks are marked on our Database with comments attached that it could be a very special cask.
SZ: This time around, the distillery has released a 15 Year Old Bourbon Matured Single Cask and a 13 Year Old Rich Oak Single Cask exclusively in the United States. Why do these two offerings uniquely fit the American palate and marketplace?
AP: Our whiskies are very popular in the US as they are lighter than the usual single malts from other nations. We did a whisky show in San Francisco, and one visitor to our tasting table called them ‘Sunshine whiskies,’ suggesting that they can be enjoyed even during hot weather.
Those two single casks are really very special. Not only are they fantastic whiskies in their flavor profile, but it’s the first 15-year-old whisky bottled in Penderyn’s history. I have noticed that different countries ask for different whiskies; some are very much into dark color whiskies, some focusing on an unusual finish, some are into different flavors. When our US importers, ImpEx Beverages, requested some single casks, I noticed that the market focused on age and rich flavor profile. When we have a request from customers, we select 4-5 samples for them. They choose which one they like the most, and as they are experts in their home market, they know which one will be popular. Those two single casks perfectly fit the US market. They have a nice age and are rich in flavors, especially the 13 Year Old Rich Oak Single Cask.
SZ: The 15 Year Old Bourbon Matured Single Cask spent its entire life in a Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrel. What is it about Bourbon barrels that make them pair so well with Penderyn Whisky?
AP: We use only the finest Bourbon barrels that usually come from Buffalo Trace, a distillery that has a long-standing history of producing outstanding bourbons. Penderyn whisky has a light, fruity, smooth style, starting with our unique Faraday still. Buffalo Trace’s bourbon flavor profile, typically characterized by vanilla, oak, caramel and spices, works very well with our new make spirit.
SZ: The 13 Year Old Rich Oak Single Cask is finished in an ex-European STR cask. Can you tell us a bit about why you chose to use an STR cask and what kind of influence the finish has on the Whisky?
AP: STR casks is a creation of the late Dr. Jim Swan. STR refers to a specific formula used to rejuvenate used casks originating from the Iberian Peninsula and France by Shaving, Toasting and Re-Charring them. Shaving removes some of the previously impregnated oak and introduces some new active oak from deeper in the wood. Toasting breaks down certain structural elements in the oak (particularly lignin and hemicellulose) into sugars, which are subsequently caramelized by the heat.
This process will give us lovely flavors of sugar, vanilla and spice notes. Finally, the inner surface of the barrel is charred to create a charcoal (crocodile skin) surface. Activated charcoal works as a filter for soaking-up undesirable flavor compounds. The STR process undoubtedly brings another flavor dimension to whisky maturation with extra-fruity notes like melon, mango, citrus, vanilla, oak spice and dates.
SZ: When it comes to both the 15 Year Old Bourbon Matured Single Cask and the 13 Year Old Rich Oak Single Cask, would it be best if we let them open for a little after pouring and what kind of flavors and aromas should we be looking for in each bottle?
AP: Yes, after pouring you should let it sit and rest a bit and wait for the flavor to ‘wake up,’ and we recommend drinking at room temperature.
Penderyn 15 Year Old Bourbon Matured Single Cask (59% ABV)
After spending its entire life in a Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrel, the result is a nose of soft honey, vanilla, and pears, accompanied by oaky notes and spices. The palette is rich and syrupy, like a sponge cake with marzipan, with some light oak and bourbon coming through alongside soft yellow fruits ringing with papaya and pineapple notes. The finish is loaded with honey, light tropical notes, and light spices.
Penderyn 13 Year Old Rich Oak Single Cask (58.1% ABV)
Matured in Buffalo Trace Bourbon casks and then finished in an ex-European STR cask (shaved, toasted, re-charred). It offers a nose of caramel and dark chocolate richness – sweet, jammy, and thick – accompanied by tropical fruit notes such as melon, mango, and papaya. In the mouth, it is sweet and jam-like, deliciously juicy like fruit salad in a glass, followed by spiciness and notes of oak tannins. It finishes with fruits such as prunes and sultanas, while the jammy sweetness dries in the fade.
SZ: How do you recommend enjoying these two new Single Cask releases and what should each be paired with?
AP: The simplest way to enjoy your whisky is neat. Some people also add a few drops of water to their whisky, which can open up the flavors as the liquids combine. You need to experiment to see what works for you, but go slowly. Don’t add too much water at once, as it’s always easy to add but you can’t take it out.
I wouldn’t pair those single casks with any food. They are more to enjoy as is. Both of the single casks are rich in flavors and are nice to drink instead of dessert, or after dessert. But if we had to pair, some soft cream cheese or seafood for the ex-bourbon 15-year-old whisky; and Christmas pudding, dark chocolate brownies, or mature cheddar with the 13-year-old Rich Oak finish.