Saturday, 26 August 2017

Penderyn: Part of a bigger conversation

What connection does a distillery have with its surroundings?  Is context important when considering the location of a distillery? Clearly there are a number of logistical necessities (e.g. a suitable water source) but lets delve a little deeper. The easiest consideration of this question is located in an exploration of its geography and more often than not, the history associated with that geography. For many distilleries, with heritage stretching back for generations, talking to the past as a way of illuminating and exciting the present is a “privilege of heritage”; and one that is not available to every distillery. What of distilleries that don't have the luxury of decades, that don't have grainy black-and-white photos adorning musty and damp rock walls, the graffiti of generations etched into the out of kilter, off centre, architecturally suspect, cutesy nooks and crannies that seem to be the purview of many of our older distillery brethren?

The untrained eye could be forgiven for missing Penderyn distillery; it nestles by the side of an innocuous A-road, on a ribbon development that offers no clues as to history or context. You might drive through, only glimpsing the seam of gold on the distillery façade out of the corner of your eye and....gone...but that would be a shame. Heading North on the A4059, take a left turn just past the distillery and you are elevated quickly into rustic, yore byways, sunken, slate grey pubs and the cemetery stone overgrowth of a different history.

Get out of the car and you're walking in the footsteps of Welsh sinners wending chapel way, catching whispers of gossip on fading dialects borne on unalloyed Welsh air; it is peaceful, bucolic, and tinged with nostalgia...but back to business.

The satnav shenanigans failed to disrupt my morning given that I always set out to arrive around 30 minutes earlier than scheduled, and so it was that I arrived at Penderyn village with 5 minutes to spare. Five minutes in which to compose, prepare, focus, savour.....but I'd done no preparation, paradoxically, not preparing was the preparation. I was coming in cold, unarmed, but quietly confident that the conversation that was about to take place would be enjoyable, illuminative, interesting and, perhaps most importantly, underpinned with passion. In the event, I was not to be disappointed.

To be honest, I wasn't even sure who I would be meeting other than Jon Tregenna, the marketing manager who gave me a warm welcome. My brief was remarkably simple, just two words, Penderyn was a taboola rasa, a blank slate on which I could choose to daub my notes. 

A brief introduction and a skip up the stairs to the Boardroom where I met fellow conversees, Stephen Davies, the MD of Penderyn, and Sian Whitelock, the commercial director. Stephen and Sian evolved into the distillery business from the somewhat less glamorous steel industry (a fortuitous occurrence in the light of the current economic challenges) but are now fully immersed in all things whisky. Jon's route into the business was somewhat unconventional (a YouTube ambush of a Penderyn competition no less!) We began to talk....

The short, slow and steady history of Penderyn. 

Opened in 2004 and slowly increasing production to 230,000 70cl bottles last year this is a distillery short on history but long on ambition. That 230,000 total is nearer half a million if you include the other spirits produced at Penderyn (e.g. Brecon Gin, Five Vodka & Merlin cream liqueur). Fundamental questions had to be answered in the early days – Steve: "We knew from the off that we had to make the business a certain size in order to make it viable, and there were some tough conversations early on with the shareholders in terms of "Do you want to be a large part of something small, or a small part of something a bit bigger, but that's only going to be viable in the longer term. These were difficult conversations to have..." The successful resolution of those fundamental questions clearly provided the management team with a sense of direction and commitment; the Penderyn journey had begun. 

So what of the whiskies themselves? There is an expanding range of expressions with the Madeira finish being the most well known. These are whiskies that more than hold their own in the category that I would call "aperitif" drams and are drams that I often refer to as "dangerously quaffable!” They are not "heavy hitters" in terms of drams that place a ransom note on your palate, but they possess a clean, light, fruitiness that is having an increasingly broad appeal both nationally and globally. In terms of current debates within the whisky world, it is interesting to note that their predominant output is in the NAS (no age statement) arena. Indeed, it would be fair to say that, since opening in 2004, Penderyn has worn its heart on its sleeve in relation to a commitment to NAS expressions. This was not without its challenges and in the beginning there was a recognition that this market was somewhat uncertain, Steve: "Back in 2004 we were one of the first to produce NAS whisky and a lot of people weren't convinced at the time (2004). That's changed now and a lot of the major brands are doing it for a lot of good reasons; yes, due to shortage of stock, but also the realisation that you can make good NAS was nice that we there early and it hopefully gives us some credibility". I was curious to know if there were any plans for diversification into the "age statement" market. My question was met with an unequivocal and unified "No" from Sian, Steve and Jon. Steve went on to say "...we don't plan to put an age statement on the whiskies. We might do special editions e.g. Vintage 2000, but it would be wrong of us, almost dishonest, to suddenly say that age statements are important." (Note to self: Honesty is a thread that runs through much of this conversation). 

So first principles were established; honesty, commitment to high quality spirit, and a sense of Penderyn’s place in relation to Brecon and the wider Welsh context; so how to "grow the product"? The marketing of Penderyn is certainly worthy of consideration. The honesty associated with their commitment to the whisky is echoed in the marketing choices that they have made. Whilst not shunning the traditional Welsh cultural stereotypes, the message from Penderyn selectively taps into icons that resonate with what one might guardedly call a more contemporary audience. There is none of the traditional Welsh folksiness that for many would have been the obvious choice for the first commercial whisky produced in Wales. There are no leeks, Welsh ladies in tall hats sat spinning wool outside a bwthyn by a llyn, no daffodils; instead, you will see a contemporary thread that connects to a modern Wales. 

The cultural currency of their marketing hints at a more recent past (Dylan Thomas - A Sherrywood expression in the Icons of Wales series), locates itself in innovative contexts (Welsh Rugby - The “Grand Slam” expressions & "That Try"), and interconnects with a variety of artistic experiences (Welsh National Opera, the Penderyn Music Book Prize). Interestingly, it is only after recent discussions with their increasingly impressive European market that Penderyn have taken some more overt steps to "embrace the dragon" as it were. Sian - "...our connections in Europe (e.g. La Maison du Whisky) wanted a little more Welshness connected with the brand." The result can be seen in the "Myth" expression (ex bourbon cask - Buffalo Trace).

As someone who is interested in any opportunities for creativity within the whisky world and someone who has fumbled with guitar strings for decades, I was particularly interested in the Penderyn Music Book Prize. This is "the first UK prize specifically for music titles (history, theory, biography, autobiography)". Any connection between literary/musical luminaries such as prize judges John Cooper-Clarke, Shane McGowan, Beth Orton and Mark Lewisohn (inaugural winner with his book "The Beatles - All these Years: Volume One”), and the whisky community, is a bang on winner for me!

Two new Lantern Stills

So what about the future? In terms of creativity and innovation there are some exciting times ahead. The installation of Penderyn's own Mash Tun has created opportunities for a more nuanced approach to whisky production. The two Pot Stills and two Penderyn stills have increased opportunities to work with different styles of new make spirit, and there is a new, bespoke Penderyn bottle on the horizon (which I find really exciting!). The close collaboration with Dr Jim Swan (legendary distilling consultant) is set to continue. I noted that Steve referred to Jim as a tremendous force for creativity. 

Jon (who is a gifted "outside the still" thinker), will continue to seek stories that are "organic and honest to the business". He goes on to say that, in relation to the context of Penderyn, "we're part of a bigger conversation" which for me at that moment, was (and still is) an illuminative and telling statement. If passion was fuel then this distillery's tanks are full. The question "What does Penderyn distillery mean to you?" took the trio by surprise, but was answered with both eloquence and honesty. Sian - "It is part of me; it feels like my child, we get to bring the brand to life". Steve - "The first sip of Penderyn was astonishing to me. It's a very intense thing being part of a brand" Jon - “My grandfather was from the Rhondda, just over the mountain. I’ve always felt a strong connection here, and Penderyn defines the spirit of Wales.

So the guardians of whisky production at Penderyn are at their posts. There appears to be an exciting creative dynamic at work that, allied with a business acumen located at the coal face of the whisky business, bodes well for the future of this exciting distillery. I for one am excited by the possibilities.

This article was originally written for Issue 5 of Whisky Quarterly magazine. The magazine will soon be available as a free download.