Tuesday, 29 August 2017

A Christmas reflection on whisky, family and memories.

To be fair I was at a low ebb, the last 12 months had been toxic to say the least. Much like the proverbial bus, three had come along in quick succession. In this case the three just happened to be deaths of family members. Firstly, my mum after a short but painful six week illness, then, a few months later my older and only brother in a road traffic accident, then my dad who at the time of writing was still of this world but with only a few weeks left. He was, as Christopher Hitchen’s put it "living dyingly"...and I was on a train travelling North to visit him after an enjoyable but tiring day in London.

 So, there was this guy on the train; sat opposite me. I'd say he was somewhere between 50 and 60 years old. There's a lot of leeway in there but it's not hugely important. He was bald and, in my experience, that adds a degree of uncertainty to the age question (on reflection, he could have been much older). Grey moustache and goatee, cut fairly short, in fact, it was neatly and methodically trimmed. Overweight, but fell into that category of "big bloke"; some might call it fat but that would be a little unkind. In terms of clothing he was travelling light despite it being early December. Jeans, a fawn jacket (draped loosely over an expensive yet worn leather holdall), and a short sleeved shirt festooned with writing that I couldn't make out initially but, after a while, I realised that it was row upon row of the word "Xmas" in different languages (Noel, Natale, Navidad, Kerstmis and so on). Middle-aged man in designer shirt, a little incongruous maybe, some lingering attempt to hang on to the vestiges of youth, perhaps. Anyway, it was a decent enough shirt. 

 We exchanged a fleeting moment of eye contact before settling into the train journey. Carriage life was as expected; the initial hubbub of passengers firing up software before burrowing down to social media activity, hushed shuffles & adjustments of clothing and settings, the well rehearsed rituals of isolation, insulation from conversational contamination, the positioning of elbows, music listening, the extension of the working day etc. Not for me, I was content to let myself drift off into fantasies of one kind or another, those moments of freedom where it's ok to do nothing, to switch off "mainline" and slide languorously into "downtime"; except, "downtime" had become an elusive sanctuary of late, a faraway country, constantly over the horizon or round some distant corner. Moments of genuine rest and relaxation had shuffled inexorably into some labyrinthine backwater of my memory. It wasn't as if I lacked opportunity to relax, it was simply that, when those moments presented themselves, a dull thump and sharp clatter of unresolved and unprocessed "past" would insinuate itself into my failing head. Over time, and through lack of use, I had forgotten the language of R & R. And so it was, on that December evening, that I sat on the train heading north.

 That was until the gentleman opposite began fumbling inside his leather holdall before producing firstly, a small tulip shaped glass, followed by a bottle of whisky. How did I know it was whisky? Well, although his hands were wrapped around the mid section of the bottle I could make out the letters "isky"...in white on a brownish background (I was certain that it wasn't a bottle of "Frisky" although the thought did amuse me somewhat). From what I could see of the bottle it fitted my experience of what a spirit bottle looked like, I'd had a “pleasure” of whisky in my time, and it didn't take a great leap of the imagination to reach this simple conclusion. But it wasn't the whisky bottle that first caught my attention, it was his hands. I hadn't noticed them when he first inhabited the seat opposite, but now...

 His hands were works of art; they were at the same time beautiful and terrifying. Big, powerful, well defined veins sprang from his wrists, flowing under and around cartilage and calloused knuckle, into fingers, purposeful and deliberate. The knuckles were a gnarled chain of worn peaks. Scuffing and scar tissue hinted at potent visceral experiences past, of manual labour, of heavy contact, of pain endured, of reaction to events rather than well thought through planned responses. The nails on the fingers of his left hand (the hand obscuring most of the wording on the bottle), were broken and bitten, like four worn piston heads locked at the end of his arm. In sharp contrast, the nails on the right hand whispered of quieter, more considered experiences. There was nothing rushed about those nails. Well tended, manicured, and shaped with a precision that did more than simply hint at attention to detail. I couldn't help but feel that the right hand was more of a window into this man, a glimpse into processes that went beyond the merely superficial.

 What had begun as a somewhat tentative exploration of the contents of the holdall had metamorphosed into a confident, assertive, almost dexterous celebration of........something. He handled the whisky bottle in an almost reverential manner, his strong hands at the same time vice-like and agile.  It was clearly something special to him and whilst the bottle was not totally unfamiliar to me, it had elements that were unlike any I'd seen before. There seemed to be facets at various points that served to suck in the carriage light, bend and refract it through the dark, lustrous liquid within. The colour of the whisky shifted with the movement of hand and train; at one moment a flickering gold, then to bronze, through ruby, vermillion, coral before trembling to a mercurial burnished ochre, and then on again...

  His left hand tightened around the body of the bottle, the right slid up the neck and embraced the cork stopper. Two twists of the right hand and the job was done. Just as the bottle had absorbed and then transformed the light, the short muffled pop of cork leaving bottle served to call all of the senses to attention, and then fold them, twist them, massage and gently play with them. That dull, innocuous pop resonated around the carriage paradoxically drowning out the thrub and rattle of the train, drawing attention to the bottle, and then alerting other senses to something extraordinary. In the now hushed carriage, perfumes, aromas, and scents emanated from the unveiled whisky, firstly permeating the somewhat stale carriage air before becoming the singular sovereign essence within that space. It was intoxicating; I could feel the chair supporting my back, my head cushioned on the headrest, my legs, indeed my whole body seemed lighter, my breath slowed and deepened, background noise faded and then disappeared altogether.....my eyes closed.

 Colours, memories, exotic fragrances and earthy aromas intermingled in a random sensory seduction. Faint breezes fashioned fallen fruit carpets on burnished autumn forest floors, bittersweet bucolic spring charms fell like rose petals, sea-breeze sands, rock pool memories and salt water spume upended me in a turbulent, tumbler sea...I was not drowning but waving. 
Yellow, hay baled and supine, sun-kissed in sublime, late summer magnificence. An "old gold" signet ring belonging to a grandfather I never knew. Saffron and brimstone wrapped and bubbled in sweetly spiced braziers, and warmth emanated from embers of Christmas fires past. Red, bronze, copper and carmine collided in sunsets long forgotten, unearthing residual traces of conversations long since spoken. I could hear faint whispers from the mouths of lost loved ones. The accents of my childhood reached out from within like a reassuring caress murmuring "It's OK, you'll be fine" 

 Slowly, the kaleidoscope took on a clearer coherence, became tangible, touchable, understandable. I could feel, touch, and smell the memories......and in that moment, I saw my dad holding my hand......my mum wiping my face with a tissue dampened with her spit.....and my brother laughing and running off with a ball. I wanted to play, eager to escape mum's beneficent ministrations, to experience the unconfined, uninhibited freedom so often the preserve of a loving family....to inhabit that time when freedom and safety coexisted.....but that time had gone, and they were gone, and there were no more of mum's tissues, and there was no more brotherly kickabouts, and there would be no more walking with dad whilst holding his hand. 

I could feel a deep, resonant, and profound swell of sadness forming in the pit of my stomach, slowly leeching its way into my chest, becoming cavernous and gaping as it tried to swallow me, whole and helpless. But before my throat and eyes succumbed, I saw my family once again. It wasn't some beatific vision, some angelic scene viewed through pastel lenses in an exotic paradisiacal location. I was at home, about 10 years old, lying in front of our busy, smoky coal fire, watching our black and white TV. I turned away and looked at each of my family in turn, dad (smoking a cigarette in "his" chair), mum (emerging from the kitchen with a freshly baked mince pie in one hand and my 2 year old sister who was holding a ragged doll, secure in her other arm), my brother (lying just opposite me), and my other sister (sat on settee). My sudden turn caught their attention and as I made eye contact with each one, we exchanged the briefest of smiles (all except my youngest sister who was chattering to her dolly)....and that was all. 


I sensed the dull commotion of the carriage returning. I opened my eyes, I was smiling, and I felt a serenity that had long been lost to me. My mum and brother had gone, my dad would soon be gone, but they would always be with me. Death's slick timing had muffled my mum's passing, scratched out my brother in an instant, but had not yet sucked my dad from this world....and there was still time to hold his hand.

 It took me a moment to realise that the gentleman opposite was no longer there. I looked around the carriage but he had gone. I looked at the table, empty but for the tulip shaped glass....half full. 


(c) Alcock 2013    

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 fa├žade 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 Distillery....it 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 whisky....it 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.