On 1st March (St. David’s Day) 2004 Penderyn became the first distillery in Wales to (legally) sell its own Welsh whisky in over a century. 15 years later, their limited edition Royal Welsh Whisky release is a celebration of their predecessor.
Since their launch in 2000, the team at Penderyn have honed their signature bottlings and created a solid core range of non-age statement single malt whiskies. Alongside the core releases however, the distillery has launched a series of limited edition releases called the “Icons of Wales”. In their own words, these are ‘Special bottlings, each one celebrating a person, milestone, or event from Welsh history with international significance.’ The series is actually pegged to reach a total of 50 different bottlings over time.
For this post we are looking at Icons of Wales No. 6: Royal Welsh Whisky and this bottling, probably more so than any release before it, is steeped in Welsh whisky history. The sheer amount of prose printed on the bottle’s labelling is testament to that:
The Welsh Whisky Distillery Co. was founded in Frongoch, Bala in 1889, costing around ten million pounds in modern terms. An ambitious project, intended to challenge Scottish and Irish whiskies, it “… a railway station, a commodious Malthouse, malt kilns, peat store, extensive offices and other accommodation required for working the unique concern.”
Queen Victoria visited in 1891 and on the 26th July 1895, The Welsh Whisky Co. received a warrant and Royal Welsh Whisky was born. However, it was hampered by the temperance movement inside Wales and, unlike Penderyn, it remain a curiosity outside of Wales. Despite a sustained advertising campaign, in April 1900 the company was closed.
Little is known of the whisky itself, but adverts state that it was a 5-year old peated malt and, rather fancifully, “... is the most wonderful whisky that ever drove the skeleton from the feast, or painted landscapes in the brain of man.”
Sadly, nothing remains of the Frongoch site, so this replica bottle is our way of celebrating our Welsh Whisky predecessors.Penderyn / Royal Welsh Whisky
The front of the bottle contains a replica of the label of the original “Royal Welsh Whisky” from 1895 which bears the royal warrant, a picture of lady adorned in the traditional Welsh outfit, and the following guarantee from the original distillers themselves:
The Welsh Whisky Distillery guarantee this Whisky to be their sole make. It is distilled with the greatest possible care from MALT ONLY and is ABSOLUTELY PURE. Connoisseurs pronounce it QUITE UNIQUE, and as a wholesome stimulant it is very highly recommended.The Welsh Whisky Company
Not satisfied with just their own statement of intent and the approval of Queen Victoria, the label also included a “Certificate of Analysis” from the Principal of the Liverpool College of Chemistry, which reads:
I hereby certify that I have submitted to very careful chemical analysis a sample of this Welsh Whisky Distillery Whisky, and find that it possesses great purity of composition, is thoroughly matured, and entirely free from all constituents of an injurious or undesirable character. It is soft and pleasing to the palate, possesses a fine aroma and bouquet, and I have every confidence in pronouncing it to be a perfectly sound and wholesome Whisky.Granville H. Sharpe FCS & c. analyst
What a job.
Finally the replica label notes that the proper Joey or was William Owen of the White Lion Royal Hotel in Bala, North Wales – a pub and hotel that is still standing their today on the High St. (A494).
For more history about Frongoch, I would also highly recommend the promotional video from Penderyn which replicates a lot of this content, but adds more detail and gravitas, dripping in national pride available here:
Whilst it is assumed that this is also a 5 year old single malt whisky, there are little details about Penderyn’s own content, but it is made from their own malt, matured in “peated portwood” and is bottled at 43% ABV.
After the longest intro to any post that I’ve made, here we go…
Wow. A sweet, light, fresh, clean, and fruity start to this whisky. Strawberries and raspberries are the leading flavours that make themselves known first followed by a solid malty base and a very very gentle peat. There’s a light vanilla cream and almond set of flavours in there too. Noticeable by their absence, there’s little to no spice or nose prickle at all. Just sweetness and light.
The red fruits and berries are there at the front again, albeit the peat smoke is more prevalent now. It is still far from being within Islay territory, but there is a nice, discernible peat smoke now. A little earthy. A little medicinal. It is all tempered very well though, with the soft texture of the liquid and those sweet and fruity flavours. With a bit of time, the fruit flavours start to remind me more of plums and red grapes. A little peppery spice warms you up towards the end and stops the whisky from becoming an overly sweet affair which was starting to remind me of those Campino strawberries and cream boiled sweets. There is also a little sharpness that makes me think of rhubarb and, on that note, there’s a definite vanilla custard flavour too. This is a dessert whisky for sure.
That peppery oak spice tingles and stays on the tongue for a little while but the lasting sensation is that soft texture and the joint strawberries and cream flavour.
A real treat. It is a light bodied whisky but it delivers big on a series of complementary sweet, soft, and spicy flavours. This doesn’t need to rely on loads and loads of tasting notes, it’s doing its job straight and well. My genuine first note when tasting this was “Oh god, I’m going to fly through this bottle quickly…”, and – much like Granville H. Sharpie’s analysis from the front label – I’ve done a good amount of my own research into the bottle so far before writing this post…
On that note, I am a sucker for a story about a whisky but this is not just a story cooked up by a marketing team about somebody who once lived nearby and once did a thing – this is recreating an important part of Welsh distilling history and honouring it. 10/10 for concept and execution. As far as I know, there are only 2 bottles known to be left of the original Royal Welsh Whisky – 1 of which is in Penderyn’s Brecon Beacons site – so it just adds to the history and sentimentality of this Welsh whisky drinker.
For all the history about the original whisky, I have been left scratching my head about the contents of the new bottles though. I know that previous peated whiskies by Penderyn have only received their peat influence from the casks rather than directly from peated malt, as the distillery hasn’t traditionally used peat smoke in its malting process. As this release is “Peated Portwood” then it begs the question as to whether the peat is again from casks and, if so, is this a combination of separate peat casks and port casks or has the whisky here been housed in casks that once contained port and then peated whisky in its past. As a whisky nerd, I’d be keen to know, but for the end product it doesn’t really matter, as the whisky itself seems to marry both influences really well, whisky remaining fresh, sweet, and light.
I know that this post comes on the 3rd anniversary of the whisky’s release but it seemed like an appropriate time to make it and there are still some bottles available from Penderyn at the time of writing.
The Icons of Wales series is now at No.8 with the recent Hiraeth release and they’re clearly taking their time with this series. I’m not sure if they have the names, brands, and ideas setup for all 50 releases of the series but they are sure taking their time with them. If that means they’re focussing on quality and different/unique outputs though, then I’m all for it.
At £45 a bottle – whilst it is still available – this is a fantastic whisky. Forget the age vs price thing. This is worth it. You’re paying for craft, flavour, and history here.
Sample disclosure: I bought this bottle directly from Penderyn after a great tasting night of their core / Welsh Gold range. Their Portwood release is my favourite of the range, and so the fact that this bottle carried all the history whilst containing a Peated Portwood made for a no-brainer. I’m very glad I did. All notes are intended as an honest, fair, and independent review of the whisky itself, and not as a promotion. Please drink responsibly. Please drink wisely.