While Scotland’s single malts have long dominated whisky drinkers’ minds, whisky from Wales may be poised to gain more attention.
At least, that’s the hope of Welsh distilleries, which have applied to give Single Malt Welsh Whisky status as a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), just as Scotch and Irish whiskies have similar protection. That status is expected to come through by the end of 2022, or early 2023 at the latest.
“It makes a difference to us to have that recognition as an industry,” says Stephen Davies, the chief executive at Penderyn Distillery. “Having this indication is one of the building blocks of credibility.”
This development follows the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, which officially took effect in January of 2021. In the post-Brexit world, the rules on protected geographical food and drink names changed, and the UK encouraged regional producers to apply for PGIs as a means of signaling quality and guarding against imitators. Welsh distilleries saw an opportunity to stand out.
Compared to the well-established Scotch or Irish whisk(e)y industries, Welsh whisky is still nascent. While Wales once had a long history of distillation, dating back to the Middle Ages, the advent of the Temperance movement led to a broad shutdown of all of the country’s distilleries in the early 1900s. When the Welsh Whisky Company—since renamed Penderyn—opened its distillery in Brecon Beacons National Park in 2004, it was lauded as the first commercial whisky-maker in Wales in more than a century.
Today, there are only a handful of whisky producers in Wales, all founded within the last two decades. Of those, Penderyn remains the largest and the only one exporting its product to the U.S. The distillery expanded to a second facility in Llandudno in 2021 and plans to open a third location in Swansea, slated to open in early 2023. Other producers include Dà Mhìle (opened in 2012), Aber Falls (2017), Coles (2017), Anglesey Môn (2018) and In the Welsh Wind (2018).
Yet, even those smaller distilleries, many currently operating at craft levels with local-only distribution, see the benefit of obtaining the protected designation, and have banded together as The Welsh Whisky Association to help push the change forward.
“We have indeed been part [of] the group advocating for Welsh Whisky to get its UK GI,” says Jenny McClelland, the distillery manager at Dà Mhìle Distillery. “It will be massively beneficial for us as a distillery, as it will really put ours, and other Welsh whiskies, on the map and give all our whiskies the status they deserve.”
What Will Welsh Single Malt Mean?
To be clear, the new designation is specific to Welsh single malts, defined as a whisky distilled at a single Welsh distillery and made from 100% malted barley, Welsh water, and yeast, and matured for a minimum of three years.
The designation doesn’t encompass all Welsh whiskey. That was a conscious decision, Davies says. “There are a number of producers in Wales coming through now, and what we have in common is we’re all making single malts,” he explains. “We want to define the category we already make,” while leaving the door open for the still-young industry to expand into other whisky styles. “We don’t want to stifle innovation,” he adds.
The application for PGI status also gives Welsh distillers the flexibility to experiment with cask finishes and other “wood strategies” in maturation, including the use of a combination of cask types—an approach intended to differentiate Welsh whisky from scotch production, which is restricted to using only casks made from oak—and cask finishes for flavor enhancement.
So how will it taste? Compared to robust scotch single malts, the filing describes single malt Welsh whisky as possessing a “light and delicate style” that’s “sweet, fruity, and less oily” compared to traditional whiskies, as well as “a lack of grittiness and earthiness” associated with some whiskies.
Each distillery has its own unique style and production methods, of course. In The Welsh Wind, for example, focuses on Welsh grain grown within 10 miles of the distillery, and malted on site, making it the first grain-to-glass distillery in Wales, according to a distillery representative. Penderyn, meanwhile, uses a Faraday still—a combination pot-column hybrid—to create a light-bodied spirit, while a range of cask finishes, including madeira and port, add complexity. Even its peated whisky is intended to draw nuance from the climate of Wales, which is warmer and more humid than that of Scotland, rather than mimicking Islay’s signature smoky spirit.
“We’re proud it’s not a copy of scotch,” says Davies. “We occupy an unusual place in the industry. I won’t say it’s better or worse, but different.”