The island of Britain is home to the most famous whisky in the world, scotch. But Scotland doesn’t have an exclusive lock on British single malt. Its neighbor to the southwest, Wales, has its own whisky tradition that’s worth getting to know. And Saint David’s Day, which happens on March 1, offers the perfect excuse to try some Welsh whiskies.
As the national holiday of Wales—similar to Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland—St. David’s Day commemorates Dewi Sant, who lived in the 6th century and was said to have died on March 1. He founded 12 monasteries and performed many miracles, including raising up a hill as he was preaching to make it easier for people to see and hear him. The symbol of Saint David is a leek. Legend says that, before a battle against the Saxons, he advised the Welsh fighters to fasten a leek to their helmets so they could recognize each other.
To this day, people sport leeks—or, perhaps because wearing a pungent allium isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, daffodils—as a symbol of Welsh identity on Saint David’s Day. They also hold parades and concerts, perform traditional dances, and prepare Welsh specialties like a tea and spice cake called bara brith and a meat and vegetable stew called cawl. There’s even a Saint David’s Day marathon. And of course, many people imbibe Welsh whisky.
David himself was a teetotaler, advising the monks who followed him to adhere to a simple diet of bread, salt, and herbs. There was only water to drink. But we are not monks, and enjoying a dram of Welsh whisky on his day can be a fitting tribute.
A long whisky history
Wales has a long history of distillation that dates back to the Middle Ages. However by 1910, with the country in the grip of a temperance wave, there were no operational distilleries left. Ninety years later, the Welsh Whisky Company—now called Penderyn—opened a distillery in Brecon Beacons National Park, launching its first whisky on Saint David’s Day in 2004.
Penderyn is currently the largest whisky producer in Wales, having expanded to a second location in Llandudno in 2021, with plans to open a third site in Swansea in the future. But in the last decade it’s been joined by four other distilleries: Dà Mhìle (opened in 2012), Aber Falls (2017), Coles (2017), Anglesey Môn (2018), and In the Welsh Wind (2018).
Wales’ modern whisky industry is still young, and most of the distilleries are craft in scale, selling locally. Only Penderyn currently exports to the United States. Luckily, it has a broad portfolio that encompasses a wide range of cask finishes, all building on the unique flavor profile created in its unusual Faraday still, which is a combination pot-column hybrid.
“The columns and associated fractionation plates allow for the fine distillation of a spirit that is exceptionally pure, clean, and light,” says commercial director Giancarlo Bianchi, adding that the spirit comes off the still at 90 percent ABV, a much higher proof than most other whiskies. “At 90 percent ABV, the spirit doesn’t contain heavy, oily compounds that are characteristic of traditional double distillation, resulting in a distillate that’s fruity on the nose instead of malty. This characteristic is still detectable after several years of maturation in oak casks and defines the Penderyn style.”
In addition to its Faraday stills, a few years ago Penderyn also began using traditional “lantern-style” pot stills to make a slightly different type of whiskey. “Our master blender, Aista Phillips, has been introducing it selectively with our core range,” Bianchi notes. “How and where is at her discretion, and it is a little secret she doesn’t even share with her colleagues!”
Where to find Penderyn whisky
Penderyn’s whiskies are widely available in the U.S. Any one of them would be a worthy beverage for Saint David’s Day. If you’re having trouble choosing, check out the recommendations below. And as they say in Wales, Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus (dee-the goil De-wi ha-peece)—Happy Saint David’s Day!
Best Welsh Whiskies: Table of Contents
1. Penderyn Madeira
The distillery’s flagship whisky is initially matured in bourbon casks, then finished in madeira casks. It showcases both dried and tropical fruit, vanilla cream, and rounded oak. It’s bottled at 46 percent ABV and non-chill filtered to preserve a rich mouthfeel.
[$70; reservebar.com]Get it
2. Penderyn Celt
Finished in quarter casks that previously held peated whisky, this single malt offers a gentle introduction to smoky, maritime notes. Normally bottled at 41 percent ABV, the proof goes up to 43 percent ABV for the U.S. market. This adds more texture and flavor.
[$60; totalwine.com]Get it
3. Penderyn Single Cask
Though more limited than Penderyn’s core range, the single cask offerings are well worth seeking out. Bottled at cask strength, these releases showcase unique maturations like tawny port; extra age, ranging as high as 15 years old; and even the pot still-made single malt, available now in the U.S.
[$120; finecask.com]Get it
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