It’s a damp and misting day when I arrive at the Brecon Beacons – one of Wales’s three National Parks. Trying to cast my pre-conceptions to the winds that are sweeping around and giving a shivery sense of the ancient days of Owain Glyndwr and the ongoing battles to keep Wales Welsh, I find that images of bleak mining towns and villages are completely, and wonderfully, overcome by the sheer green beauty of the park’s rolling hills and crests, its high grassy ridges and the wooded valleys below. Once a Norman hunting ground for bears, ox and wild boars this natural wilderness is still relatively unspoilt and boasts breathtaking walks, waterfalls, rivers and streams and, of course, spectacular views.
There are 522 square miles of parkland here, privately owned, and the surrounding 3200 hectares surrounding it are in the hands of the National Trust. Most people come to walk and savour the natural beauty but there are also opportunities for pony-trekking, cycling, fishing, mountaineering and canoeing. 15 miles north to south, and 45 miles east to west, the area encompasses four mountain ranges and a variety of terrain. For the really keen – and fit – walker Glyndwr’s Way is a 120 mile walking trail that passes through the various sites associated with this Welsh hero.
Friends have arranged a tour of the only whisky distillery in Wales – situated in the Beacons. I had no idea that Wales produced whisky but it would be so impolite to turn down this invitation, and, besides, I gather some tasting is involved.
Awaiting our tour guide in the small museum within the Penderyn Distillery I find myself much taken with the story of one Dic Penderyn. Not the founder of the distillery but the name being more of a lasting tribute to another perceived Welsh hero.
I find that Dic (sic) was born Richard Lewis in 1808 and moved, with his family, to Merthyr Tydfil to find work in the local coal mines. In 1831 Dic became something of a champion to the Welsh working classes in his stand against the social injustices and depression, of the times, in the industry. Leading to the ‘Merthyr Insurrection’, and fierce rioting, Dic was charged with stabbing one Private Donald Black , of the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment of Foot, using a bayonet attached to a gun. Private Black survived but Dic Penderyn was sentenced to death and was hanged on the gallows outside Cardiff Gaol in 1831. He was 23 years old.
Sadly, years later in 1874, Penderyn was exonerated by the deathbed confession of another Welsh man who admitted to stabbing the soldier and then fleeing to America. Since his death Penderyn has been treated as a martyr both in Wales and England.
Embarking on the tour of the distillery, but now equipped with so much more meaning of the name, we endure the stifling heat of the processing rooms. The staff here work in t-shirts and have to talk loudly over the sound of the distilling and maturation processes. I was surprised, and much informed, to find that one of the most important stages in the ageing of a good whisky comes from the quality of the casks used. As such, we learn that the best casks are made from white oak, and originate from the United States where some of the finest bourbons in the world are produced in Kentucky and Buffalo Trace. Our guide tells us that Welsh distillers were the founding fathers of American bourbon. I have to grasp some new vocabulary here – a grist conveyor, a mashing machine, a barley wash. Fascinating stuff, and the sight of the vast, gleaming, copper stills (made in Scotland) holding some 7,500 litres of the wash – a barley malt – are quite staggering.
Descending into the cooling relief of the cellars we pass a display of old cooperage tools. Coopers are apparently a disappearing occupational living, but much sought after here in Wales. We are offered the chance to sample the whisky in its greatest proof – 90%. Just a small sniff takes your breath away – it is so strong that those who are inclined are advised to dip a finger only into the liquid and taste it. I had to decline this as our guide told me that the strength was such that it would strip my nail varnish off in seconds. This alcoholic proof is what lies in the casks but European Union laws have dictated that the proof must be reduced to 63%APB. This is done here by using the fresh water that bursts from the the Penderyn springs below the site.
As I sample a glass of ‘Penderyn Myth” – a wonderful gustatory sensation of a 41% volume whisky matured in a mix of ex-red wine and ex-bourbon casks – I can’t help thinking about poor Dic Penderyn – his life finished at the age of 23 for the sake of his principles. His last words were ” Oh Lord, here is iniquity”. Years later a memorial was placed on his grave by Welsh trade unionists. There is also a plaque commemorating the man in Cardiff. I wonder what he would have thought of his name labelling bottles of alcoholic beverages.
Emerging into the, still, damp foothills of the Brecon Beacons, but fuelled and warmed by the whiskies we have sampled, I can’t help looking back as we drive off and think that Dic Penderyn will always live on here – in whatever shape or form. I feel glad to have met him.
For more information about the Penderyn Distillery, including details of their products and tours, visit www.penderyn.wales.