Penderyn chief executive Stephen Davies on resurrecting Welsh whisky

10 June, 2021

When Stephen Davies arrived at Penderyn in 2004, the Welsh whisky industry had lain dormant for almost a century. Nowadays it’s an established category with a growing reputation for quality.

Five Welsh whisky distilleries are operational, and Davies is spearheading plans for a GI for single malt Welsh whisky, with plans for it to be formally launched this summer.

Welsh whisky is coming of age, and Davies has been instrumental in that. Penderyn has also flourished during the challenging trading conditions of the past month. “It’s been a challenging time for everybody, but in the context of things we’ve been thriving,” says Davies, chief executive at the distillery.

He’s not exaggerating – despite hospitality closures, Penderyn whisky is now available in 45 countries and 38 US states. It is growing volume and value sales, and as Davies says, “looking to accelerate that growth”.

Back at home, Penderyn is celebrating 21 years since barrels were first laid down by going nationwide, expanding to Llandudno in North Wales, with a city-centre distillery site in Swansea given the green light to open next year.

The Llandudno site, in a 19th century former Grade II listed boarding school, will not only serve as a new working facility but, given its location as a seaside resort town, as a centre for tourism.

“Strategically as a business, we wanted to have a presence in North Wales, we have always had fantastic support from people in North Wales, we are a Welsh brand, we’re not seen as north or south, so we wanted to have a presence more locally there,” says Davies.

“We can bring in visitors in larger numbers than we can in the Brecon Beacons where transport is a bit limited – it’s a fabulous location but you have to drive to get here. We get about 40,000 visitors a year. In Llandudno, because we’ve got a lot of hotel bedrooms in the town, a lot of holiday resorts all around us, we’ll probably get double that number in the fullness of time.”

And for a brand that owes so much of its success to word-of-mouth, the prospect of more visitors is a game-changer.

“The idea of getting 80,000 people through Llandudno and visiting the shop there and doing a tour or masterclass and then going away as brand ambassadors, that’s a key to our success. We don’t have the marketing budgets of some of the big companies, it’s all done by talking, tasting, and getting people to try what we’ve got.”

The new Llandudno distillery is just 30-odd miles from the site where the last operational Welsh distillery before Penderyn closed its doors in 1910, and while the new Llandudno range will tip its cap to legacy, Davies insists that they’re not feeling mawkish.

“It would’ve been a nonsense to say that we’ll make it the same way they did a hundred years ago because frankly, I don’t think that whisky a hundred years ago would’ve tasted that good!

“We own a bottle from the last distillery in Wales, which was in the north in a place called in Frongoch and we do know that that whiskey was lightly smoked and lightly peated in style. So, what we’re creating in Llandudno will relate to that heritage because the whisky will be in a smoky, peaty style. We’re not trying to emulate the old exactly, but it will take a couple of cues from that whisky. We’re going to take smoked barley at the start of the process and distil that through which is a different way of doing it. Probably a more traditional and more normal way of doing it in many ways. But the combination of that with Penderyn Faraday still hasn’t been done before.

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