The story of Wales’ Penderyn Distillery is similar to stories told in many whisky cultures, that of a long fallow period followed by modern rebirth. As in so many other places, the malt whisky industry was once big business in Wales. But as also happened all over the U.K. and beyond in the 1890s and early 1900s, the whisky business went through a major contraction and culling, resulting in the last Welsh whisky distillery closing its doors in 1894. It took more than 100 years before Penderyn became the first to bring Welsh whisky back to life, beginning to sell their own distilled spirit in 2004. Since then, they’ve become the upperclassman in a new generation of Welsh distilleries reviving the art form.
In honor of that history, and the promise of the future, Penderyn occasionally releases a special series called Icons of Wales, which it describes as “special bottlings, each one celebrating a person, milestone or event from Welsh history with international significance.” The distillery intends for the series to eventually go to 50 installments, each limited in total bottles, but to date there have been only 7 Icons of Wales releases, which means there are still quite a few more to come. Each Icons of Wales release, though, is treated as the summit of the distillery’s achievement so far.
The latest in this series, Icons of Wales No. 7, is Rhiannon, a Welsh single malt matured “in some of the very finest Bordeaux red wine Grand Cru casks from the Margaux area,” before then also being matured in Spanish sherry casks. It was bottled at 46% ABV (92 proof), and initially released a few years ago in Wales, but only made its U.S. release recently in a small allotment of 500 cases, or about 3,000 bottles, at a $95 MSRP. As with most Penderyn releases, this was distilled on a single copper pot still, and is non-age stated. The name, meanwhile, makes reference to the powerful enchantress Rhiannon from Welsh folklore, a horse goddess of ancient myth who was also the title character of the classic Fleetwood Mac song by the same name.
I’ve never sampled Welsh single malt before, so I was particularly curious to sample this one in an academic sense. So let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, Rhiannon leads off quite fruity, with strong impressions of dried fruit (raisin, sultana), spiced pear and more vinous character, coupled with dark honey and a bit of nutty toffee. I’m also getting a little chocolate and tart apple. It’s a nice nose overall, and seems to imply aspects of both the finishing barrels involved—the fruit and acidity of the wine barrels, and the richer sweetness, dried fruit and spice of the sherry.
On the palate, this one becomes pretty spice forward, with lots of cinnamon and some more earthy impressions, with a prickling ethanol presence. Oak comes forward to a surprising degree for a non-age-stated malt, contributing both roasty elements of coffee and dark chocolate, but also a sharper oakiness that is both spicy and somewhat bitter. The malt is less fruity than it was on the nose, although there’s a fig newton thing happening in there on the front end—it leads off in more of a rich and fruity direction, but then sort of veers off into more of an oak-dominated finish, in which the tannins become expressive and drying. This aspect likely goes a bit too far for my taste, drying out the palate considerably and marring what was a promisingly rich palate.
Ultimately, this Welsh single malt strikes me as something of a mixed bag, which perhaps got a bit more out of their finishing barrels than they intended. There’s a lovely nose to appreciate here, at the very least, and I expect those who appreciate a drier and more tannic sherried single malt might find it quite interesting.
Distillery: Penderyn Distillery
City: Penderyn, Wales
Style: Single malt whisky
ABV: 46% (92 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $95 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.