Welsh + Whisky = Gold (Faraday’s Law)
By Dan Anthony, freelance writer
A version of this article first appeared in IP Insight (October 2013) published by the UK Intellectual Property Office.
The story of the creation of one of the UK’s youngest and best regarded whisky brands is about the alchemy of innovation – how economic success can be created from the most dispiriting of ingredients, and how an enterprising company turned water into premium whisky.
The village of Penderyn is, to say the least, off the beaten track. Tucked away at the very top of the South Wales valleys, it occupies the borderland between the industrial south and the Wild West. In 1992, when the idea of brewing whisky in Wales took root, Penderyn was a sleepy hilltop hamlet where sheep and ponies roamed free. It was moonshine territory.
Here, a group of imbibers in Alun Evans’ pub, The Glancynon Inn, the epicenter of the Penderyn whisky legend, hatched their brain child. A century ago Wales produced its own whisky – why not do it again?
What the world needed, what connoisseurs demanded, was a new, Celtic brew. Steeped in the mythology of the hilltop fortress; distilled in the most abundant natural resource the foothills of the Brecon Beacons produces – mountain water: Welsh whisky would be liquid gold.
To activate this transformation, these whisky visionaries realized they needed an alchemist, or at the very least a chemical engineer. Perhaps, as Alun Evans sipped his glass of Scotch at the end of a busy evening his eye came to rest on one of the Davy lamps hanging near the fire place. These nineteenth century life savers are common decorations around the fire places of the South Wales coalfield. Humphrey Davy, the man who invented the lamp was assisted by Michael Faraday, another scientific genius of his age, who harnessed the power of electricity and electromagnetism. Both men were familiar with eureka moments, what Welsh whisky needed was one of its own.
It arrived in time. Dr. David Faraday, a chemical engineer at Surrey University and a descendent of Michael Faraday stepped into the room. Dr. Faraday was intrigued by the possibility of building a still for the Welsh whisky team, as he says: ‘the challenge was interesting enough to be worth investigating.’
The machine that made the difference
Dr. Faraday began a series of research projects at Surrey University and these eventually culminated in the creation of the Welsh Whisky Company’s unique ‘single pot’ still. The still was capable of producing different grades of alcohol, using a single fractionating column.
“The technique used in the Penderyn still’s fractionating column is broadly the same as is used in the petrochemical industry,’ says Dr. Faraday, ‘but there are special adaptations. Nobody had ever thought about using a still like this to make whisky.”
It took eight years for Dr. Faraday and his team to develop and design the unique still. It was built by MacMillans in Prestonpans, Scotland and, at 92 percent alcohol by volume, it produces whisky that has the highest strength of any malt. The Welsh Whisky Company’s secret weapon was born: the Penderyn Single Pot. But as Dr. Faraday says, the precise calibration and operation of the still required a sensitive touch.
“Once we’d got into the region required, we could then say that now we’re going to fractionate the thing that’s going to be called Welsh whisky,” says Dr. Faraday. “Then you move beyond science into an art.”
Although Dr. Faraday has gone on to work on other research projects, he speaks with great fondness of his on-going association with the Penderyn whisky-makers. Their “can do” attitude motivated him and his team at Surrey University.
Dr. Jim Swan, master blender and distiller, brought to the enterprise experience, knowledge and something that cannot be reproduced synthetically: a nose. Together with the Welsh Whisky Company’s resident distiller, Dr. Swan fine-tuned the still and the maturation process, developing the unique smooth taste that Penderyn Whisky embodies.
“Penderyn” was registered as a trade mark in the UK in 2001 (UK TM 2261484). The first bottle of Welsh whisky was sold in Penderyn in 2004, at an opening ceremony on St David’s Day. The guest of honor was the Prince of Wales. After twelve years of dreaming, toiling, researching and investing, Welsh whisky was back, and it was a hit. Today, Penderyn is one of the premium brands on all UK supermarket shelves. It has taken its place with the great traditional whisky distillers because of its emphasis on quality.
Sian Whitelock, Commercial Director at the Welsh Whisky Company takes up the story: “Demand has outstripped supply,’ she says. ‘We’re in the process of installing a second single pot still this year. This will double our output. At the moment we’re only able to sell around 20 per cent of our output abroad. But the global whisky market is vibrant and we have buyers looking for the unique taste of Penderyn Welsh Whisky all over the world.”
Currently, 150,000 bottles of premium Penderyn whisky are produced each year. With the addition of a third still in 2014, the Welsh Whisky Company hopes to produce upwards of 700,000 bottles in ten years’ time.
“We thought long and hard about the visual impact of the Penderyn brand,” said Sian Whitelock. “We developed a unique packaging and created a brand based on the idea of Welsh Gold – something rare and valuable.”
The story of Penderyn whisky illustrates the importance of combining technical brilliance with business acumen and branding awareness to develop a successful intellectual property package. Scientists like Dr. David Faraday and the business team at the Welsh Whisky Company played important roles, but the University of Surrey and investors all had their part to play. Innovation as good as this requires more than one visionary, it needs teams of them.