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The death of Robert Willis who operated the Fongoch Distillery near Bala in North Wales under the wheels of a cart, combined with the effects of the temperance movement, led to the closure of the distillery and thus the end of Welsh whisky production at the turn of the 20th century.
It was not until the 1970s when a blend called “Swn Y Mor” was launched with claims of being a blend of Scottish malt whisky and Welsh grain spirit that Welsh whisky was revived. This was strange as at that time there was no registered distillery in Wales so it was widely assumed to be 100% Scottish whisky. Then the same producers launched what they described as a “Welsh malt whisky” under the catchy name “Prince of Wales” and in 1991 the company built a visitor centre at Brecon’s Parc Menter.
Thanks to development money from the EU, this company also commissioned the development of a new type of still. But a court case instigated by the Scotch whisky industry revealed that Prince of Wales whisky wasn’t distilled in Wales so could not be described as Welsh whisky. This was followed by a £250,000 duty fraud case which led to the jailing of three company directors. Once again that seemed that for Welsh whisky.
Meanwhile, courtesy of that grant, work on developing a new more efficient still continued at the University of Surrey led by Dr David Faraday (a descendent of Sir Michael Faraday). This work proved fruitful and led to the Welsh Whisky Company being established in 1998 and the first of a new breed of still being installed at the purpose built Gwalia Distillery in Penderyn village within the Brecon Beacons National Park. Thus Welsh whisky distilling resumed after a break of a century on the 14th September 2000. Hoorah.
The new still was constructed by Macmillans and is something of a hybrid traditional pot still-come-column still as it consists of a 2,500 litre copper pot topped by a six plate copper column which leads to a copper rectifier with a further 18 plates. Pumps allow the spirit to be moved from various parts of the still to other areas above or below. Thus distillation can be controlled to increase the cut and reduce waste in the form of foreshots and feints.
The still is charged with wash at approx. 8% alc./vol. which is produced at the Brains brewery in Cardiff using Regina barley. The new still produces spirit at around 92% alc./vol. in one pass thus elevating the need for a separate wash and spirit stills. The spirit is hydrated with spring water from the distillery’s own source to reduce the strength before going into casks previously used to age bourbon (Buffalo Trace and Evan Williams) and Jack Daniel’s.