Give it to us straight, Jim Credit: Jim Murray
Give it to us straight, Jim
Credit: Jim Murray

The Neat Stuff Q&A: Jim Murray talks Welsh and world whiskies

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Whisky Bible author and legend Jim Murray was recently in Toronto pouring Penderyn, the first and only modern whisky produced in Wales. We caught up with him to ask five burning questions.

In Canada, most whisky lovers have barely heard of Penderyn, let alone tasted it. Why have you chosen to come here and pour it?

Penderyn is the first Welsh distillery since Victorian times. It was a very brave thing to do. When they built the distillery, the thirst for innovation and new products wasn’t there. Penderyn is still quite new for a lot of people, even though it’s been going since the start of the 21st century.

When I’m giving whisky tastings around the world, I might sometimes put it in there, because I do them blind, so people don’t have a preconceived idea of whether they like something or not. Suddenly people’s eyes and taste buds and minds are open: they have to judge the whisky on how good it is.

It shocks people. They say, “What the bloody hell is this? It’s Welsh?” If you think about it, a lot of people just drink single malts, or just bourbon, or only Canadian whisky. If they drink a Welsh whisky, it opens up the possibilities for them.

Penderyn Peated Credit: Penderyn Distillery
Penderyn Peated
Credit: Penderyn Distillery

So what’s the deal with Welsh whisky? How is Penderyn produced?

The actual still that they erected and built the distillery around, I first saw this still in a really disused building, a barn, on a very hot day in Wales, maybe 12 years before the distillery was even built. It was invented by scientists over at Surrey University down in Guildford. It was different because it distilled, in one movement, up to a very high strength—it was like a mix between column and pot. You get a very clean, light spirit that way. If you make your spirit cleaner like Penderyn did, it means your spirit is open to faster maturation. It will take what the cask is giving it far, far quicker.

Credit: Jim Murray

Does Penderyn taste different than other single malts?

What they did is put it into bourbon casks that were fresh from Kentucky—not virgin, but first- fill—and then they went to finishing in Madeira casks, which hadn’t been used up to that point much in the whisky industry. You had the mix between the influences of American oak and European oak, and it was a very different whisky from that point of view. When it debuted it was young, at least half the age of what you’d expect from a Scotch, but it had this distinct flavor profile. That was their original single malt. There are more Penderyns—Peated, Portwood, Sherrywood—and some are completely breathtaking, extraordinary.

At tastings, I find people cotton onto it very quickly. I love people’s puzzled faces as they are trying to work out what the hell is going on with their palate!

Penderyn's Myth single malt Credit: Penderyn Distillery
Penderyn's Myth single malt
Credit: Penderyn Distillery

Many of your fans associate you with ratings of their favorite Scotches. Is world whisky a new trend?

The whole point of the Whisky Bible is it’s about whisky! When it first came out in 1993, I took enormous criticism because I was judging bourbons, and Japanese and Canadian and Brazilian whiskies…and people were calling me a heretic. It was unbelievable. But I have never, ever compromised with that. I have always stuck with writing about world whiskies. In the early 1990s, the quality of many Scotch whiskies declined, because the quality of the casks wasn’t as good as they once were. There were no whisky shows and no people parading out in kilts, and the industry was struggling. Things have changed dramatically now. I’ve done books on bourbon, Irish whiskies, all kinds of world whiskies that back in the day didn’t sell. But I knew people would catch up. In 2017, when a Canadian whisky won World Whisky of the Year, I took enormous flak again! But it’s not about ego. It’s about trying to point people in the direction of where there’s great whisky.

What kind of whisky drinker will like Penderyn? For instance, Canadians, who are used to drinking blends, or Americans, who are used to drinking smooth, sweet bourbon?

If people have got closed minds and their minds are made up about what’s good and what’s not—in other words, a whisky snob who knows what it is before they drink it—they might not enjoy it. If they’re actually people who love to discover whisky and have an open mind, I think they will enjoy a Penderyn. I would say that for any country. I think the majority of people will actually like it—I’d say 90 to 95% of people at my tastings do. What I do is point people in the direction of what I believe to be a great whisky and steer them away from what I believe to be a not very good whisky. I don’t look at the price, and I don’t pay attention to marketing. Somebody marches out in a kilt or whatever, and people are told these stories about how great it is, and it can be hype. The whisky itself can be shocking! It doesn’t matter where a whisky is from. Something is good, or it’s average, or it’s poor. For me, the growth of world whisky is a fantastic thing to see, it’s a victory. Whisky is not all about hype, not about marketing. It’s about excellence.🥃

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