EATING FOR BRITAIN: BOOZE ON THE BORDERS
Welsh Whisky and British Cassis? What gives?
It is, one would imagine, like saying Italian efficiency and German improvisational comedy.
However, as my trip is proving, life is full of little surprises.
To be honest, Welsh whisky was not that great a surprise, having encountered Penderyn Single Malt on offer at Heathrow close to five years ago. I bought a bottle on my way to the US, more for its comedic value than for suspicion that it might be any good and produced it to much giggling at a the end of a dinner party hosted by one of my New York based chums.
The giggling stopped however when we began to taste as Penderyn’s light colour and subtle flavours began to win us over as new converts. It was not the best whisky we had ever sampled, well of course it wasn’t but for a spirit that was barely old enough to bear the name, it showed definite promise.
Move on those five years and I braved sheeting rain at the Head of The Valleys to make my way to the small distillery in the town from which the whisky draws its name and the place from which the whisky draws its water, filtered down through the Brecon Beacons.
They owners are certainly not playing at making whisky here and as Sian Whitlock, the commercial director showed me around the plush new visitors centre and tasting room, you could clearly see that they wanted to mount a serious challenge to the skirt wearing distillers North of Hadrian’s wall.
They have taken a different tack to their process, spending considerable time and money creating a still for a single distillation process as opposed to the double used in Scotland and the triple used in Ireland and their malted “beer” is made to their own recipe and brought in from the nearby Brains brewery.
With the help of Dr Jim Swan, arguably the most famous name in whisky making, they have come on in leaps and bounds since my first tasting and, after my short tour, Sian was kind enough to offer me a few (well within the limit, I hasten to add) sips to try not only their signature “Welsh Gold” single malt, aged in Buffalo Trace barrels, but also two other expressions, one aged in Islay barrels and one in sherry barrels.
The former slightly too mellow for me, but perhaps ideal for those who find the peat driven Scotch of Islay too much. The latter, my favourite of all of them and I was delighted when Sian gave me a bottle to take away with me.
Across the borders in Herefordshire, I had been invited to visit Jo Hilditch at her farm, where she told me she offered “the only cassis made in Britain” I have to be honest, given that cassis is not always in huge demand in the DH household, that I wondered how such a niche business could keep going in the U.K and in the current economic climate.
I wondered, that is, until I climbed out of my car and into Jo’s and she explained that her farm was over 600 acres and supplied chickens to the supermarkets and blackurrants to everybody’s childhood favourite, Ribena.
Ah, blackcurrants. Jo is a bit of a proselyte for Blackcurrants, working closely with The Blackcurrant Foundation who are fiercely promoting the health benefits of this home grown super food over the imported blueberry.
Jo grows acres and acres of the things and if is from these that her sideline of making British Cassis, a cordial made from the berries, arose. It may be a sideline and production of this and an accompanying Framboise (raspberries) may be small scale, but Jo treats it with extreme seriousness and is keen to build it into a recognisable brand.
Small (again legal) tastes confirmed that it is very good stuff, fermented with champagne yeasts until it reaches 15% ABV and would make the basis of a excellent Kir or Royal.
A stop for Welsh Whisky and British cassis may seem like an odd diversion for a trip around Britain, but good is good wherever you find it and both of these are well worth a try.