Interview with Laura Davies
How did you end up working at Penderyn?
I was nearing the end of my degree and, like most students, beginning to worry about finding a job in tough times. I saw an advert for a job at Penderyn, and initially assumed that I was applying for a more general role. It was only when I was invited to an interview that I was told the role on offer was as a distiller. I left that interview really wanting the job but not having much hope (I had that preconception that women and the world of whisky don’t go together). It turned out that the team here were interested in my chemistry knowledge, and invited me for a second interview. This was a sensory interview – even more daunting than the first interview, because, as Dr Swan (Penderyn’s master distiller) put it as the interview began: “You’ve either got it (the nose) or you haven’t”. Dr Swan has since told me I did very well at that sensory interview – a big compliment from someone so big in the industry! I started here a few weeks later and I love every day here.
What’s your background?
I have a degree in forensic science with criminology which has given me a useful scientific grounding. My course involved a lot of chemistry, maths and analytical investigations, which have been really useful in the distilling side of things In addition to this, I was a pub manager while I was studying to pay my way through university, so I’ve got quite a lot of experience in the alcohol industry.
What exactly does your job entail?
My job involves a bit of everything! Penderyn is fortunate to have two distillers – myself and my colleague, Aista. Obviously, as distillers, Aista and I need to make sure that our Faraday Still is working as it should, and that the new make spirit that we draw off is of the best possible quality. This means that we spend a fair amount of time in the still room, actually running the still ourselves, but we also spend time at our desks, recording procedures and results, doing research, and planning batches. Being a distiller means doing a fair bit of maths and chemistry, but it’s as much an art as it is a science. Another part of being a distiller is the nosing and tasting of casks, whisky samples and our new make spirit. This allows us to put batches together, make selections for single casks, and manage our maturation processes. We also nose and taste samples of our Five Vodka, Brecon Gin and Merlyn Cream Liqueur at each stage of the production process, to make sure we always have great quality products. My job also involves being a brand ambassador for Penderyn. Aista and I both attend whisky shows, such as Whisky Live, or The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show, to introduce people to Penderyn and teach them a little about us and why we’re so unique. I really enjoy encouraging people to try Penderyn for the first time. Hopefully, people will read this and realise that we do work hard – it’s not all sitting around enjoying a glass of whisky!
What’s the best thing about working at Penderyn?
I really enjoy the anticipation of nosing and tasting individual casks to determine whether they’re ready to make a batch. It’s really satisfying to put a batch together, and then see it being filtered and bottled. It’s also a nice moment when we come across a cask which has such a great nose and taste that we set it aside to be a special edition – it makes you excited to share that with people.
Do you drink?
I do! I don’t drink a huge amount of alcohol, but I’m always keen to try spirits neat before I mix them with anything, and I also love experimenting with different mixes. The Penderyn website has some great ideas for cocktails made using our whisky, vodka, gin or cream liqueur. Of course, I do enjoy Penderyn whisky – the Madeira is my favourite. I enjoy the experience of nosing and tasting different types of whisky - I’ve definitely developed a taste for whisky in the last few months, and really appreciate the differences in each one.
What 3 whiskies do you love and why?
Of course, I love Penderyn whisky! The Penderyn Madeira finish will always be a favourite of mine, because it was the first whisky I really tasted and appreciated, and I get such satisfaction knowing the work that goes into it. I also love that it’s so light and delicate. If I had to choose a whisky that wasn’t Penderyn, then it would probably be either the Nikka Yoichi 10-Year-Old, or Hedonism, from The Compass Box Whisky Co.
I like the Yoichi 10-Year-Old as, like our Penderyn Peated, the peatiness is subtle (I’m not a huge fan of very peaty whiskies), and the fruitiness comes through first, while Hedonism has a great creamy, toffee-ish taste, with a bit of coconut, and I really like the modern, fun design of the bottles – it shows that whisky isn’t just for older, very serious men.
What are the most important factors affecting whisky distillation? How do you ensure that these are carefully balanced to produce a consistently high quality product?
There are so many factors which influence whisky distillation. You need to start with a good wash – if you don’t have a good wash, you won’t have a good whisky. Our wash is produced especially for us by a respected local brewer in Cardiff, and we work closely with them to ensure that our wash is always of the best quality. It’s also important that the still is performing as it should. Aista and I, along with other members of the distillation team here, regularly inspect our still for signs of wear that would affect the distillation, and we take care to see that the copper is doing its job.
As fans of whisky probably know, most stills are made using copper, as the copper retains the sulphur from the wash and prevents it from passing into the spirit. If the still wasn’t cared for, the quality of our new make spirit would suffer. By understanding and managing our still carefully, we ensure that we get a high quality new make spirit, meaning that we’re halfway towards a high quality whisky.