It was not to be, although today two distilleries do now exist in the Principality, allowing it to be officially termed a ‘whisky-producing nation’.
A reminder of the earlier attempt to establish this industry came up at auction at the Peter Francis saleroom in Carmarthen recently. In a timed online thesaleroom.com auction ending on December 5, two Royal Welsh Whisky bottles produced by the Welsh Whisky Distillery sold for £7300 and £7200 (plus 23% buyer’s premium each).
They were both estimated at £1500-2000, but as extremely rare examples it had been difficult to put a price on them. Only one other is believed to have come up at auction, selling at Phillips in 2001 for just under £1400. It is now in the collection of one of those two Welsh distilleries now in operation: Penderyn in south-west Wales, near the Peter Francis saleroom, established in 2000. Another bottle is owned by the St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff where it is periodically on display.
The Welsh Whisky Distillery was founded in Frongoch, Bala, north Wales in 1889, but by 1900 had already been sold and by 1910 was closed.
Charles Hampshire, Peter Francis auctioneer and valuer, told ATG: “In the early part of that period they were just setting up and putting money in. They spent about £100,000 which at the time was an incredible amount of money to set it all up but it never really took off.
“I think the problem they had was trying to sell all this whisky against Scotch whisky, which had been aged a lot longer. They were trying to compete at the same level when their product hadn’t developed enough because they were under pressure to get it out there and make some money.”
The two bottles auctioned had spent around 50 years in the same family. The vendor’s father, Bennett Howell, ran a wine merchants, George Bennett and Co, near Fishguard, south Wales.
Hampshire said: “Her father came across these bottles when there was an advert in the paper and he bought six of them at about £5 a bottle back in the 1960s.”
Along with this strong provenance, the bottles were sold with fascinating documents and pictures.
“One lot had a great picture of the vendor’s mother pouring a bottle into a tumbler with the other bottles in the background – if they had got them all they would really be quids in now,” added Hampshire.
“The other had a very long story with a lot of letters about how that wine merchant tried to get one of these bottles he’d acquired to Prince Charles during his investiture tour in 1969. They did indeed do that, making up a special wooden box container. The correspondence sold with the lot showed they managed to do this during this visit.”
One of the bottles was bought by a UK private collector, while the other is happily heading back to north Wales – in fact, to a private collector who lives very close to the Frongoch site of the original distillery. That site has an interesting history in itself, becoming a First World War prison camp after closure and an internment camp after the Irish Easter Rising.
Dedicated specialist sale
Peter Francis began holding a stand-alone fine wine, spirits and cigars sale last year in the run-up to Christmas, and Hampshire said they have proved so useful for attracting consignments that the saleroom may also stage one halfway through the year.
“It has proved very popular,” he added. “We had fewer entries this time but much better value lots. Last year did about £10,000 while this one made about £25,000, half the lots but much more. People are recognising the value and bringing us items just for the stand-alone sale so were very happy about that.
“We are finding this market to be very strong which is why we started pushing to do a specialist sale. We were finding the odd bottle coming through our collectable sale was doing really well, but as soon as you are able to say ‘we do this sale on its own’ the collections come out of the woodwork. It doesn’t necessarily make any more but it gives them the confidence it is going to be in with like-minded items.”
Hampshire said: “Someone came in this Friday on the back of the publicity about this sale with good Scottish whisky – he said he didn’t mind waiting to next December but definitely wanted it going in the specialist sale.”
As for the six Royal Welsh Whisky rarities, with two now sold at auction and another photographed going into tumblers, will there be more to buy at Peter Francis next year?
Sadly not. “No, unfortunately they were drunk many years ago,” said a suitably disappointed Hampshire.