Last week during thunderous rain, the Powerscourt Estate in Co Wicklow looked every inch worthy of its status as National Geographic’s third most beautiful gardens on Earth. This is one of Ireland’s best-run and most commercially successful estates, located half an hour south of Dublin. It welcomes around 300,000 visitors a year,
With a luxury hotel, award-winning gardens, a wildly popular Avoca restaurant, shops, a childhood museum, a packed garden centre and a championship-hosting golf club, it’s hard to imagine what else could be developed within the vast grounds.
We need imagine no longer, however, as Powerscourt Distillery joins almost 25 new distilleries built around Ireland in the last eight years. The sheer scale of the new facility, embracing 200-year-old cut-stone outhouses, barns and farm buildings, is evident as soon as you turn into its new car park at the end of the estate. This is not an artisan exercise; the intention here is on an international scale.
Managing director Alex Pierce is clear about this. “We want to be able to scale our whiskey to the world market. We know that this is incredibly hard to do, and the first years are hugely difficult, but if you do not start this way, what is it that you are aiming towards?” he said
Pierce and his father Mike are investors in the distillery and come with significant whiskey experience. Mike launched the hip and commercially successful Arran Distillery in Scotland, which hit the ground running with enough product to become an international brand. It is the Pierce expertise that founders Gerry Ginty, Ashley Gardiner and the Slazenger Family, owners of the Powerscourt Estate, seemed to recognise as vital.
Over the last couple of years, as the €20 million construction concluded, the Powerscourt Distillery revealed its full ambition as a distillery of a size approaching that of Teelings and perhaps Tullamore Dew.
One final piece of the puzzle, however, was the selection of a master distiller. This is where Powerscourt Distillery has, in one step, raced past the competition. It appointed Noel Sweeney, legendary master distiller at Cooley Distillery for over 30 years, to the role.
The source of the revolution
The problem for every new distillery at set-up is devastatingly simple. Apart from the money required to build and fit a distillery, from the minute the distillery is operational, not one drop of whiskey can be sold until it has spent three years maturing in a barrel on Irish soil. That is three years with no income after spending millions on set up.
To get over this three-year gap in income, there are a few options. One is to sit for three years and sell nothing. The second option is to make and lay down your whiskey while selling something else. This usually means gin and vodka, which can be sold minutes after the spirit flows from the still. Or you can buy in whiskey from an existing distillery and sell it under your own name.
This last choice is how the vast majority of Irish whiskey distilleries are operating today. The approach of buying in stock was a longstanding and well-recognised business in Ireland for centuries where whiskey blending and maturation was a highly prized art.
All around the country, blenders bought in stock from up to 200 Irish distilleries, and blended it and aged to their taste. It was all part of the art and whiskey lovers gained a vast landscape of flavours and styles.
The issue at present is that, while blenders and bottlers in the 19th and early 20th century could draw from whiskey stocks from 200 functional distilleries, today there are really only two or three significant sources, which include Midleton and above all Cooley Distillery.
Every time you see a new distillery with a 12-year-old or even eight-year-old whiskey for sale, the chances are it is bought in from 30 years of stocks built up at the John Teeling-founded and now Suntory multinational-owned Cooley Distillery, and therefore made by Noel Sweeney.
The genius of Sweeney is well recognised with endless awards, and he is regarded, along with Midleton master distiller Barry Crockett, the heart and head of the Irish whiskey renaissance over the last 30 years.
Powerscourt Estate has astounded the Irish whiskey world by managing to appoint Sweeney as its founding master distiller, bringing his decades of award-winning experience and training to a new generation of apprentices on site in the distillery daily.
This gives Powerscourt Distillery a unique advantage of sourcing whiskey Sweeney himself made to provide for Powerscourt Distillery’s current whiskey line-up, called Fercullen, which includes a Fercullen 10-year-old Single Grain, a 14-Year-Old Single Malt and launched last week, an 18-Year-Old Fercullen Single Malt Irish Whiskey.
This combination of assured sourcing, the scale to take on the world and an Irish whiskey icon in Sweeney, marks this out as a new paradigm in the Irish whiskey renaissance. 2.0 never tasted better.
The distillery is open for tours and visitors daily.
Powerscourt Distillery, First Orders
Fercullen, Premium Blend Irish Whiskey, €44 (91) At the distillery as all are; Celtic Whiskey Shop and all good off-licences nationwide
Fercullen, 10-Year-Old Single Grain Irish Whiskey €57.50 (92) Celtic Whiskey Shop and all good off-licences nationwide
Fercullen, 14-Year-Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey, €92.95 (93) Celtic Whiskey Shop and all good off-licences nationwide
Fercullen, 18-Year-Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey, €140 (95) Celtic Whiskey Shop and select off-licences nationwide
Email: [email protected]
THREE TO TRY
Chateau Plaisance, AC Fronton, 2016, €19.50 from Sheridan’s Cheese Shops nationwide and from sheridanscheesemongers.com (90)
This fully organic, naturalistic winemaking estate is the work of two generations of the Penavayre family, founded by his father, current owner Marc has moved this estate into the forefront of the overlooked Fronton appellation. Fronton is located just north of Toulouse, about two hours south of Bordeaux. It makes mainly quite rustic red wines from a variety of local, not well-known grapes. This is a fascinating blend of local Negrette, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Gamay. The result is a cool, herb-scented, remarkably fresh and yet savoury wine. A food pairing delight of real quality.
Bacco, Garnacha, DO Campo de Borja, Spain 2017, €13.50 from Dunnes Stores nationwide (90)
This is an attractive proposition for lovers of big, spicy and super-ripe red wines. If you miss early 2000s Australian Shiraz that often arrived at close to 14.5 per cent alcohol and enough black pepper spiciness to match any smoky barbecue, then this may be the wine for you. If you are looking for savoury restraint, you should press on. This is a wine from the hot desert-like region to the northwest of central Spanish city of Zaragoza and west of southern Rioja. This is old-vine Garnacha, plump dark fruit and firm spice at a bargain price.
Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand 2017, €58.95, Mitchell and Son, CHQ, IFSC; Glasthule Road, Glasthule and Avoca Kilmacanogue and independent off licences and wine shops nationwide (94)
While the Marlborough region in New Zealand rightly became its most famous and iconic wine region, it rather warped the view of New Zealand as a flat, Loire-like white wine region. Then North Island Gimblett Gravels showed Bordeaux varietals had a place in New Zealand, but New Zealand’s true calling, Pinot Noir, did not emerge properly until the 1990s. The tenderloin of this Pinot Noir is Otago on the southern island, and Felton Road is a founding icon producing this delight. It is pure, clean, spicy and fresh, with a sweet ripe nose and delicious warm, layered, savoury finish.