There are three key strands to any whiskey marketing campaign. First, there is place; your water is the cleanest, your loch is the coldest, your warehouses are kissed by the sea, your home is where the hearts are.
Then there are the people; tales of founders, their ancestors, coopers, barrelmen, distillers, gaugers, bootleggers.
Finally, there is the product – the wood, the copper, the yeast, the liquid gold. Given the importance of the liquid itself, you would think that product should come first, but the stories that are easiest to tell, the ones that capture our hearts, are not the ones about the liquid, but about people and place, and how they interconnect.
For all its aristocratic beauty, there is an air of gothic doom about Powerscourt House. Once home to the Powerscourt Conferences, when people of God would gather to discuss unfulfilled biblical prophecies, it has survived being almost completely destroyed by fire, and decades of decay. The stunning gardens are even home to a pet cemetery – this is Brideshead, revisited by Stephen King.
But any of the great houses will have their share of tragedy, of highs and low, for they have existed for centuries, with Powerscourt House dating back to 1741. But it has bounced back, with a thriving marketplace within the house, bustling tourist trade, and now, in its most recent addition, a distillery. At a time when there are distilleries popping up across the country, Powerscourt Distillery is not only impressive because of the size of its operation, but because of the pedigree of the project.
Two local entrepreneurs, Gerry Ginty and Ashley Gardiner, initially approached one of Powerscourt’s current owners, Sarah Slazenger – a descendant of the sporting empire’s founder and current MD of the estate – about opening a distillery on the grounds of Powerscourt. It was the perfect venue – incredible scenery, a steady flow of tourists, abundant arable lands, and centuries of history. Slazenger was in, but there was an opportunity for another investor, and this time they got one was an impressive background in whisky.
Alex Peirce was halfways through his veterinary studies in Edinburgh when he discovered that he was allergic to animals. During some large animal training he suddenly puffed up and struggled to breathe. This would mark the end of his career as a vet. He was crestfallen, but coming from a family of entrepreneurs – his father Mike was a founder of Mentec, which played a central role in Ireland’s tech boom – Alex was quick to reroute into studying economics, consoling himself for his veterinarian Catch 22 by drinking a lot of the local spirits – ie, high-quality scotch. Then, in 1995, his father became one of the primary shareholders in the Isle Of Arran Distillery off the coast of Scotland.
With Pierce The Elder’s experience in Arran, and the pedigree of the proposal Ginty and Gardiner had put together, it wasn’t long before Powerscourt Distillery was ready to join the ever-growing list of new Irish distilleries. So they had vision, they had location, they had money, they had experience. But they needed one final piece of the puzzle – a master distiller. There are many distilleries in Ireland, and many of the newcomers have either distillers, or head distillers, but very few have bona fide master distillers. The pressure was on Powerscourt Distillery to get someone who would live up to the pedigree of the project.
Having had experience of making neutral spirit in one the state alcohol plants, Mayo man Noel Sweeney joined John Teeling’s legendary Cooley Distillery – itself formerly another one of the five state Ceimici Teoranta plants, along with Carndonagh, Ballina, Carrickmacross and Letterkenny – in 1989.
Qualified in analytical chemistry and total quality management, he was mentored in Cooley by a Scottish distiller named Gordon Mitchell, who later went on to work for the Peirce family on Arran in 1995. Teeling’s Cooley Distillery was a game-changer in Irish whiskey – up until then, Irish Distillers Limited owned the only other distilleries on the island, in Bushmills and Midleton. Nowadays, IDL are a picture of support for newcomers, back then, they were less so, with Sweeney recounting one attempt being made by IDL, then headed by Richard Burrows, to buy Cooley so they could bulldoze it into the ground. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the competition authority blocked that deal, and Cooley continued to disrupt – they double distilled, they made peated whiskey, they sold to whoever wanted it, and they made excellent malt and especially excellent grain whiskey. But consolidation is the way for distilling – especially when a boom strikes, as one has in the past five years in Ireland.
Cooley distillery was sold to Beam in 2012 for more than seventy million. In the aftermath, Beam cut off supply for third party sales, and created a vacuum, one that was soon filled by John Teeling, who set up Great Northern, a sort of Cooley Mark II. Sweeney was still with Cooley, but was looking for a new project. At this point, the Irish whiskey boom was punching through the stratosphere, so it was only a matter of time before someone headhunted Sweeney – he was inducted into the Whisky Magazine ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2017, a title held by only two Irish distillers to this day. So when the Powerscourt team came knocking, he was ready for a new challenge.
With Sweeney on board, the group were able to secure stock from what they coyly refer to as an undisclosed distillery. NDAs, or non-disclosure agreements, are the unfortunate contracts that forbid mention of what distillery you source your stock from, but the spirits released by Powerscourt – a ten year old grain, 14 year old single malt and a blend – all bear Sweeney’s name as master distiller, because, as the man himself says, he is the person who distilled them. You can tell, because the grain whiskey has that soft, sweet element that Cooley – and Sweeney in particular – did so well.
“In Cooley we used fresh bourbon barrels for an excellent smooth grain whisky. It’s creamy – a nice introduction to whiskey. Lots of vanilla, citrus – this is not any way harsh. Fercullen ten is finished in first fill bourbon. I made it, watched it for nine and half years, bought it and watched it for another six months. Well, Alex and Sarah bought it and I watched it.”
The location of Powerscourt Distillery is enviable – centuries of history, remarkable scenery, and a torrent of tourists coming for all the estate offers – the big house, the gardens, the garden centre, and the five-star hotel which is also located on the grounds.
Then there is the team: With Sweeney, they have more than just an excellent distiller – they have a seasoned communicator, a man plugged into the world whiskey network, and knows who has the best barrels and how much you should pay for them, and who also brought some of his excellent sourced stock to keep them ticking over while their own stocks mature. It is hard not to be impressed by the sheer quality and strength of Powerscourt Distillery.
Powerscourt Distillery is also offering a cask programme to would be investors – Alex Peirce sees it as more of a club rather than a purely transactional entity. With asking prices of 7,600, and only 397 casks (honouring the 397 foot high Powerscourt waterfall) this will be a somewhat exclusive club.
Peirce is quick to point out that this distillery isn’t about building a business and then flipping it – they are in it for the long run, and a sign of how serious they are is seen in the fact they are not bothering with any intermediary spirits to bring in revenue over the next five to ten years. With the Irish whiskey boom showing no signs of slowing down, and this project’s accumulated wisdom, skill and prestige, Powerscourt – from the great house to the still house – look to a brighter future together.
Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey (RRP€42), Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey (RRP €55), and Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey (RRP €90) will be available to purchase at The Powerscourt Distillery & Visitor Centre, and at selected outlets country wide.
A million photos from the launch night last December:
And now for my Jerry Springer-style final thoughts: There is no doubt that Powerscourt is a force to be reckoned with. In the years to come, there will be some distilleries that will fail. I doubt that Powerscourt will be among them. Into the future I expect them to replicate an Arran-style operation here – rock-solid, quality whiskey, with interesting finishes and an abundance of class. But can they excite? That’s the big question. Operations like Blackwater, Waterford, even WCD in their quiet way are doing things different, and those are just three close to where I live. Not everyone can reinvent the wheel, and while a distillery that is dependable is a great thing, it will be interesting to see how Powerscourt stands out. It is very much to the manor born, but it may need more than lineage to capture hearts and minds in a crowded market.