The Augurs Of Spring

Many years ago, someone in the whiskey business told me that Green Spot sold well with women. I brought it up with one of the production team in Midleton, and they explained that this was a result of the flavour profile. Then I brought it up with one of their marketing team, and their explanation was more straightforward: It sells well with women because it looks like a bottle of wine. You may well bristle at both opinions, or you may believe that it is a grim truism – many products, including food and drink, are marketed to people based on gender. (You may also correctly note that I used this story many times to illustrate the same point). Whiskey was solely aimed at men for decades, so the conundrum the industry has been battling for the last 20 years is how to shift that focus. 

Back in 2019, the then CEO of Chivas Brothers Jean Christophe Coutures gave an interview to MarketWatch about how more women were drinking whiskey. Coutures, in reference to the Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve and its success with women, had this to say

“It has a more approachable taste, a smooth, creamy sweetness with delicate flavors that doesn’t have the same edge often found in whiskey. We’ve also made the packaging easier to understand and priced it at entry level. More women keep returning.”

At the time I found it hard to believe, so I contacted one of the journalists who wrote the piece to make sure the quote was correct. He confirmed that it was. Giving Coutures the benefit of the doubt, English is not his first language. Perhaps he was trying to say that the success of Founder’s Reserve was not that it was dumbed down for women, but that it was dumbed down for everyone. Whiskies like Founder’s Reserve (affordable NAS single malts) are probably everyone’s first port of call when moving beyond blends, and that applies to both men and women. But Coutures’s comments were still a god-awful clanger. 

So the question now is – how do you encourage diversity among whiskey consumers? I have no idea. I’ll leave that to the marketeers. But events the one held this week at Powerscourt Distillery are a good start. I’ll let the press release take it from here: 

The ancient Irish feast of Imbolc (Spring) was celebrated in style at The Powerscourt Distillery on Friday 18th February. The first day of Imbolc coincides with Brigid’s Day, and the celebration at the Powerscourt Distillery used the occasion to celebrate the connections between Brigid and her associations with Brewing/Farming/Dairying/Nature and Hospitality. 

Guests were welcomed with a cocktail called Brigid’s Cloak. Named after the legendary cloak laid down by Brigid as she claimed lands from the King of Leinster, it was based on the classic Manhattan. Reflecting Brigid’s reputation as an Irish woman ahead of her time, it was made using Fercullen Irish Whiskey and Irish ingredients made by female producers, with vermouth from Valentia Island Vermouth and bitters from Beara Bitters. 

Following a drinks reception, Caroline Gardiner, Head of Marketing at Powerscourt Distillery, introduced the two panel discussions chaired by broadcaster Suzanne Campbell and curated by the Food and Beverage Specialist at the Distillery, Santina Kennedy. 

The first panel  incorporated guests with associations with Imbolc and Brigid to highlight and celebrate the occasion.  Imbolc literally means ‘in belly’ meaning in the ewe’s belly – signifying springtime/lactating ewes/ spring lambs – so it was appropriate that the first panellist was Hanna Finlay from Ballyhubbock farm in West Wicklow, producer of sheep’s dairy ice cream and cheese. Storm Eunice prevented Hanna from driving over the Wicklow Gap to join the panel in person, but she was able to participate in the lively conversation via video link. 

Hanna was joined by Judith Boyle, Brewer and Beer Lecturer at TU Dublin who shared funny anecdotes about growing up in Kildare – the home of St Brigid as well as her experience as a female brewer; Rosanna Goswell from Tuath Glass who gave a fascinating insight into her Irish Whiskey Glass , which was named after Tuath De Dannan – the family of the Goddess Brigid. 

Also on the panel was Brigid O’Hora –  the sommelier who brought insights into modern Irish Wine appreciation gleaned from her online wine training platform – Brideys Wine Chats . Being a ‘Brigid’ from Co Kildare who is the mother of triplets there was no shortage of associations with the Patron Saint of fertility! 

The panel was completed with Alex Slazenger, Head Gardener at Powerscourt Estate who captivated the audience with the history and legacy of the gardens at Powerscourt and his plans to continue his grandparents pioneering work to create a sustainable garden of outstanding beauty. 

The second panel discussed the ‘Taste of Place’ .  Powerscourt Distillery celebrates its location throughout its offering – from the water from Powerscourt Waterfall that is used to make its whiskey, to the barley in the surrounding fields to the use of local produce in its cocktails and food  pairing tours and tastings.  

To celebrate this idea of Irish terroir, panellists included Orla Snook O’Carrroll of Valentia Island Vermouth, Ireland’s first vermouth which is made using botanicals from Kerry; Orla was joined by Celina Stephenson of Wicklow Way Wines. Their Móinéir wine is made using only Irish berry fruit, capturing the taste of Irish summer. The idea of capturing a taste of place was explained by Geraldine Kavanagh , professional forager for Glendalough Gin, who kept the audience really entertained as she described trying to  explain her occupation to a bank manager. She brought a handmade willow basket of foraged treasures from the Wicklow mountains, describing how she used the botanicals to be distilled into seasonal gins. Olly Nolan, the beekeeper behind Olly’s Honey described how the honey from the hives at the distillery captures the taste of Powerscourt, from the wild hedgerows around the estate and the variety of flowers in the world renowned gardens. This panel was completed by Mary O’Sullivan who described setting up her Bitters during the pandemic. A botanist who grew up on an organic farm in Co Kerry,   Mary really evoked a sense of capturing the magic of flowers and plants to achieve a taste of a place. 

Guests were then treated to a Powerscourt Distillery Whiskey and Food Pairing experience. Head of Whiskey John Cashman enthralled the audience with his introduction to Irish whiskey and detailed guided tastings. Santina Kennedy, who organised the event, led the guided food pairings . Using her research into Irish Food History taken as part of her MA in Gastronomy and Food Studies, she has developed a unique whiskey and food pairing experience. She uses only high quality Irish food produce whose taste, texture and story mirrors the various expressions of Fercullen Irish Whiskey. Under Santina’s guidance The Powerscourt Distillery champions locally produced high quality Irish food as part of the overall offering. 

A cake by Kate O’Hora of @thecake_table captured the essence of Imbolc and Brigid, with delicate spring flowers and a flowing edible cloak. 

Powerscourt Distillery’s Imbolc celebration will become an annual event, with a bigger and even more exciting day being planned for 2023. 

Press release endeth –  unsurprisingly there was no mention of the recent, startling departure of their master distiller Noel Sweeney, or the departure not long before that of backer and MD Alex Peirce. These are strange times for Powerscourt Distillery – former C&C CEO Maurice Pratt joined the board before Christmas, presumably to steady the ship, but without Perice – whose family are involved in Isle of Arran Distillery and Lagg Distillery – and Cooley legend Sweeney, their identity – to my mind at least – has taken a setback. Events like their Imbolc gathering are good because it is uncommon – a female focussed hosted by a whiskey distillery. Hopefully others will follow their lead. 

Some photos from the event:

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