John’s Lane Distillery is dead and gone. It’s a college of art and design now. There’s a temptation when writing about the Powers brand to discuss their former headquarters in some capacity, but it’s really irrelevant. Powers whiskey is made in Midleton, and has been for decades. Where in Midleton? Somewhere in the distillery. Is there a specific section cordoned off just for making Powers? Unlikely. Midleton makes a vast array of styles of whiskey which then feed the Powers, Jameson, Redbreast, Method and Madness, and Spot whiskeys, to name just a few. Think of Midleton Distillery as being multi-award winning songwriter Max Martin, and all the brands are the stars who line up to turn his work into chart success. One of the great benefits of being a multi-brand producer is that plans can be changed – if something doesn’t quite fit the profile or the brand narrative of one, it can slot into another. If Rihanna turns down the track, you can try Bieber.
Up until comparatively recently it felt like the general uplift across the Midleton range had passed Powers by. I spent some time wondering if they were preparing to sell it outright, as they did with Paddy, which also became something of a forgotten child in comparison to Redbreast, the Spots, and the vast all-consuming cuckoo that is Jameson. A rebrand of Powers in 2015 stayed close to the aesthetics of the John’s Lane bottling, but obviously it wasn’t enough of a departure for a brand that was not especially well known outside of Ireland, and the plethora of overpriced Powers single casks celebrating everything from Dublin Airport to the Licensed Vintners Association wasn’t going to change that. IDL then had the temerity to release an RTD old fashioned cocktail under the Powers label in 2019 with a bold new look. But that was only a taster of what was to come.
A drastic brand overhaul in 2020 had the nerds and traditionalists reaching for the smelling salts. Gone was the classic old-school gold label, replaced with modern, bold branding and a squat bottle. It divided fans to this day, but I think most people would accept that it was still a lot better than the rebrand of Crested Ten.
This activity around the brand at least suggested there was life in it yet, and that Powers wasn’t immediately going to follow Paddy out the door to parts unknown. Or maybe it was renovated with intent to sell; as with all Midleton brands, would it matter where Powers was made? John’s Lane was its home, once it left there it became a nomad.
A major American distribution deal in 2021 reassured neotraditionalists that Powers was going nowhere and the brand was going somewhere; adding further reassurance is the recent release of a new Powers, this time a rye. Yes, a rye. It was a brand that always embraced innovation, historically experimenting with blends, lighter styles of whiskey, the iconic Baby Powers bottles, the Powers-owned Fox & Geese bottling plant.
Historically rye was a feature of both Jameson and Powers – it was, to quote Powers spokesperson Eric Ryan, just a sprinkle of rye that went into the mashbills, but it was still there. IDL started considering experiments with different grain types – ie, not maize, malt or unmalted barley – a decade ago, but found rye in particular hard to source in the quantities they needed it. It’s a style one might associate with American whiskey but as noted in this great piece by Lew Bryson, its roots lie in Germany.
IDL imported rye from Sweden in 2015 to begin trials and worked with the grain for two years. If you want to try some of that experimentation, the Method & Madness Rye and Malt release used the Swedish grain in a 60/40 rye/malt mashbill (60/40 also being the golden ratio for IDL’s SPS unmalted/malted mash) and was distilled in Midleton’s microdistillery. Oddly, the American release of the M&M Rye and Malt was triple distilled, while the European release was double distilled.
Around the time IDL started working with imported rye, grain provenance was creating as much buzz as grain experiments, so IDL realised that working with 100% Irish-grown rye would add cachet to the whiskey. They commissioned some to be grown in Wexford and started working with that grain in 2017, having ironed out the kinks and figured at least part of the maturation process using the Swedish grain.
While the M&M Swedish rye was made in the microdistillery, the new Powers release was a product of one of the main plant’s column stills, albeit with a longer fermentation time. Rye is not the easiest to work with as it has a high level of beta glucans which are gummy starches – use too much in one run and you can end up with a solid stick mass. So in a superproducer like Midleton you cannot put as much through your brewhouse as normal, whilst post distillation there are more challenges in feeds recovery as the product is less viscous. So it’s harder to source in Ireland, harder to distil, and harder to recycle. Midleton does one distillation of rye per year as it means breaking the normal cycle and cleaning out the entire system before and after; but as Ryan notes, if this was about efficiencies rather than flavour, they just wouldn’t bother.
For maturation, the team in IDL felt that the American oak worked better than sherry butts with the flavour profile, so the Powers rye is a combination of virgin American oak, refill American oak (ex Irish whiskey), first fill ex bourbon, and refill bourbon. The ages range between 4.75 and 4.9 years, so just under the five-year mark. It is planned that this will be part of the core range of Powers but for now it came in a limited release, especially here in Ireland as the bulk of this entire endeavour is aimed squarely at the American market. I assume this is about building up Powers in the US, just as IDL has been growing Redbreast steadily over the last five to ten years. Rye is also having something of a moment in distilling as the Remy Cointreau-owned Bruichladdich released a rye in the last couple of weeks.
Bottled at 43.2% ABV, Powers Irish Rye retailed for €40, a pleasantly affordable Irish whiskey, given how many sub-five-year-olds hit the market for €80 and upwards. On the nose, hints of heather, orchid, honey. Big burst of flavour in the mouth though, huge floral notes for me, fading to spice and quieter, sweeter elements. Decent finish, for a bottle you can grab for €35 in the O’Briens whiskey sale (at time of writing). The liquid is good, the decision to release it as a Powers with the American market in mind is interesting and I assume the Irishness of the rye grain used will play into that. So in summary – Powers: Not for sale.