Blue blood and brown spirit at Powerscourt Distillery

Powerscourt Waterfall.

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. 

I

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.

II

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. 

Alex Peirce and Sarah Slazenger.

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.

Master Distiller Noel Sweeney in Powerscourt Distillery.

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. 

III

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.

Death and empire

I hadn’t been in Powerscourt House & Gardens since I was a child. My memories of it are vague – rolling down the grassy hills with my sister, getting lost in the Japanese gardens, and being scared by the statues of gods and monsters. Walking through the house and back out onto that incredible garden, three decades later, was a supremely odd feeling – my family are gone, and I was there alone, wandering around thinking about all those memories I now carry alone, moments to which I am the only living witness, and how no matter the power of the love we feel for each other, in the end it is all for naught as every living thing will one day die. So you have to just grab this motherfucker of a life with both hands and sink your teeth into it. In other words, when you get an invite to the opening of a distillery, even one 300 kilometres away, you go.

At some point down the road I will write a proper piece on Powerscourt Distillery, but some initial thoughts: What this project has is pedigree. Director Alex Pierce has a background in start-ups, but it is his link to Arran that is most impressive – his family have a track record of setting up and operating a very successful distillery. Master distiller Noel Sweeney is that most rare of creatures – an actual master distiller. There are many who use that title, but to me it has to be earned, rather that just assigned. Mastery should be proved.

So you have a director who knows what he is about, a distiller who is a master, and a setting that is glorious. The location, on the grounds of Powerscourt estate, and next door to one of the great old houses of Ireland, offers elements that many distilleries here lack – history, heritage, grandeur.

Powerscourt is also home to an exceptional five-star hotel, one that a commoner like me could nary afford. I had heard it was quite the celeb hangout, but nothing prepared me for who I spotted when I walked in the door, the biggest celebrity in Ireland if not the world – Craig fucking Doyle! Incredible, can’t believe I saw him in real life and not in an in-flight magazine trying to sell me insurance or electricity. 

Anyway – here is some rich, delicious press release to fill this post out a bit:

The Powerscourt Distillery Launches Three New Whiskey Expressions

Introducing Fercullen Premium Irish Whiskeys

The Powerscourt Distillery proudly unveils three new Irish whiskeys under the brand name Fercullen; Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey, Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey and Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey. Released by award winning Master Distiller Noel Sweeney, these opening expressions form part of a planned portfolio of premium Irish whiskeys being launched by the distillery and soon to open Distillery Visitor Centre.

‘FeraCulann’ or ‘Fercullen’ is the Gaelic name given to the ancient and strategically important lands that surround and encompass Powerscourt Estate. Literally translated it stands for “Men of Cuala” or “Men of the Wicklow Hills”, the historical context of which has involved several centuries of local discourse, dispute and battle prior to the arrival of peace and calm in the hands of visionary custodians.

Set against the stunning backdrop of the great Sugarloaf Mountain and enjoying a long heritage of dedication and craftmanship, Powerscourt has become one of Ireland’s most treasured estates – an inspiring location where the extraordinary is possible. With an underground lake of the purest Wicklow water, close proximity to rich farming lands and a temperate coastline climate It sets the perfect stage for distilling and maturing Irish whiskey.

According to Alex Peirce, Chief Executive of The Powerscourt Distillery.  “Our location is important in that it provides inspiration. The local history, heritage and natural beauty of Powerscourt are all  cohesive elements in providing the perfect platform for Noel’s work. We use pure mineral water that has filtered down into the Estate from the surrounding Wicklow hills and we are located close to some of the best barley growing lands in Ireland. Perseverance and patience have long represented the cornerstones to whiskey production and so it seemed fitting to adopt “Fercullen”, the ancient name for these lands, to introduce to our whiskey story at The Powerscourt Distillery.

Once the hub of all farming on the Estate, an Old Mill House that dates back to 1730’s has been faithfully restored and extended to form part of the Distillery buildings. It boasts a water mill deep in its foundations, while outside on the north-west wall of the building, a bell that was used to herald the daily lunch break to workers in distant fields presents a nod to former times and local practice. Both are being preserved to form part of the wider visitor experience.

The carefully appointed distillery, visitor centre and adjoining maturation facilities form the initial phase of the building project. Three traditional, custom-designed copper pot stills from world-renowned Forsyths form the centrepiece at The Powerscourt Distillery.

The Powerscourt Distillery Master Distiller Noel Sweeney has played a huge part in the design and commissioning of the modern plant. Noel’s experience, spanning over 30 years, has earned him global recognition and sits comfortably in a place renowned for attention to detail, craft and vision.  Having formerly distilled the spirit that will be used by Fercullen, Noel is now also responsible for the new spirit being produced and laid down by the distillery – a unique attribute on today’s Irish whiskey landscape.

“The decisions that I make impart huge influence over the spirit produced,” says Noel Sweeney, Master Distiller at Powerscourt Distillery.  “So many choices and decisions affect the way that spirit forms and matures into whiskey”

To mark and celebrate its opening year the Powerscourt Distillery has also designed a limited availability Cask Programme – the first and only such programme that it will undertake. At 397 casks (each one representing a foot of water from the nearby Powerscourt Waterfall), the cask programme offers a premium level of involvement and association with the distillery to private individuals who wish to become part of The Powerscourt Distillery family. Together with ownership of a 200L new fill cask to be housed in the Distillery’s warehouse on the Estate, members will enjoy exclusive access to special events and private whiskey tastings, first access to limited edition whiskeys and an exclusive presentation of the otherwise unavailable Fercullen 16-Year-Old Single Malt.

Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey €58 RRP, Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey €92 RRP and Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey €45 RRP is available to purchase at The Powerscourt Distillery & Visitor Centre, The Powerscourt Estate, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow; The Celtic Whiskey Shop and Mitchell & Sons, or online from www.powerscourtdistillery.com

The Powerscourt Distillery and Visitor Centre is currently available for a private, group bookings by appointment only.  Contact claire.hickey@powerscourtdistillery.com for information. For information on cask purchases please contact info@powerscourtdistillery.com.

Master Distiller Noel Sweeney has received several awards for distilling and whiskey excellence.  He was inducted into The Whisky Magazine ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2017 and currently remains as one of just two Irish distillers to have been recognised in this way.  A globally renowned whiskey expert, Noel is passionate about his craft and has released many international award-winning Irish whiskies over the years. He is a member of the Irish Spirits Association, a founding member of the Irish Whiskey Association and a key contributor to the GI technical file for Irish whiskey.  Noel has devoted over 30 years patiently honing his craft and learning from former masters. He held a former position as assistant distiller to Gordon Mitchell, the first distiller at the Isle of Arran Distillery, Scotland.

The provenance of The Powerscourt Estate can be traced back to the 6th century, to a territory that stretches across fertile plains and through rugged mountainous terrain.  Known in its native Gaelic tongue as “Fera-Culann” or Fercullen, its location in the foothold of the Wicklow mountains, so close to Dublin, made it a highly valued, strategic place.  Ownership was claimed by numerous factions over the centuries, from the native Clans of O’Toole and O’Byrne, to the Norman house of LePoer, who built a castle there and from whom the estate takes its name.  In the early 17th century, Powerscourt was gifted by Queen Elizabeth I to a favoured army general, Sir Richard Wingfield, an ancestral relative of the Slazenger family who currently hold the Estate.

One of the best parts of the evening, apart from the incredible meal, great wines, cracking whiskeys, and being seated next to Noel Sweeney and hearing all his insane stories from the business, was seeing so many people who care passionately for Irish whiskey – John ‘Whiskey Cat’ Egan, Serghios from Irish Whiskey Magazine, the Burkes from Cask Magazine, John Wilson from the Irish Times, Suzi and Liam from TheTaste, Susan ‘Not The X-Factor One’ Boyle – a writer, performer, PhDer, and general Renaissance person – and Leslie Williams from the Irish Examiner, the first journalist to start raising the transparency issue in Irish whiskey. It was like seeing The Avengers in real life. 

My many thanks also to Rebecca and Sarah from Burrell PR for inviting me, and to everyone for putting up with me giving out about my kids, who I missed terribly and raced home to see the next day. Well, raced home once I went to the waterfall and took these photos, like a sadcase.