Theodosia Wingfield lived a sad, short life. Born in Wicklow in 1800, her people were gentleman landowners, and were part of a small community of families of means in the area who all shared a deep piety. After her beloved cousin Francis Theodosia Bligh died at the age of 25, Theodosia married her widower – Richard Wingfield, 5th Viscount Powerscourt, thus becoming the Viscountess Powerscourt. He died a year later. Their only child, a daughter, died in infancy. A month after her husband’s death, Theodosia wrote: “I do not suppose there could be a stronger lesson on the vanity of everything earthly, than to look at me last year, and this. The prospects of happiness I seemed to set out with! And now, where are they?”
But her faith was only strengthened by all the tragedy – in 1829 she hosted the first of the Powerscourt Conferences, when the faithful gathered to discuss prophecy, specifically, the return of the Lord. The conferences were not of the mind that His return would be a thing of peace, love, and understanding – this was not to be the groovy Christ of the New Testament. The conferences deduced that Jesus was coming, and that right soon, to smite a world riddled with sin. There was to be an apocalypse and only the pious would survive. On New Year’s Eve, 1836, Theodosia died, and was buried at Powerscourt.
Powerscourt, like many of the great houses, began as a medieval castle, but in 1730 German-born architect Richard Castle oversaw its redesign as a 68-room mansion in the Palladian style. In 1961 the Slazenger family – they of sports brand fame – bought the property and its lands from the 9th Viscount Powerscourt. In 1974, as the house was undergoing a major refurbishment, a fire broke out and destroyed much of the top floors and the roof. In 1996 it reopened in the form we see today. In more recent years it became a fully fledged lifestyle emporium and tourist trap, hosting more than 300,000 visitors a year.
I wonder how Theodosia would feel about her home, the site of all those deep discussions about a holy apocalypse and the smiting of the wicked, being turned into a shopping centre, albeit a very upmarket one. Within the main part of the house there are various emporiums selling hand-crafted candles and woolen goods, local art, and artisanal foodstuffs. I imagine that if some part of her still resides there, that she drifts through the scented beeswax candles and ethical smoked salmon with her mouth locked wide in an unheard scream, wishing she could take a physical form so she could cast them all out. Perhaps this was the apocalypse she envisioned, albeit in a hyper-localised, slightly ironic form. But the great houses were made great by their lands, and those lands are no more, so needs must. Aristocrat or peasant, in this economy, you gotta shake it to make it.
Powerscourt Distillery is solid. It is backed by the people behind Isle Of Arran and Lagg distilleries, Mentec mogul Mike Peirce and his son Alex, and boasts one of the legends of Irish whiskey as master distiller – Cooley still-jockey Noel Sweeney. The only bump in the road for them was their branding. Early in their development they received correspondence from Irish Distillers Limited suggesting that there might be confusion over a Powerscourt branded whiskey and IDL’s own Powers. Bemused as I am about Big Whiskey worrying about any confusion over labels in a landscape beset with deranged claims about provenance, I can see their point. Powers and Powerscourt are close and unless you have a fair degree of local knowledge it would be hard to say with certainty that these are two completely different entities. This isn’t a uniquely Irish situation – in 1994 Knockdhu distillery rebranded its whisky as anCnoc to avoid confusion with the produce of Knockando distillery. But that such an iconic Irish brand as Powerscourt had to lose give up its claim to its own name is incredibly depressing. However, small mercies have seen them allowed at least to continue with Powerscourt Distillery as the overarching brand, and Fercullen as the primary identity. There is a lengthy explanation of the meaning behind Fercullen but I won’t go into it here because, to be blunt, it isn’t very interesting. Powerscourt is where the stories are. The place has a pet cemetery for Christ’s sake. That should be the branding for a series of single casks in itself.
All of the releases thus far are sourced, obviously enough, since they only started production in 2019. I’m going to assume the source was Cooley, given that this is where their master distiller made his name and that it’s entirely possible he left there with a few casks rolling around in the back of the van. They have quite the selection of whiskey on the market already – core 18 and 14 year old single malts, a ten year old single grain and a blend. In the limited editions they have a 16YO SM, two Five Elements – the 20YO SM I was sent and an 18YO SM – and the Estate Series ‘Mill House’ single grain with an Amarone cask finish. So they’re not short of supply.
I was gifted a sample of the 20YO SM Five Elements 2021. This is made up of 16-year-old bourbon barrel matured malt whiskey which has been finished for four years in a variety of Oloroso sherry, Pedro Ximenez, Marsala and Muscatel casks, before marrying with together with 20-year-old bourbon matured single malt. Bottled at 46% ABV, non-chill filled, Fercullen Five Elements 20-year-old Limited Edition is available online at www.PowerscourtDistillery.com and at selected off-licences around the country. RRP for this edition, limited to 1,500 bottles, is €220.
Official tasting notes
Nose: Malt, citrus, boiled sweets, vanilla and honey with a twist of lemon, ripe fruits, plums, raisins, cinnamon, tropical fruits, pineapple, mango, banana, oak and a hint of nuttiness.
Taste: Layer upon layer of smooth silky sweet malt, Orange, fruit cocktail, chocolate, Christmas cake, tropical fruit and red grape skins. Waves of complexity and taste.
Finish: Long lasting sweetness from ripe fruits and cream with a velvet texture almost mouth-watering to finish. Long lasting sweetness from ripe fruits and cream produce a velvety texture and mouth-watering finish.
Is it any good? Yes it is, and so it should be at that price. Perhaps this is justified by the limited nature of the release, but to be honest I wouldn’t expect a bargain-bucket pricetag on a whiskey with the name of one of the great houses of Ireland attached to it. Theodosia might be screaming through the halls in the dark watches of the night, but at least there are spirits flowing in Powerscourt once more.