History

Irish Powerhouse

Gavin D Smith investigates Jameson's old rival
By Gavin D. Smith
When Irish whiskey was at the height of its popularity during the Victorian era,Dublin was the powerhouse of the Irish distilling industry. It was home to six distilleries, including John Jameson & Sons’operation in Bow Street and the John’s Lane distillery of its great rival, James Power & Son.Power’s had its origins in a small-scale distilling operation at James Power’s inn on Thomas Street in the Irish capital from around 1796, and at the turn of the century his son, John, joined the business, which subsequently became James Power & Son.The scale of the distilling venture grew from its modest beginnings, and by 1822 the company was listed as trading from John’s Lane, which branches off Thomas Street, with three stills in situ.The distillery expanded significantly in the wake of the 1823 Excise Act, producing 300,000 gallons of whiskey in 1833 and 700,000 gallons after a rebuilding programme in 1871 which created classic Victorian-style premises.By the mid-1880s output had risen to 900,000 gallons and some 300 people were employed on the seven-acre site.In 1866 Power’s became one of the first companies to bottle its whiskey rather than sell it by the cask,and was also the earliest distiller to produce miniature bottles.‘Baby Power’s’ as it was nicknamed proved very popular, and there is an apocryphal story that the ‘three swallows’emblem on the Power’s neck label came about because a ‘Baby Power’s’contained three swallows of whiskey!When the indefatigable distillery chronicler Alfred Barnard visited the John’s Lane distillery in 1887 he recorded that some customers sent two empty casks to the distillery, one of which was to be filled with whiskey, while the other was for water from the Vartry River, to be used to dilute the whiskey for drinking.In his book Irish Whiskey (1972), EB McGuire writes of the seasonal nature of distilling in Ireland, which was arranged so as to coincide with the annual harvest and to avoid the warmer weather when it was difficult to control operating temperatures.He observes that a larger labour force was therefore required during the winter months.“Powers had a unique arrangement to meet the labour problem,”he explains.“They employed river fishermen from County Wexford to work in Dublin during winter and return to their homes in summer.The firm built a village at Oylegate on the river Slaney in the late 1890s and the men came up to Dublin each year when distilling began.” Power’s was always a very traditional firm when it came to distilling practices, and a patent still was not installed until the 1950s in order to allow the production of blended whiskey, for which there was a growing demand among consumers.Family ownership of James Power & Son continued until 1966, when a merger with the Cork Distillers Company and John Jameson & Son led to the creation of the Irish Distillers Group Ltd.Power’s John’s Lane distillery closed in 1974, after which spirit production in the Republic of Ireland was concentrated in a new, purpose-built distilling complex at Midleton in County Cork.Before this,however,peripheral parts of the distillery site had already been cleared to make way for local authority housing.Today, the John’s Lane location is home to Ireland’s National College of Art and Design, but the splendid Counting House, which dates from the 1871 reconstruction, remains intact and gives a hint at the Victorian grandeur of the former distillery.Another tangible reminder of times past takes the form of what might be termed a piece of ‘public sculpture’ in John’s Lane,where three vast pot stills from the former distillery stand,somewhat forlornly, on display.However, the Powers Gold Label brand endures,now being a blend of around 70 per cent pot still and 30 per cent grain whiskey,aged from five to six years in exbourbon casks.There is also a Powers 12 Years Old Reserve premium edition, which contains whiskeys aged from 12 to 24 years and boasts a high pot still content.Although Power’s does not enjoy the international kudos of its stable mate and old rival, Jameson’s, it is the bestselling whiskey in its native country,and in total more than 2.5 million bottles are sold each year.