It is a crisp, bright December afternoon at the end of last year when master distiller, Noel Sweeney welcomes us in to his stunning new distillery. Treading carefully over a partial building site, construction continues around us as we marvel at the trio of gleaming new copper pot stills and sip the new make spirit over the spirit safe, experiencing the sweet, biscuity, malty, fruity single malt as it runs off the still. Distillation started in spring, beginning with single malt, but single pot still is due to start distillation in the new year.
Noel twinkles with excitement showing us the stage for his magic-making. Waving his arms expansively he invites us to imagine where the six tasting rooms, video theatre, gift shop and café bar will be. And magic-making it will be, for the Powerscourt Distillery marks the return of the first traditional craft pot-stilled whiskey distillery in Wicklow since the 18th century.
The Powerscourt Estate is a place of astounding natural beauty. Overlooked by the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain (the profile of which adorns the distillery’s branding), the estate lies at the foot of the Wicklow mountains – tranquil, commanding and only 30 minutes outside Dublin city.
It is one of Ireland’s most beautiful and treasured estates and its lands, steeped in history and legend, now belong to the Slazenger family.
Already comprising a five-star hotel, two championship golf courses, Ireland’s tallest waterfall and gardens voted third in the World’s Top Ten Gardens by National Geographic, the Powerscourt Estate’s distillery is a synergy of an ancient craft upon ancient lands, as well as an astute long-term investment by the Slazenger family’s partners: Gerry Ginty, Ashley Gardiner and, more recently, father-and-son team Alex and Mike Peirce (co. founder and chairperson of the Arran Distillery in Scotland), who hope to capitalise on Irish whiskey’s renaissance.
Bord Bia (the Irish food board) forecasts the demand for Irish whiskey to quadruple in size to more than 24 million cases worldwide by 2030. Tourism is also central to this, and the stunning visitor centre aims in its first year to draw at least 30,000 of the half a million tourists that visit the Powerscourt Estate every year.
The distillery itself is set within the sympathetically restored Old Mill House, showcasing some of the original features of what was once the hub of all farming activity on the Estate. The bell on the exterior wall was used in former years to herald the daily lunch break to workers in distant fields. An ancient water mill deep in its foundations is restored and under a glass walkway as part of the visitors’ experience.
This attention to detail extends to the whole whiskey-making process. Its unique location means that Powerscourt can be a single estate distillery, using barley from its surrounding fields and mineral water that has filtered down through the Wicklow mountains, as well as spirit being warehoused on site. This gives the whiskey ‘authentic provenance’, as well as providing long-term rural development and 18 full-time jobs.
While waiting for the Powerscourt liquid to reach maturity, master distiller Noel Sweeney is in the position of being able to utilise mature stock that was distilled and aged under his jurisdiction during his tenure at Cooley. Noel has more than 30 years’ worth of experience in the industry. Inducted into the Whisky Magazine ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2017, 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, he brings expertise and mastery to his new distillery, guiding the process from the fit-out onwards.
The sourced stock has been branded ‘Ferncullen’, the ancient Gaelic name for the Powerscourt Estate, and has been released as a 14-year-old single malt (46%), a 10-year-old single grain (40%) and a Premier Blend (40%).
While many new Irish distilleries are releasing gin to tide them over financially while liquid is reaching maturity, Noel insists Powerscourt will only be a premium whiskey distillery and the focus will always be on whiskey. As Irish distilleries are opening at a surprising rate, perhaps Powerscourt offers something unique enough to stand the test of time: the location and facilities to offer volume and single estate provenance, a master distiller with the experience to turn barley in to gold (and in the meantime be able to stand over the liquid he’s bottling as his own work), and a visitor attraction of world-class distinction. Powerscourt really is the stuff of legend.