Thursday, 4 May 2017

Powers Whiskey at the Irish Whiskey Academy

Towards the end of 2016 I was lucky enough to be invited to assist in judging a social media competition hosted by Powers Whiskey Northern Ireland. 

The "Whiskey Wisdom Distilled Challenge" focussed on bringing together bars from across Northern Ireland, through the power of social media, and have them complete a series of challenges that allowed them to showcase not only the Powers Whiskey brand, but also their own business.

The competition resulted in entries being posted on social media (mostly Twitter) and, through the creativity of the teams involved, we were treated to a range of entries that varied from bordering on the professional to the downright hilarious, and I mean that in a good way.

The competition tested the teams on their knowledge of the Powers brand and their ability to showcase Powers whiskey in a range of interesting scenarios and creative cocktails.

In the end, however, there could only be one winner and after a hard fought contest the team from The Bullitt Hotel, Belfast came out victorious.

The prize for the winning team was the chance to be treated to the full two day "Enthusiasts Package" at the exclusive Irish Whiskey Academy in Midleton Distillery, County Cork.

In a twist that I was not expecting, I too was to head down to the Irish Whiskey Academy to take part in the two day course with the winning team, not only as way of thanks for helping with the judging but to also take in the experience and bring it to you all through these words you are reading.

On 27th February I made my way to the National Bar, Belfast where I was to meet the winning team who would also become my fellow "Enthusiasts" for the days ahead.  The Bullitt team of Frankie, Alex and Conor were ready and waiting at The National and we were soon joined by Sarah from Dillon Bass and Joe Magowan, Powers very own Irish whiskey ambassador.

As we travelled the 250+ miles to Midleton Distillery we had plenty of time to get acquainted and discuss our thoughts on what lay ahead.  As I spoke with the Bullitt team it was clear that they each had a keen interest in finding out more about the Powers whiskey brand and the way in which it's whiskeys are created at the Midleton Distillery.

Some of the highlights mentioned, that the team were looking forward to, included the blending exercise and a visit to the Midleton archives.

The discussion continued and as a result of the conversation, and I expect a little excitement, the journey seemed to pass us by in no time and before we knew it we had arrived at our temporary home for the next two nights, the five star Castlemartyr Resort, County Cork.

I have to say though that staying in this exquisite hotel was not just a perk that came with this competition, as anyone who partakes in the "Enthusiasts Package" shall also get the chance to indulge in this fine retreat.

After a long, albeit enjoyable journey, we were swiftly checked into our rooms and allowed a short time to relax before dinner in the resort's Italian restaurant and, of course, a few Powers whiskey nightcaps.

The following morning we were up early, fed a fine breakfast and transferred the short distance to Midleton Distillery were we met our overall host for our visit Máire.  Once we were warmly welcomed we met our Academy host and tutor Ciarán O'Donovan.

Without any further ado we were off on our Irish Whiskey Academy experience which began with a comprehensive tour of the old distillery site.  As we walked around, taking in a sense of it's history, we were shown that the location of the Irish Whiskey Academy straddles the area between the old distillery and the current production area, as almost as if it is a "gateway between the old and new".

We continued onto to more modern buildings with a glimpse inside the ultra impressive micro distillery, where it seems that the team at Midleton are getting a chance to play at being Willy Wonka when it comes to producing whiskey. 

The micro distillery itself is made up of three beautiful stills and while no specific details were given away you certainly got a sense that the ethos is - if it can be done, then we are going to do it.

From here we were shown around an impressive display of the history of coopering and maturation, and you can really see how much it means to everyone at Midleton distillery to understand this precious whiskey resource and the effect it bestows upon the liquid over many years of maturation.  This led on perfectly to our next stop which was a small, but operational, warehouse containing 1000 casks of whiskey and, as with any whiskey warehouse, the smell was out of this world.

Before getting into the serious business of learning all about the Irish whiskey process we were introduced to Carol Quinn, the Midleton archivist, who, as I'm sure you can guess, showed us some treats from the Midleton archives.

This was were we got our first true specific insight into Powers whiskey, or should I say it's illustrious history.  I was amazed as Carol talked us through the Powers history, telling us stories of how it was once a brand revered the world over from anywhere from France to South Africa to India.

We also saw many photos and artefacts that highlighted exactly how exclusive this brand once was.

Everything was thought of to showcase this brand, from an enormous, 30ft tall, handmade wooden round tower, that was built in and around the late 1800's and was covered with bottles of Powers whiskey, to even the original Powers labels themselves that achieved their golden colour from ground down bronze, which was a very expensive process when this first began, also in the late 1800's.

When hearing the history of this iconic brand it is clear to see why those at Midleton want to keep it's name alive and, in turn, why it is now beginning to experience a renaissance as a brand that epitomises quality.

It was also a pleasure to hear the Bullitt team quiz Carol at length on anything that came to mind.  Coming from a background that would encompass all form of spirits you could tell that they were certainly impressed with the unique story that Powers whiskey had to tell.

From the archives we returned to the Irish Whiskey Academy itself and began our tuition at the hands of our learned teacher Ciaran.

Here we were taken, at great length, through every facet of the Irish whiskey making process.

To begin we looked at the raw materials used and how they are brought together in the brewing and fermentation process.  This included a chance to get back out on site and see for ourselves the huge storage areas where the grains are delivered to, along with a look inside the brewhouse and the "Barry Crockett" stillhouse.

Normally the "Barry Crockett" stillhouse would be off limits to any visitors but, as Midleton's newer "Garden" stillhouse was undergoing some work to install new stills, we were granted a one off opportunity. 

Here we got a chance to see Midleton distillation happening before our eyes and it's impressive to think that every bottle of Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, Midleton VR, and so on, that you see on every shelf around the world, all originated from this stillhouse. 

This is of course due to the fact that any spirit distilled in the "Garden" stillhouse will take time to mature into actual whiskey that is ready to be included in one of these brands.

From here we were back to the Academy for an in depth discussion into pot distillation along with a chance to taste some very unique liquids. 

From memory, I believe it was explained that the normal tasting, at this stage of the Academy, would be made up from standard components of what may be Jameson but our host Ciaran went a little further to try and secure some components of what would be used to create those whiskeys we would see with the Powers label upon them.

If ever there was chance to really see what brings Powers whiskey together then this was it.

For this tasting we were given a sample of the following:

New make Pot Still
New make Grain
10yo Pot Still distilled in 2006 and matured in a 1st fill bourbon cask
10yo Grain distilled in 2006 and matured in a 1st fill bourbon cask
10yo Pot Still distilled in 2006 and matured in a 1st fill sherry cask
8yo Pot Still distilled in 2008 and matured in a virgin oak cask

Not only did this give all involved a real insight into Powers whiskey but also how the different styles of whiskey and maturation can really change how the final bottle will turn out. 

As you can imagine, after that extensive tasting, we were treated to some much needed lunch before heading back to the classroom to learn about grain whiskey distillation and the maturation process, which covered all the (known) woods that are currently being used at the Midleton distillery.

With all the theory of Irish whiskey making covered it seemed about time to have some more samples and sure enough it was.  This time however we were heading downstairs to the tasting room to be taken through the Powers whiskey range itself.

This was now a chance to see how the components, that were tasted earlier, have been brought together to create the various styles of Powers that we now see in most bars.

For this tasting we had:

Powers "Gold Label"
Powers "12 year old"
Powers "Three Swallow"
Powers "Signature"
Powers "John's Lane"

For me, this was the first time I had ever had the chance to try the full range side by side and to say it was enjoyable would be an understatement.  Powers whiskey may have been overlooked for many a recent year but with this range of whiskeys behind them they can challenge any brand behind any bar.

Chatting to the team from Bullitt you could also see them developing a new found appreciation for the whiskey in front of them with each person having a very different and interesting view on the flavours they were finding within the spirit.

I dare say you may see a few new Powers cocktails coming very soon.

Now after the component tasting, and the Powers tasting, I'm sure you can guess what it was time for now....yes, that's right, more whiskey, only this time it wasn't in the classroom or in the opulent tasting room.

No, this time we were transported into the minor village that is made up by the Midleton warehouses and I'm not joking when I call it a minor village as there are around 45 warehouses on site storing a combined total of over 1.2 million casks of whiskey.

Yes, you heard that right.

For this final experience of day one we were taken into warehouse 39b and allowed to sample two whiskeys straight from the cask. 

For this tasting we were treated to:

Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1991 and matured in a 1st fill bourbon cask until 2005 when it was re-casked into another 1st fill bourbon cask
Pot Still whiskey distilled in 1998 and matured in a 1st fill sherry cask

Words can not express the excitement that is felt when, as a whiskey lover, you are allowed to remove and taste whiskey, straight from the cask, in the warehouse in which it has been maturing. 

I've experienced this on several different occasions and I can tell you it never gets old and all I can say is that if you ever get the chance to do this, anywhere in the world, jump at the opportunity.

I believe that, for the team from the Bullitt Hotel, this was a first for each of them and an experience they'll never forget.  This is a chance to taste Irish whiskey in it's purest form and they all certainly seemed to savour every last drop.

That concluded our first day at the Irish Whiskey Academy and it was time to head back to Castlemartyr for a couple of hours rest before the evening ahead.

As part of the "Enthusiasts Package" you are treated to a hosted evening in one of Cork's premium restaurants and that is what this evening had in store.  We were to be transferred to Ballymaloe House for what was to be a truly delicious dinner but not before an unexpected visit.

While waiting in the Castlemartyr bar we were joined by none other than Midleton's "Master Blender" Billy Leighton, who had taken time out of his own busy schedule to come along to say hello and have a quick chat with all involved, including the team from the Bullitt Hotel.

Following dinner we returned to Castlemartyr and as it was our last night we went about trying some of the more unusual whiskeys behind the bar which, in turn, led to some interesting purchases, or should I say some interesting methods of sale....those of you involved know what I mean.

After a slightly shorter nights sleep it was a true shame to have to leave The Castlemartyr Resort but there was unfinished business to attend to at the Academy.

We returned to our classroom to be thrown straight into our blending exercise, a module of the Academy that had been talked about from the moment we found out about it.

We were paired off and sent to our blending stations where we had three very different whiskeys at our disposal.  All necessary tools were provided and off we went creating the next Powers whiskey.

The whiskeys provided for blending were as follows:

12yo Pot Still matured in a 1st fill sherry cask
8yo Grain matured in a virgin oak cask
5yo Pot Still matured in a 2nd fill bourbon cask

For this exercise I was paired up with Frankie, from the Bullitt Hotel, and we set about creating two very different blends for sampling.

Naturally you got the chance to sample each component individually, but in the end we settled on a blend that was composed of 50% Grain, 30% Bourbon matured and 20% Sherry matured.

In honour of our time with Carol Quinn, in the Midleton archives, I named my blend "Round Tower", and you can expect it at a store near you very soon (I wish).

That more or less concluded our time at the Irish Whiskey Academy and as "Enthusiasts" we were presented with a certificate of the course we had completed, named "The Powers Academy", a bottle of Powers "John's Lane" and an exclusive Irish Whiskey Academy book.

There was, of course, one last treat in store for all involved as we were led the short walk from the Academy to the on site cooperage for a display from Midleton's fifth generation master cooper Ger Buckley and his apprentice Killian O'Mahony.

A display from Ger Buckley is without doubt an experience all in itself.  The skills that this man possesses take years to master, as does the knowledge needed to handle the historic tools at his disposal. 

But what was abundantly clear, from our demonstration, is that, in the hands of Killian O'Mahony, Midleton's barrels will be well looked after for years to come.

At this point we went back to the visitor centre to enjoy one last lunch, in the company of Ger and Killian, and afterwards we said our goodbyes to everyone, including our hosts Ciaran and Máire.

A quick look around the gift shop, where a few other bottles may have been purchased, and we were off on the long journey home. 

The journey home was without doubt a little more tiring than the trip down but again the conversation flowed about everything we had experienced over the previous 2 days at the Academy.

Thinking back over the whole trip what stood out for me was the aura that seems to surround Midleton distillery.

No matter where you are everyone seems to know everyone on a first name basis and you get a sense that, even though the whiskey is being produced on a large scale, this is still very much run like a family business.

This ties in perfectly with everything that was spoken about during our time with Carol Quinn and how Powers whiskey invested heavily in it's people which in turn created a sense of true pride towards the whiskey they were producing.

This, in my opinion, is exactly what makes the whiskey coming out of Midleton, and more specifically Powers, the quality that it is.  Each and every person, involved in the whiskey making process, has that pride in the job they do.

Thinking about this makes me feel very reassured to know that, as we see Irish whiskey growing at the rapid rate it is, Midleton distillery is there to serve as a guide, to other distilleries, on how to achieve everything they hope for.

Thinking now, more specifically, about Powers whiskey and I can honestly say that I have a far greater understanding of what makes this brand so great. 

It's history is almost unparalleled and we are now starting to see Midleton harness that rich history and turn it into a range of quality whiskeys that will soon have many people realising that this is a brand of whiskey that can sit amongst any in the world.

Lastly I would just like to touch upon what I feel this whole experience meant to Frankie, Alex and Conor from the Bullitt Hotel in Belfast.

I've no doubt that before this trip they were all well versed in most spirits, including whiskey, but as a result of this trip I also have no doubt that they now understand everything it takes to make great Irish whiskey.

They can now appreciate the time and effort it takes to bring everything together to make that bottle of Powers whiskey that they serve to customers.

They can now appreciate the delicate flavours that exist in each different bottle of Powers and how they could possibly develop those flavours into creating maybe a new delicious cocktail or just simply now having the knowledge to advise a customer that has maybe never tried a Powers whiskey before.

But, maybe most important of all, they can now also appreciate the history and pride that exists throughout the entire Powers range and this can, in turn, allow them to pass this knowledge on and, furthermore, allow the great story of Powers Irish Whiskey to be passed on for many more years to come.

Until next time,




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