This week we’re toasting Monday with a single pot still whiskey from one of the great names in Irish whiskey, John Power & Sons.
In the days when there were only two distilleries in Ireland, Bushmills and Midleton, it used to be said that while Jameson was what they drank in Britain and America, the Irish kept the good stuff for themselves, Powers Gold Label. And even now with the range of Irish whiskey available expanding daily, it’s still an essential bottle.
The Powers story begins in 1791 with the establishment by James Power of a distillery in Thomas Street, Dublin. In 1822 the business, now called John Power & Sons, moved round the corner to John’s Lane. The city, as we have covered on the MoM blog before, was the world powerhouse (if you’ll excuse the pun) of whiskey at a time when commercial distilling in Scotland was still in its infancy. Demand was such that the distillery kept on expanding from 160,000 gallons produced in 1827 to 900,000 gallons by the 1880s. The site was so vast that it covered over six acres of the city and employed 300 people.
The style of whiskey made was what became known as single pot still, pot-distilled (probably twice rather than three times as is the norm now) from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley, and other cereals such as oats. This was originally a wheeze to get around the tax on malted barley and accidently created one of the world’s great whiskey styles. You can see the sort of monumentally large stills that were used at the time at the old Midleton Distillery near Cork, which is home to a vast non-working 19th century still.
Traditionally, Irish distillers didn’t bottle their own whiskey. Instead they sold it to merchants, who would mature it under bond (ie. without having to pay duty) and bottle it under their own names. Brands like Green Spot, which was created by Dublin wine merchant Mitchell’s, has its origins in this time. But John Power and Sons were different. In 1886 the company began bottling its own whiskey with a gold label, hence the origins of the Power’s Gold label.
Following the decline of Irish whiskey, the big firms, John Jameson & Sons, Powers, and Cork Distillers Company amalgamated to form Irish Distillers and moved to a purpose-built new distillery at Midleton. Powers Gold Label was reformulated as a blended whiskey, though still with a high ratio of pot to column still in the mix. It was thought that part of the Irish whiskey’s problem was that it had too much character for the uninitiated and couldn’t compete with easy-going Scotch whisky blends like Cutty Sark and J&B especially in the all important American market.
For a long time the only single pot still whisky on the market was Green Spot which was made in very small quantities. Writing in the 2010 edition of his book 101 Whiskies to Try Before you Die, Ian Buxton described it as “the coelacanth of whisky – a dogged survivor of a virtually extinct race of giants.”
The revival began with the launch of Redbreast in the 1990s by Irish distillers and then in 2011 with Powers John’s Lane, the first all pot still Powers since the 1970s. There’s some lively debate going on in Irish whiskey at the moment about the term ‘single pot still’. Up until the 1950s, mash bills were made up of malted and unmalted barley and around 20% oats and wheat but by the 1960s non-barley cereals had fallen out of use. When the current rules were formulated in 2014, the only company making the style was Irish Distillers using just malted and unmalted barley so the rules only allowed for 5% other cereals.
The Midleton distillery makes a variety of different weights of triple-distilled pot still spirits to go into its single pot still whiskeys like Redbreast or Green Spot, or blended with column still distillates for bestsellers like Jameson. Master distiller Kevin O’ Gorman wouldn’t go into specifics about how the different whiskeys were made but would say that Redbreast has a “completely different flavour profile to the Powers range thanks to the selection of a range of specific distillate styles and to the maturation techniques.” At the top of the Powers tree is the fabulous 12 year old John’s Lane, a premium product with a premium price tag and worth every penny. Three Swallow is younger, there’s no age statement, has less sherry cask influence, and offers that pure pot still magic at a price that’s only a bit more expensive than Gold Label. If you like Irish whiskey, your cupboard should not be without a bottle.
Tasting note from The Chaps at Master of Malt:
Nose: Cinnamon and warming nutmeg, maple syrup, banana fritters and dried oak.
Palate: Roasted almonds, crunchy brown sugar, melted butter and a hint of toasted marshmallow.
Finish: Whispers of malt loaf and aromatic spices.
Powers Three Swallow is available now from Master of Malt.