John Cashman, head of brand and new-product development for the Powerscourt Distillery, talks to Hospitality Ireland.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2023 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in October of 2023.
Tell us about your new launch.
We recently launched the third in our Fercullen Estate Series. This series of limited-release whiskeys was conceived as an homage to our home on the Powerscourt Estate.
Each release highlighted a landmark on the estate, the third being the Gates, linking the intricate craftmanship of the ornate gates on the estate with the traditional methods of whiskey-making.
This whiskey, a single malt, is a marriage of bourbon- and Amarone-matured whiskeys – some of the first whiskey distilled in Wicklow in over I00 years – symbolising our commitment to honouring our home and showcasing our craftsmanship.
Why is this the ‘final chapter’?
The Estate Series was conceived as a three-whiskey release. From the first release in the series – an Amarone- finished single grain, the Mill House, which paid homage to our spiritual home – to the complexity of the second – the Italian Gardens, winner of [the] World Whiskies Award [for] World’s Best Limited-Release Blend – this has been a remarkable journey that resonates with the craftmanship, heritage and provenance of our unique location on the Powerscourt Estate. This third and final release is a single malt, completing the series with the third style of whiskey we produce in Powerscourt
Talk us through the Estate Series.
Our first Estate Series was called the Mill House. The Mill House is the location in which we built the distillery – the oldest building on the estate. The Mill House release was a single-grain Irish whiskey finished in Italian Amarone red-wine casks. This imparted the whiskey with a beautiful red-fruit aroma and flavour that complemented the subtle-sweet nature of the grain whiskey.
The second release was the Italian Gardens. For this release, we continued the Amarone theme with a blended Irish whiskey. This was a blend of 20-year-old single-malt whiskey finished in Amarone casks and 11-year-old grain whiskey. Named after the magnificent Italian Garden at Powerscourt, this whiskey was named World’s Best Limited-Release Blend at the 2023 World Whiskies Awards in London.
For the final release, we chose single malt distilled in Powerscourt, some of which was fully matured in Amarone casks. We referenced the magnificent gates in the Powerscourt Gardens as the inspiration. This whiskey is some of the first single malt produced in County Wicklow in over 100 years. The entire series highlighted three distinct styles of Irish whiskey – single grain, blended, and single malt – allowing the consumer to experience different flavours and styles, representing the depth and diversity of the Irish whiskey category.
Why is this a good time for Irish whiskey?
Ireland is the home of whiskey – the place where whiskey found its name, the birthplace of whiskey-distilling, the country that has produced whiskey for longer than anywhere else. This is something we can be very proud of in Ireland
At present, Irish whiskey is the world’s fastest-growing spirit category, with global sales having increased by over 150% since 2010. Irish whiskey is also one of the hottest trends right now, when it comes to cocktails and mixology.
Looking to the future, Irish whiskey sales are going to continue to grow, with more and more consumers looking to try Irish whiskey and to try more premium expressions and offerings. This includes Ireland.
Sales of Irish whiskey in Ireland have grown every year over the past decade, while domestic sales of premium-and- above priced Irish whiskey have grown by over 400%. Before the pandemic, over one million people visited Irish whiskey distilleries annually, with the vast majority coming from overseas. We expect this figure to be exceeded as tourism recovers.
What has changed to make this so?
A number of factors. Firstly, younger drinkers are more open to trying different styles of beverages and naturally are attracted to sweeter drinks. Irish whiskey has a sweeter profile than, say, Scotch, so we are seeing a shift away from Scotch and more growth for Irish and bourbon.
Today, there are in excess of 40 distilleries on the island of Ireland. Greater choice is allowing the consumer to see and try more Irish whiskeys than would have happened 20 years ago, when there were only three operational distilleries.
Irish whiskey also lends itself very well to cocktails, and as cocktail culture grows, so does introduction to Irish whiskey
Tell us about the value of a distillery beyond the simple making of spirits, i.e. as a way to tell a story, attract visitors, etc.
A distillery becomes a focal point for your brand – a ‘brand home’, in the truest sense.
Across the island, Irish whiskey distilleries attracted over one million visitors in 2019, with 677,000 visitors in 2022 representing a strong post-Covid rebound. Irish whiskey tourism is delivering substantial multiplier gains for local economies, with visitors to Irish whiskey distilleries spending €63 million in local communities in 2019.
In Powerscourt, we are proud of our visitor experience, and this has been recognised – both by visitors through Tripadvisor and our peers – as we were named Visitor Centre of the Year by the World Whiskies Awards in 2022.
In Powerscourt, you can take a tour of the whole facility, including our on-site maturation warehouse, finishing with some samples of our whiskeys. We have also pioneered the concept of pairing whiskey with food and always have complimentary bites available in our Whiskey Lounge.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Wicklow born and bred – a native of Rathdrum – and have been working in the whiskey industry for over 25 years.
For a number of years, I was global brand ambassador, responsible for all Beam Suntory whiskeys – Scotch, Irish, American, Canadian and Japanese – across the world. Powerscourt gave me the opportunity to come home and focus my experience on an indigenous Wicklow product and bring that to the global market.
What are the changing trends in the industry – people’s expectations, new elements, etc.?
I think people are drinking less, but drinking better.
During Covid, some of my wife’s friends were looking for whiskey recommendations. They asked if I could suggest some good whiskeys that they would enjoy at home. When I asked for a budget – expecting €30 to €40, max – I was surprised that, generally, they were looking for €50+. This is seen across the world. People are moving away from the entry-level Irish whiskeys and spending a little more for more complex and interesting propositions.
The growth of Irish whiskey in cocktails shows no sign of slowing. For many, their first introduction to an Irish whiskey is in a well-made old fashioned, Tipperary [cocktail] or simple highball. Irish whiskey works exceptionally well in a wide range of cocktails, and some bars – like [the] Dead Rabbit in New York or the Shelbourne [Bar] in Cork – are pioneering this surge in interest.
What are the major challenges at the moment?
Without boring everyone, the cost of goods is the single-biggest challenge facing the industry today. From the cost of cereal to electricity, yeast, barrels, bottles, transport, etc., costs have increased across all sectors of the whiskey-making and distribution channels.
As the consumer sees more and more Irish whiskeys on sale, the challenge to a whiskey company is to stand out from the competition. A truly strong brand story, rooted in tangible assets and experience, is what is required. Our Estate Series references back to our home in Powerscourt, while our Fercullen Falls reflects the majesty of the Powerscourt Waterfall. However, brand and story can only get you noticed. Good whiskey gets you remembered.
What are the main opportunities?
The opportunities for Irish whiskey are almost boundless. Scotch whisky is a global leader and has opened many markets to the beauty of a good whiskey.
The opportunity for Irish [whiskey] is to educate that consumer on the differences in style and flavour, and how it appeals to a modern consumer.
Markets such as China, South America and Africa are seen as relative new markets for Irish [whiskey], with great interest in brown spirits
What do you do when you’re not working?
I have three children between the ages of eight and 14, so the majority of my spare time is [spent] bringing them to sports. I’m heavily involved in my local rugby club, Rathdrum RFC, both as a coach and administrator.
When not seen on a sports sideline, I can generally be found walking in Avondale or Glendalough, or at a live rock concert.
Any other plans on the horizon for the next year or so?
The past 18 months have been very busy for the distillery, with four major new whiskey launches, which will be the backbone of our offering for the next five years and beyond: Fercullen Falls, our blended offering, Fercullen Single Malt, Fercullen 15 [Year-Old Single-Grain Irish Whiskey] and the annually released Fercullen 21 [Year-Old] Single Malt.
I am looking at some special limited releases between now and the end of 2023, with a cask-strength single-malt offering in 2024.