FINALLY, I can say that I have finished writing my first ever book. It’s about Ireland and all my crazy adventures. It will take some time before it gets out into the world but will be out soon, but I feel accomplished, now I can say it’s all done. Although when writing the book, I quite often had to keep in mind this book was about travel, adventure, history and I couldn’t blabber on about whiskey as much as I wanted to. So I feel now is the perfect opportunity! Last summer I went on a series of cycles from Dublin to a distillery to discover new parts of Ireland and learn more about whiskey! My previous adventure took me north to Slane Distillery and east to Kilbeggan Distillery. This is the third of a series of blog posts about my adventures for whiskey.
The summer was starting to end, and I was in need of an adventure before the dark and rainy Irish winter days began. Bruno and I were all set for another cycle in the pursuit of whiskey. Our aim was to cycle around the Wicklow Mountains, taking in the beauty and finally reaching the Powerscourt Distillery. We woke earlier than we wanted, jumped on the Dart and admired the views as we sped down the Dublin coastline to Bray.
Bray is a beautiful little seaside town which was a perfect starting point for our adventure. It was great to hear the waves crash into the shore. We started our journey with high spirits and optimism as we sped off from Bray through Wicklow. I was wrapped up warm on a reasonably cold day, but the minute we took off, I realised I was overdressed, and after 10 minutes of sweating, I took off my gloves and hoodie, just to feel cold in my t-shirt 10 minutes later. The road had many ups and downs, and we were both knackered very early into the ride. Bruno took every opportunity he got to take photos of sheep as though he had never seen them before. This was an excellent excuse for me to stop as the hills were starting to take a toll, but we hadn’t seen anything yet. We approached a village called Enniskerry, a small fairytale-like village that seemed like it was located in a ditch. We cycled downhill to reach the village and then took a sharp incline back out. I had cycled through the town once before and was determined to challenge myself and not stop and walk to the top. I pushed hard, using up all my energy to get out of the village. I finally got to the top and then waited for Bruno, who was walking, so I may as well have walked up as well and saved my energy.
We reached our first rest point of the day, Glencree. Glencree is a valley in the Wicklow Mountains. Not much is here, but it has a fascinating history. The cafe we were sitting in used to be an old British Army Barracks. It was built in order to hunt down the United Irishmen guerrillas that were out in the Wicklow Mountains after the Irish Rebellion in 1798. It was used to house German prisoners of war during the First World War. Under Operation Shamrock the Irish Red Cross used to house German and Polish war orphans. Across the road from the barracks is a German War Cemetery. There are 134 graves here. Most are Luftwaffe, 28 are unknown, and 6 are World War I prisoners of war held by the British. 46 were German civilian detainees who were being shipped from Britain to Canada for internment when their ship SS Arandora was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Tory Island in 1940.
Once leaving Glencree, everything started to look incredible. The road took you through the Wicklow Mountains, giving you incredible views over the county and its wild countryside. The road was very mountainous, and we really struggled. After every incline, we both collapsed when we got to the top, out of breath and with no energy to continue. However, we had no choice; there was nothing but beauty. This beauty was the only motivation we had to push on. The road was built after the Irish rebellion of 1798. It was built by the British Army, looking to flush the rebels from the hills and is known still to this day as the military roads. The military road provides incredible views of Ireland’s most filmed scenery. Amongst the many beautiful sights is Lough Tay, also known as Guinness Lake. Not only does the Guinness family own Luggala Estate, which runs through part of Lough Tay, but the dark peaty water of the lake, combined with its oval shape and the frothy white sand (which was imported by the Guinness family), makes it appear as if you are overlooking a large pint of Guinness.
The hills were high, the roads were tough, we were knackered, and we were running out of time. Our plan was too ambitious, and we had the option to either push through and see everything but miss out on the whiskey distillery or to turn off and hopefully get there in time before the whiskey distillery closed. As you can imagine, we chose whiskey and turned off, not finishing the route we originally set out, skipping about 15 miles of the beautiful Wicklow scenery. We were disappointed but thought we could always come back another day! One of the sights we were upset about missing out on was Glendalough, a medieval monastic settlement. Glendalough was founded by St Kevin, a 6th-century hermit, and was considered a holy place, and was a holy place before Christianity arrived in Ireland. Glendalough’s “Monastic City” would have been impressive; those living there were considered “citizens of heaven,” and it was known as both a healing sanctuary and a learning centre. Monks would have written manuscripts as well as practised crafting, teaching and farming. Today Glendalough attracts visitors from all over the world where they get to view the ancient, round tower, churches and cathedrals and many beautiful views.
Glendalough doesn’t just boast its ancient history; it also has a distillery named after it. Not far from the Glendalough medieval monastic settlement is the Glendalough Distillery. The distilling began in 2016, and the first Single Pot Still 3-year-old whiskey was released in 2019. Today all Glendalough’s whiskeys are aged in a variety of casks ranging from traditional American ex-bourbon barrels to Oloroso sherry butts as well as unusual and rare Japanese Oak Mizunara barrels. The distillery also produces a range of gins and Poitín. Poitín (pronounced Poteen) traditionally has an alcohol content of 60% – 90% and goes back many centuries. It is very similar to whiskey but is not placed in a barrel, which gives it a see-through colour similar to that of Vodka. On Christmas Day 1661, a tax on alcohol was first introduced; the Irish avoided this tax by hiding their spirits in their cellars, and a lot of poitín was made and sold in secret. In 1790, there were over 200 licensed distilleries in Ireland, as well as an estimated 20,000 unlicensed distillers. People drank far too much Poitín at the time, enough to put them in alcohol-induced comas. The issue with that was it often lasted so long – days, at least – people thought the patient was dead. They used to accidentally bury the drunks alive. After finding scratch marks inside their coffins, they came up with what is renowned as the wake, which is when they wait a couple of days before burying the body, giving the dead a chance to wake up and rejoin the other mourners for a drink of Poitín. Poitín remained illegal in Ireland until 1997, but it still remains illegal in Northern Ireland. The legal Poitín, which can be found today in Ireland, is much smoother to drink at around 40%. However, if you look hard enough, it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone who produces some home-distilled Poitín.
With limited time, we pushed as hard as we could to get to the distillery on time. We started racing downhill, which made things easier, and even though we were both worn out, we were sure the whiskey would be worth it. Wicklow is amazing, and on the last stretch, there was one mountaintop that caught my eye more than any other: the Sugar Loaf Mountain. It dominated the skyline. The mountain stands apart as a volcano-looking mountain with a conical-shaped peak; it is stunning.
We finally arrived at the Powerscourt Estate and started to cycle through, looking for the distillery. The estate was huge, and it seemed like we were cycling for ages before we found the distillery. The Powerscourt Estate is a large country estate that is renowned for its house and landscaped garden of 19 hectares (47 acres). The house was originally a 13th-century castle which was altered during the 18th century by German architect Richard Cassels. A fire in 1974 destroyed the house, and it took £5 million and 23 years to renovate it back to its former glory. According to National Geographic, the Powerscourt Estate is the 3rd best estate in the world. Also on the estate is the Powerscourt Waterfall, which at 121 metres (397 ft) tall is the highest waterfall in Ireland. The Powerscourt Estate is a popular tourist attraction, and there is so much to do and see around the estate, including a Golf Club, a spa, a restaurant, a hotel, many walks and hikes, and of course, the reason for our visit, a whiskey distillery.
I didn’t know anything about the Powerscourt Distillery and had never tried any of their whiskey, so our tour surprised me. The distillery boasts three extravagant pot stills, a cafe, six separate tasting rooms, a screening room, adjoining maturation facilities and a gift shop, and has the capacity to produce an annual output of one million litres. The Powerscourt Distillery began distilling in 2018 with Noel Sweeney as the company’s master distiller. Noel Sweeney was inducted into the Whisky Hall of Fame in 2018 and has been credited as one of the driving forces behind the contemporary resurgence of Irish whiskey from his days at Cooley Distillery.
Critically, all the whiskey is sourced from Cooley that Noel Sweeney himself distilled during his time there. Because Irish Distillers has a whiskey brand called Powers, naming their spirit Powerscourt whiskey wasn’t a good option, so they named their whiskey Fercullen, which takes its name from the Irish name FeraCulann given to the ancient lands that surround the Powerscourt Estate. The logo is of Sugarloaf Mountain, a mountain that looked down on us during our cycling. Considering I hadn’t heard much about the distillery, I was blown away by the quality of the whiskey and will definitely be keeping an eye out for what the distillery will do next.
Very tired and a little merry, we both cycled a couple of miles to Bray, where we caught a ride on the Dart back to Dublin. Despite not completing the full route we wanted to, we felt satisfied and felt like we had achieved something. The question ‘What did you get up to on your day off?’ is always hard to explain. It’s hard to tell people about the ups and downs and the things we did over 6 hours that made our day so great without making it seem like we had a miserable time. Adventure always seems to put a little spring in my step for the rest of the week. Adventure with whiskey helps me forget the slumps of the previous weeks, and the thought of my next whiskey adventure helps me look forward to the future.
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