John's Lane Distillery (John Power & Sons) - Dublin
1791 - 1974
The John’s Lane Distillery, founded in the year 1791 by James Power, an inn keeper from Dublin, was quite possibly the most beautiful, efficient and perfect distillery visited by Alfred Barnard in 1886 –maybe explaining why he devoted a full 6 pages in his book to it, more than for any other distillery in Ireland. This great power house of Irish distiling started life on a very small scale - it was a tiny distillery producing 6,000 gallons, situated behind James Powers’ public house, from where mail coaches heading west out of Dublin would begin their journey. It did not stay small for long, and expanded rapidly after the 1823 Excise Act, which changed the limitations and taxations previously imposed on distillers. James Power’s son, John, acquired a 500-gallon still and by 1833 they were producing 300,000 gallons a year. They did extensive rebuilding and expanded hugely in 1871 and when Alfred Barnard made his famous visit, output was at an impressive 900,000 gallons per year, slightly less than what the Jameson Distillery was producing.
The building was an ultra modern efficient complex, covering six-and-a-quarter acres of ground and offices, all the way from Thomas Street to the Quays by the river Liffey. There were open staircases throughout the five grain floors. These floors were beautifully clean and well ventilated and contained most of the time over 3,000 tonnes of grain. The kilns were 57 feet by 30 feet, with open groined roofs, lined with wood and stained oak, making them look like small English parish churches. The Mill room produced 1,500 barrels every twenty-four hours. The Still House was a noble looking building, containing five pot stills in 1886 and six by the turn of the century, the largest being the two Wash Stills, each holding 25,000 gallons. Powers produced triple distilled pot still whiskey, made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley, with a small proportion of wheat or oats added, as was the custom in Ireland at the time. This new spirit would be put into casks and into any of the 17 warehouses which could hold up to 12,000 casks at any one time. The Distillery also had splendid outlying bonded warehouses under Westland Row Railway Station and under the South City Markets, which brought the total warehousing capacity to 40,000 casks. Barnard was particularly impressed by the warehouses underneath the new City Markets, with brick arches, supported on rolled iron beams and perfectly ventilated by large windows, the temperature being carefully monitored in both summer and winter.
The Powers were noted breeders of shire horses and in the premises in Thomas Street there were large stables and even a “horse hospital” for any horses who fell ill. There were also engineering shops, sawmills, carpenters, coppersmiths and fitters and the distillery employed 275 men. Barnard noted interestingly that the water used in the Distillery was principally from the river Vartry and that some of the old fashioned customers sent two empty casks with their order – one to be filled with Powers’ whiskey, the other to be filled with water from the Vartry, in order to reduce their whiskey with same water as had been used in the making of the spirit.
The Distillery had its own fire department, manned day and night by a team of 8 men and the alarms were connected through the exchange to the city Fire Brigade. In case of fire, the water supply was destined to come from the Vartry, the Grand Canal and the Royal Canal and the distillery had its own stationary horizontal double-acting fire engine, capable of throwing 800 gallons of water per minute through eight lines of hose to a height of 150 feet.
In 1866, John Power & Son began bottling their own whiskey, which was unheard of before in Ireland, as it was usually sold in the cask. The gold label was entrusted on the bottle and it was from this that the whiskey got its name “Powers Gold Label”. As the distillery and the brand grew, so did the stature of the family - John Power first was made High Sheriff of Dublin, then knighted in 1841 - after which the firm traded as Sir John Powers & Son - and it was he who laid the foundation stone to the O’Connell Monument in Dublin in 1854. The last member of the family to serve on the Board was Sir Thomas Talbot Power who died in 1936. The Powers distillery was a founding member of the Irish Distillers Group and ownership of the company remained in the family until 1966. John's Lane Distillery installed a column still in 1961, which they used primarily for the production of gin and vodka, but which was also used to experiment with producing grain whiskey for blending. They were instrumental in persuading the Irish Distillers Group to move from focusing on pot still whiskeys to blended whiskeys. The distillery finally closed its doors in 1974 when the Irish Distillers Group decided to move all its production, including that of Powers Whiskey, to the Midleton Distillery, where Powers whiskey is still distilled today. Interestingly, the stillhouse in the new distillery in Midleton with its interconnecting pot stills and column stills was modelled mainly on that of John's Lane.
So what has become of the distillery itself? Most of it, unfortunately has been demolished, some of it even before the closure and the move to Midleton. In 1980 Ireland’s National College of Art and Design bought most of the site and the Counting House, a magnificent building on Thomas Street which was used as offices, Distiller's residence, still stands today. The Great Still House with its five pot stills that gleamed “like burnished gold” has unfortunately vanished, but three pot stills were spared and can still be seen today, outdoors, green with time and neglect. Part of the original Kiln building is still distinguishable from its circular shape and houses the College’s library upstairs. Two of the original five Engine Houses have survived, the most notable being Engine House No.5 with its beam engine of 250 horse power manufactured by Turnbull, Grant and Jack of Glasgow in 1886. The double faced clock, admired by Barnard, set in the wall of the Engine House can still be seen today. Only the smaller of the original two chimney stacks has survived (95ft), the taller stack which stood at 120ft having been demolished for safety and insurance reasons, shortly after the College acquired the site.
Fortunately, the vestiges of the John’s Lane Powers Distillery today are now protected structures, so they are likely to remain as a testament to this once great distillery. The College of Art and Design is not open to visitors as such, however, they are most amiable, and will accommodate anyone who wants to come in to see what is left of the distillery. If you are a big Powers whiskey fan, you may want to take this short pilgrimage to the spiritual home of your favourite whiskey, especially if you are visiting The Old Jameson Distillery, as the two are only about a 30 minute walk from each other. Call into reception at the college from the Thomas Street entrance, and explain that you would like to see the pot stills and old distillery. The Engine Room is not open for viewing, but you can wander at your ease in the grounds of the College where you can admire the stills, chimney stack and remaining architecture.
John’s Lane Distillery – Thomas Street, Dublin 8
Tel. +353 01 6364291 (National College of Art and Design reception)
If you have any information, photos or know of any old bottles from the Powers Distillery in John's Lane, we'd love to hear from you, so please don't hesitate to contact us.
The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard