By Carol Quinn
For the past five years I’ve been delving into the history of John Power & Son, learning more about this fascinating company and the incredible whiskey they produced. Last week in Midleton, history came to life for me when I welcomed members of the O’Reilly family, the children of the late Frank O’Reilly, and their families to the Irish Whiskey Archive in the Master Distiller’s Cottage.
Frank O’Reilly was truly a giant in the Irish whiskey world, a gentle giant who was both modest and self-effacing. Although there were many people who helped bring about the formation of Irish Distillers in 1966, Frank is the man who spearheaded the merger of John Power & Son, John Jameson & Son and the Cork Distilleries Company. If there was one moment that saved the Irish whiskey category from extinction this was it. The success of Irish Distillers’ flagship brand Jameson has opened doors all over the world for a resurgence of interest in Irish whiskey and has paved the way for the renaissance we are all now seeing and savouring.
Frank was a direct descendant of James Power, the man who founded John Power & Son (later named after the founder’s son and grandson), and joined the family firm aged 20 after graduating from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in Engineering. In 1955, he became Chairman and continued in that role until Irish Distillers was formed in 1966, becoming Powers’ last Chairman, but Irish Distillers’ first. It’s a mark of his dedication to the Irish whiskey category that he was able to allow Jameson to become the rising star internationally, while allowing his family’s whiskey Powers, take a back seat.
Powers was traditionally Ireland’s best-selling whiskey, but I was amazed to discover in the archive what a truly international brand it was. We have records of sales all across the globe from Chicago to Mauritius, the Far East and Egypt. Wherever connoisseurs sought out high quality drinks, you found Powers. However, not everything is written down and that’s why I was especially delighted to meet with the O’Reilly family and hear their memories of visiting John’s Lane with their father and the anecdotes he had told them about the history of Powers. Two of his daughters were wearing very special pieces of jewellery passed down through the family, brooches in the style of the iconic ‘Three Swallow’ emblem, an age statement that adorned countless bottles of Powers over the years.