Effective as the pot still was, whisky production required two or more distillations, making it inefficient and laborious. The distiller had either to have several stills available, an expensive proposition, or, after each cycle, empty out the contents and wash the chamber thoroughly before starting on the next stage. Attempts to improve the speed and efficiency of the distilling process began in earnest in the 19th century and this is where Dublin-born Aeneas Coffey enters our story.
For twenty-four years he had worked in the Customs and Excise in Dublin, retiring in 1824, and was responsible for collecting the excise from distillers and curtailing the activities of illicit stills. It could be dangerous work. Caught up in the “poitin wars” in November 1810, Coffey was set upon by a mob of around 50 men near Culdaff in Donegal, bayoneted and left for dead. A reward of £200 was offered for information leading to his attackers’ arrest and he was left with wounds from which he never recovered.
In a case of gamekeeper turned poacher, Coffey put the knowledge he had accumulated about the industry into practice, buying into Dublin’s Dodder Bank distillery and, from 1828, managing the South King Street distillery. Determined to improve the efficiency of the distilling process, he had, by 1830, developed a new still, consisting of two tall, interlinked copper and stainless-steel columns, known as the analyser and the rectifier, which sat side-by-side.
The analyser circulated steam and alcohol-laden wash through several tiers, as if several pot stills were stacked on top of each other. The wash transferred to the rectifier where it was condensed to a set strength, early versions producing solutions of 60% alcohol, more concentrated than those produced in pot stills. A considerable improvement on an earlier two-columned still developed by Robert Stein in 1826, it allowed for continuous production without the need to stop and start between batches.
Armed with a patent in 1831, Coffey found that the Irish distillers were fiercely loyal to their pot stills, deeming the spirit produced by his “continuous still” blander and smoother than the more robust spirits they were accustomed to. There was an odd metallic taste, too, probably from the iron piping the earlier stills used. Ironically, Coffey’s part in enforcing the liquor taxes had eliminated Ireland’s small-scale distillers, the natural market for his still.
Scotland, though, was a different story. The first distillery to install a Coffey still was Grange in Fife in 1834 and soon Inverkeithing and Bonnington (1835), and Cambus (1836) followed suit. Recognising the sales potential to rectifiers and gin distillers on mainland Britain, Coffey transferred his business, Aeneas Coffey & Sons, to Bow in London’s East End.
His son, Aeneas, tried his hand at distilling, establishing London’s first patent distillery, in Lewisham, but disaster struck. The Company Secretary presented the board with a large cheque to sign, ostensibly to pay the excise on a large batch of spirits. They duly obliged but with no payee on the cheque, he simply disappeared, never to be seen again, and the company went into bankruptcy.
The Coffeys went back to the business they knew well. Further modifications to the design followed, using copper piping and trays perforated with bubble caps. During the 1840s several Lowland distilleries adopted the Coffey still.
The “continuous still” was now producing spirit with proof of between 85 to 95% in considerably larger volumes than a medium sized pot still and with lower malting, heating and maintenance costs, the cost of producing grain spirit was less than half that of pot-stilled malt whisky. By the mid-19th century, traders began blending the products of several distilleries, typically mixing malt and grain spirits to create a lighter, less smoky spirit sold under their own labels. A cheaper product with a smoother, blander taste made it popular with markets that traditionally did not imbibe a dram.
The phylloxera bug, a parasitic insect, also played its part, destroying many a French vineyard. The shortage of wine, brandy, and cognac by the 1880s led to a boom in whisky sales, with forty new distilleries opening in Scotland over the next decade to meet demand.
Coffey’s only memorials are the impressive copper columns to be found in many a distillery around the world today. Even his business was sold shortly after his death in 1852, to John Dore & Co of Bow.
Next time you take a wee dram, raise a toast to the Irishman who transformed the Scotch whisky industry, Aeneas Coffey.