Copper Rivet Distillery has just released what is claimed to be “the first column single malt whisky ever released from any distillery in Britain”. Not so, says Ian Buxton. Here he takes takes a look at the long history of malt whisky made using a continuous still.
Dramatic news from Kent where Chatham’s Copper Rivet Distillery has announced the launch of its ‘Column Single Malt Whisky’.
Since opening in December 2017, Copper Rivet has been doing some interesting and noteworthy things. The team makes a tasty gin (OK, so a small distillery making gin isn’t the most interesting and noteworthy thing in the entire history of the world, but it is very tasty) and have gone on to release a fine English malt whisky, made using classic pot stills.
But this is something different and unique – single malt whisky distilled in a column still. In fact, they claim it’s “the first column single malt whisky ever released from any distillery in Britain”. This puppy comes courtesy of Copper Rivet’s Head Distiller Abhi Banik who joined them from Heriot-Watt University’s internationally renowned International Centre for Brewing and Distilling where he was teaching brewing and distilling on the post-graduate course.
You can see him here discussing the new product, from which it’s fair to conclude that, apart from wearing a pretty fetching tartan bunnet, he knows more than a little about making whisky.
But, as we shall see, they clearly don’t study much history on the course.
The SWA says no
Interesting though this is, it’s very far from Britain’s first column still single malt. In fact, were it not for an apparently arcane clause in the 2009 Scotch Whisky Regulations, we could be enjoying Loch Lomond Distillery’s Rhosdhu.
Back in 2007, Loch Lomond’s then production director John Peterson revived this name to describe the ‘single malt’ whisky he was making in the distillery’s column stills. And very agreeable it was, as I recall. The company’s argument was that the process was inherently more efficient than pot still distillation, saving as he claimed “more than 1,400 tonnes of CO2 being released every year” – as well as being something the industry had done in the past. They weren’t even arguing for inclusion in the single malt category but proposing a distinct and clear description for column-distilled single malt.
The SWA was having none of it, arguing that “the further category being floated does not reflect traditional Scotch whisky distillation and practice” according to then spokesman Campbell Evans.
However, he was wrong.
The history of column single malt whisky
In fact, the technique had been used ever since the invention of the column still c.1826 and when our old friend distillery hack Alfred Barnard visited Yoker Distillery in Glasgow in 1886 he saw ‘one of Stein’s patent stills for the manufacture of malt whisky, the same as that described hereafter at Cameron Bridge Distillery.’ At Glenmavis he witnessed the patent still installed in 1855 producing 2,000 gallons of malt whisky every 24 hours.
In 1913, in his magisterial survey of whisky production, J A Nettleton noted the production of patent-still all-malt whisky in “one or two distilleries” which he thought “may claim the title ‘whisky’ with the qualifying description” [patent i.e. continuous still]. Known then as ‘silent malt’ the practice certainly continued until the 1960s at the North of Scotland Distillery.
Just as pertinently, the unusual Lomond still wasn’t invented until 1955 and never widely adopted. But one large distiller still operated such equipment and so a place was found for it in the 2009 regulations.
But as regards traditional practice, the SWA is more flexible than an Olympic gymnast. The use of former Tequila and mezcal casks was never, ever Scotch whisky practice. However, as an industry trade body, the SWA argues for what the industry wants – and that generally means what the bigger firms want (they pay the bills after all and Loch Lomond wasn’t then even a member). Back in 2009 the industry’s paymasters didn’t want continuous still single malt and so a part of whisky’s history was conveniently airbrushed out of the records.
More recently, with trend-driven new consumers to attract alternative cask types seemed the way forward and, once again, commercial imperatives triumphed. Now a wide variety of hitherto-unknown barrels are used in finishing (itself a technique not widely seen until the 1982 launch of Balvenie Classic).
It’s not unusual
In recent years, column malts have been distilled outside Scotland. From Japan we have Nikka’s excellent Coffey Malt and there are other examples from world whisky.
Right, that’s enough history. My purpose is not to bury Copper Rivet but to praise them. This is a bold, exciting and innovative thing they’ve done and I hope it causes one or two folk in the hills and glens (or more probably, some urban corporate office blocks) to think hard about what opportunities Scotch whisky may be missing.
Copper Rivet’s PR person summed it up nicely, telling me “Copper Rivet’s viewpoint is that the Scotch Whisky regs have done enormously well for Scotland and for whisky in general; but that new whisky producers who are not bound by these regs can help add excitement and perhaps new flavours and new drinkers (who knows) to the whole whisky category”.
Amen to that: let’s welcome the buzz and intellectual and gastronomic excitement they’re adding by using a broader rule book for the 21st Century.