As part of his series on whisky heroes, Ian Buxton looks at the life of a man who transformed whisky and made the world domination of blended Scotch possible, Aeneas Coffey, inventor of the first practical and efficient continuous still.

“I was attacked by about 50 men… they fractured my skull, left my whole body one mass of contusion and gave me two bayonet wounds, one of which completely perforated my thigh… and to this day I feel bad effects from them, which I never expect entirely to get rid of.”

Life wasn’t easy for Irish excise officers in the early part of the nineteenth century. They were collecting duty on behalf of the British crown and, perhaps understandably, their work was resented and, as in this case, very actively resisted.

Aeneas Coffey

Aeneas Coffey (1780 – 1852)

But this particular incident, which took place near Culdaff in Donegal in November 1810 would be long forgotten if the unfortunate victim, one Aeneas Coffey (1780 – 1852), had not gone on to enduring fame as an inventor who changed the course of the whisky industry forever. However, before moving on, it’s only fair to note that the excise officers frequently gave as good as they got, resulting in an exchange of angry correspondence in the pages of the then highly influential Edinburgh Review. In that Coffey, by then Inspector General of Excise for Ireland, was required to respond to the claims of abuse levelled by the Rev. Edward Chichester in his ‘Oppressions [and] Cruelties of Irish Revenue Officers’.

Whether it was the lasting effects of his injuries or perhaps he found the strain of defending his junior colleagues intolerable, we may only speculate but in 1824 Coffey resigned from the Government service and set up as a distiller, first at the Dodder Bank Distillery and subsequently at the Dock Distillery in Grand Canal Street, Dublin.

Developing continuous distillation

This allowed him to develop his earlier work on continuous distillation. But he was not the first to experiment with this technique – basic continuous stills had been developed by Sir Anthony Perrier, Jean-Baptiste Cellier-Blumenthal, the Dutch sugar trader Armand Savalle, Jean-Jacques Saint Marc of the Belmont Distillery in Vauxhall and others, most notably Robert Stein, proprietor, along with the Haig family, of the very large Kennetpans and Kilbagie distilleries in Clackmannanshire. Stein had applied for various patents and by May 1830 a still of his design was operating at Cameronbridge in Scotland (today, a major Diageo operation).

The Coffey design proved superior however, producing spirit at a greater purity and considerably reduced cost compared to other designs. It was markedly more efficient than the traditional pot stills then favoured by the Irish industry, which hitherto had dominated the whisky market.

JOhn Dore Coffey Still

Diagram of Coffey Still from John Dore & Co

How a Coffey still works

According to Richard Seale of the Foursquare rum distillery in Barbados, “the success of the Coffey still was really due to the evolution of the original design which had been little more than an improved Cellier-Blumenthal still. By 1840, the Coffey still would have copper piping, copper plates (trays) perforated with bubble caps and the still was split into two columns – analyzer (or stripping) column and the rectifying column. This separation of stripping and rectifying would be the foundation of nearly every spirit still in operation today. The use of perforated copper plates (trays) would be a marked improvement on the Stein continuous still which did not have contacting plates and the wash needed to be misted to ensure good liquid / vapour mixing. Even the Haig family would install a Coffey still.”

However, the greater purity of the spirit produced by Coffey’s design meant that it was rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Irish industry, who styled it ‘silent spirit’, considering that its blending with pot still spirit amounted to adulteration and a fraud on the public. Irish resistance to the continuous still was considerable, causing Coffey to relocate his business to London by 1839.

Move to London

Scotch whisky distillers and London gin producers had proved more receptive to the continuous still and his business, by then styled Aeneas Coffey & Sons, grew following the initial sale to William Young & Co’s Grange distillery in Burntisland (Fife) in 1834, followed by installations at Inverkeithing, Bonnington and Cambus. Though the Burntisland distillery closed in 1927 it was a substantial concern – commentator Alfred Barnard noting in the 1880s that the distillery was producing 650,000 gallons (nearly 3m litres) of whisky annually. By 1876, seventeen newly installed Coffey stills would be making whisky in Scotland.

Such scale demonstrates the impact on the Irish distillers who stubbornly continued with pot still distillation: one factor among many which led to the rapid decline of that industry in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Scots, meanwhile, enthusiastically adopted blending where the grain whisky produced by the Coffey still proved ideal for increasingly popular brands such as Walkers, Haig, Dewar’s, Pattison’s and many others lost in the mists of time.

Aeneas Coffey

Poster advertising Burntisland distillery (photo credit: Ian Buxton)

Not just whisky

Rum distillers were also enthusiastic adopters of the Coffey still in Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, St Vincent, St Lucia and Grenada. Some of the original designs remain in operation to this day, most notably the ‘Enmore’ still at Demerara Distillers Diamond complex in Guyana.

Coffey had transferred control of the business to his son Aeneas Jnr around 1839 and, following his father’s death, the company was sold to their long time foreman John Dore. His company, John Dore & Co Ltd, continues in operation to this day in Guildford, supplying distillery plant and engineering services.

Aeneas Coffey – it is not clear if the senior or his son – was honoured by the medal ‘For Excellence’ awarded following participation in 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, London. Our hero died on 26 November 1852 and is buried in Tower Hamlets.

Today he is remembered by a grateful industry and in Nikka’s Coffey Grain whisky. Perhaps think of this pioneering whisky hero next time you raise a glass of that particular dram or indeed any blended whisky.