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Cork's patent still's THE UNTOLD STORY (PART1) You may not recognise the term “Patent Still”. This technology is far more recognisable when referred to as a Column still, Coffey still or Continuous still. Utilizing industrial revolution era technology, when inventors had to “patent” their designs, continuous stills produce Grain whiskey, one of the many types of whiskey manufactured today. Even though it has been produced in Ireland since at least the 1820s, Patent or Grain whiskey is quite modern in comparison to traditional copper pot derived Pot Still or Malt whiskey, which was produced for hundreds of years in advance of the newer technology. Yet in Ireland it took until 1975 before the old “Patent still”, or “Patent whiskey”, terminology finally gave way to the new. The Irish distilling industry had seen monumental changes over the previous decade. First, there was the 1966 amalgamation of Cork Distilleries Company, John Jameson & Son and John Power & Son, then the almost shocking realisation and acceptance that blended whiskey and distillery only bottling was the only logical way forward, and finally the reluctant closure of the famous Georgian-era distilleries, Bow Street & John’s Lane in Dublinand old Midleton in Cork. In 1975 the Irish distilling industry was concentrated into a new facility at Midleton that housed a modern Grain distillery and a new Pot distillery designed to replicate, yet enhance, the traditional practices of old. The pervading culture of Irish Distillers, the eventual name of the amalgamated group, was to embrace, where possible, contemporary terminology, cutting-edge technology, the latest scientific methods and international consumer-centric product development. As such, the five newly-installed continuous stills in Midleton were now known as the Grain columns. The Irish distilling industry had taken approximately 140 years to fully embrace the benefits of continuous distillation. The big players had always clung to the idea that world demand would once again swing back to the unctuous Irish Pot Still whiskeys that had been so prized by the upper echelons of polite Victorian society. Patent whiskey was, to them, a “sham whiskey”, a “silent spirit”, a debased product of questionable terroir.   Coffey vs Stein The most successful continuous still, the still that has been in use throughout the world, was patented in 1830 by Irishman Aeneas Coffey. I regularly come across claims in whiskey literature that continuous distillation was invented in Scotland by Robert Stein in 1828, that Aeneas Coffey’s patent was but a minor alteration to that design and that Stein’s was the first commercially successful continuous still. Continuous distillation, or more correctly distillation by one operation, was in fact, born of French efforts to manufacture brandy in a more efficient manner. These early French inventions were perfectly suitable to wine distillation but were found to be deficient in processing the residual solids of grain whiskey mashes. It seems that Stein patented more than one distilling apparatus. His first 1828 patent was not of vertical columnar design but rather a series of interconnected pots that, seemingly based on the principals of Irish chemist Peter Woulfe, achieved improved fuel efficiency in distillation. His later design, which looked nothing like the traditional pot still, came about in December of 1828. The still was complicated to operate, had no means to siphon off pungent fusel oils, utilised piston strokes to vapourise the wash and create its movement through the device and employed hair cloth, within horizontal air chambers, as a coarse filtration medium. The still had to be stopped frequently for cleaning purposes and the spirit was not highly rectified. The spirit must surely have been of poor quality in comparison to the later technology. As can be determined by comparing the patent images and operational requirements, Stein’s still is nothing like Coffey’s. It is fair to say that exports are a real marker of the commercial success of any technology. I could find no record of the use of a Stein still outside of Scotland and only four records of Stein stills within Scotland; Kirkliston (1828), Cameron Bridge (1830), Yoker (1845) and Glenochil (1846). Yoker had two large Coffey stills to produce their grain whiskey and a Stein patent still to produce their malt whiskey. Perhaps the distillers at Yoker installed the earlier Stein patent, with four pots, which would better suit the production of a more fully flavoured malt whisky. Aeneas Coffey, a one-time Irish excise officer of high standing, more than likely combed all contemporary engineering patents, perhaps including that of Stein, yet seems to have based much of his design on those of Corkman Sir Anthony Perrier and Frenchmen; Fournier, Cellier Blumenthal and Saint-Marc. Due to the inefficiencies of reciprocating piston steam engines, that provided low pressure/temperature steam, it took decades for his technology to take a firm grip of the industry. Technological advancements, notably steam regulators around 1852, allied to the 1840’s repeal of the Corn Laws, resulting in cheaper grain, meant improved efficiencies and significantly lower operating costs for Patent still distillers. Tellingly, Coffey’s still was installed, and successfully operated, in Ireland, Scotland, and England and was equally successful in the Colonies and throughout the world.   The rise of the Scotch blenders In the 1870s, Irish Pot Still whiskey, particularly Dublin Pot Still, as measured against comparable Scotch Malt, sold at a hefty premium of between 20 to 25%. One reason that the mighty Distillers Company Limited (DCL), of Scotland, set up the Phoenix Park distillery in 1878, was so that they could blend large stocks of inexpensive Scottish Patent whisky with a few gallons of actual Dublin Pot Still whiskey from Phoenix Park. The resulting blends were shipped from the island, labelled as Irish whiskey with genuine Dublin port certificates, to achieve significant price premiums in English and Empire markets. As the years went by, however, the Scots became more confident in their own malts. By mixing large proportions of lightly flavoured Lowland Patent whiskies with the meatier Highland malts, Scottish blenders could finally product consistent, yet relatively inexpensive, Scotch whisky brands. Capitalising on the ever-growing popularity of Scottish culture in Victorian society, and improving legal protection for brands, they found themselves in a position to use larger profit margins to bottle and aggressively market competitively priced Scottish whiskies to a more receptive English consumer. The cost-of-production became increasingly important as excise duties rose steadily throughout the early years of the 20th century and especially during the First World War when Prime Minister, and teetotaller, Lloyd George campaigned against the drinks industry for, in his opinion, hampering the war effort. Six Scottish Lowland grain distillers amalgamated in 1877 to form DCL, a powerful trade cartel that sought to control and dictate (through amalgamation, trade associations and other means), the market price for patent spirit, pot spirit, industrial alcohol and yeast. Until the introduction of the Danish yeast process in 1925, allowing the production of yeast alone, patent spirits and yeast were effectively joint products. Shrewd management, during the good times of the late nineteenth century, placed DCL in a strong financial position to buy up, at knock-down prices, the distressed assets of struggling whiskey firms. The unwavering determination of the majority of Irish distilleries to persevere with traditional copper Pots, and sale by the cask to independent bonders, were one of the key factors in the collapse of the once-dominant Irish distilling industry. Irish Pot Still whiskey, and indeed Irish whiskey in general, was, within a few decades, to become the poor relation.   The end of an era As Patent Stills rapidly increased their market share, the second Golden Age of Irish Pot Still whiskey, the first was the 1820s-1830s was truly dead and buried. Pot still production of 23 Irish distilleries fell from 6.079 million proof gallons in 1890, the same year that Patent Still output in Ireland finally overtook that of Pot Stills, to 4.136 million proof gallons in 1900. Phoenix Park distillery, DCL’s Pot Still concern was mothballed in 1892 for seven years due to the unprofitability of the Irish trade. In 1899, in a sign of changing times, it was converted to a Patent Still distillery. At the dawn of the 20th century, seven Irish Patent still distilleries accounted for 72% of national spirit output: Phoenix Park Distillery, Dublin (DCL) Midleton Distillery (Cork Distilleries Co) Dundalk Distillery (Malcolm Brown &Co) The Royal Irish Distilleries, Belfast (Dunville’s) The Irish Distillery, Belfast (Connswater) Avoniel Distillery, Belfast (William Higgins, Belfast) Abbey Street Distillery, Derry (David Watt &Co)   By 1919, Patent Stills produced 81% of the national still output of Ireland. Ominously, however, the fall in Pot Still consumption was not confined to struggling exports but was largely as a result of a collapsing home market, whilst a significant portion of the Irish Patent spirit was never destined to be labelled and sold as Irish whiskey at all. Instead, it was increasingly sold as the bulk grain for booming Scotch blends, for a variety of industrial purposes and to be re-rectified as the base spirit for English gin. Connswater distillery, for example, had two Coffey stills, a series of pots and an annual capacity of two million gallons. Their biggest customer, however, was Tanqueray Gordon, to whom it supplied grain spirit for gin-making. After a disastrous
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