In The Untouchables, a journalist asks Prohibition enforcer Elliot Ness what he will do if the American government goes ahead with plans to repeal their anti-drink laws.
‘I think I’ll have a drink’ is his pithy reply.
Calais-born and Dublin raised Aeneas Coffey – the scourge of the distilling trade in Ireland – went one better when he retired from his post as enforcer of the British empire’s suffocating excise laws; he opened a distillery.
But Coffey, a tenacious tax collector who battled the clergy and risked life and limb to obtain the crown coin from distilleries while also smashing poitin stills across the country, was not planning on building an empire on whiskey. Rather he wanted to perfect his vision of a new form of distilling, one that was cheaper, faster, safer and purer than the current form – and his invention would almost destroy the 1,000-year-old Irish distilling trade.
To understand what Coffey did, you need to go back several centuries. Around 1AD, the Moors swept across Europe, bringing with them their technology and knowledge of alchemy. One invention was the alembic still, which used steam to strip essential oils from herbs and other materials. The origins of the term alchohol lie in these times – the word is derived from the Arabic word al-kuhl, which today is termed kohl, and is a very finely crushed up used in the east to darken eyelids. Note: This has nothing to do with the dark circles under your eyes after a night on the hooch.
As Muslims, it never crossed their minds to use this apparatus to purify liquor – but Irish monks who came across the stills, after the Moors were driven from mainland Europe, were not restricted by any such laws.
The monks, guardians of knowledge throughout the dark ages, brought the alembic still to Ireland, where it was refined until it became the iconic pot still, the fat-bellied swan-necked copper apparatus that gave Ireland it’s first and possibly greatest export – whiskey. It’s worth pointing out, for the sake of fairness, that the monks in Scotland appear to have been working on the same invention; and as a result, both countries created their respective variations on liquid gold at around the same time. In the 1500s Queen Elizabeth I was quite the fan of Irish whiskey, and kept a stock of it in her court. By the 1700s, Czar Peter The Great of Russia was quaffing it, and in 1755 Samuel Johnson had insisted the word whiskey be placed in his famous dictionary, and declared ‘the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavor.’
By the 19th Century whiskey ruled the world, and in the 1880s after a crop disease ruined France’s supply of cognac, we were producing the world’s number one drink.
But at this stage things were already starting to turn. First the Famine, the crippling taxation laws of the British empire imposed by anti-alcohol advocate Lloyd George, our own temperance movement led by Fr Mathew, the Great War, Prohibition, the Irish War Of Independence, the Civil War, the economic war with Britain, our biggest export market, and, into the Second World War, the rise of the great Scotch blends – the root of whose success was Coffey’s creation. But like the man himself, whose ancestors hailed from Barryroe in west Cork, the Coffey Still, as it became known, has its origins in the Rebel County.
It was actually an improvement of an invention by Sir Anthony Perrier, one of the Cork Hugenots, a distiller and merchant prince of note. He operated the Spring Lane distillery, one of many whiskey producing operations scattered across Cork city and county, but Perrier saw that the triple-pot-still method of distillation was costly, and tried to make it more efficient by using columns. His invention was not a success, but it inspired Scotsman Robert Stein to try and create his own version. He was not successful either, but a display he gave was witnessed by Aeneas Coffey and inspired him to build his own, just as Steve Jobs was inspired by the user interface at Xerox to create the Mackintosh.
Coffey had smashed enough illicit stills and surveyed hundreds of distilleries, so he knew how inefficient, expensive and dangerous the stills could be. He could instantly see Stein’s creation had massive implications, if only it worked. So when he retired from the excise office after 25 years of confrontation – including one incident in Donegal when he was stabbed twice in the thigh and received a fractured skull from an angry mob as he went about his duties – he opened the Dock Distillery on Grand Canal Street. After he had it perfected, he tried to sell his invention to local distillers. The big four distilleries in Dublin spurned his creation, seeing it as an affront to a thousand years of tradition.
Also, Coffey’s still produced alcohol so pure that they deemed it ‘silent spirit’ – as it had ‘no tongue with which to speak of whence it came’. It lacked the elements that gave new-make pot still spirit its distinct flavours, and many in the industry blackened its name, claiming that because Coffey’s end product was so pure there was no way of knowing what went into it – many claimed rotten potatoes and refuse were used. This, of course, was nonsense – but it did lead to the beginnings of the struggle within that held the Irish whiskey industry back while their canny neighbours charged ahead.
Always ones to spot a bargain, the Scots took to the Coffey still straight away; but they realized the alcohol produced was incredibly pure, so they blended their peaty pot still whisky with the ‘silent spirit’ – now known as grain whiskey – and so the great Scotch blends were born. The Irish distillers turned up their noses, and have been lagging behind every since. Scotch went from strength to strength.
During World War Two a cash-strapped Winston Churchill saw the potential tax haul from flogging scotch, and exported it to every country he could. Americans in Europe during the war made it their drink of choice, and drank it still when they went home, and so it became a cultural icon – a symbol of masculinity, maturity, with a worldly sophistication. Scotch had won the war, and whiskey was left in its dust. After World War Two, only seven Irish distilleries remained from approximately 160 in 1880.
As for Coffey, he was never hailed as a brilliant genius who revolutionized an industry, in fact he was nearly hated more as an inventor than he was as a still-smashing tax collector for the British empire. Disillusioned after being rejected by his own, he settled in Britain and faded into obscurity. Like Virgil’s Trojan hero, from whence his name came, he was left searching for a place to call home after the greatness of earlier days:
I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known
Above high air of heaven by my fame,
Carrying with me in my ships our gods
Of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.
His invention is still used across the drinks industry today, distilling alcohol for whiskey, scotch, gin and industrial purposes. As for the Irish whiskey industry, it finally embraced the still, and the blends that brought the Scots such success. The Irish industry is thriving now; perhaps this is tribute enough to the man who tried to save it and was shunned for his efforts.