By Chris Middleton

Destructive distillation

Investigating Scotland's alternative distillation past
One of whisky’s greatest inventions was Aeneas Coffey’s 1830 continuous column stills. This transformed the whisky industry with light grain whisky, also changing the brandy, rum and vodka industries with equally cheaper, higher proof and cleaner spirits.

Grain whisky still represents more than half of Scotland’s annual whisky production and, in America, nearly all Bourbon production is made on a continuous beer column still. Coffey’s fractional distillation plant provided the technical inspiration to launch Scotland’s shale oil industry. Before cheaper and cleaner shale oil existed, Britain’s illumination, heating and power came from other carbon-based energy sources, often dangerous, polluting and inefficient. In America, more than one-third of distilled grain spirit was for ‘burning fluids’, when mixed with turpentine-made Camphine. The City of Cincinnati in 1860 used more than seven million gallons of new-make whisky a year for illumination, which is 12,000 bushels of corn a day.

In 1850, an enterprising Scot named James Young patented an invention to extract bituminous oil from shale oil. More than 20 different petrochemical products were fractionally distilled, extracted and refined from shale. Notably, kerosene for heating and lighting without smoke and with little odour; Paraffin and blue oil for illumination. Young became the first oil baron producing petrochemicals at his oil works at Bathgate in West Lothian. The Scottish Lowlands enjoyed an abundance of shale oil and coal. Thirteen years after Young’s first patent, 120 oil works were operating in southern Scotland, employing 3,000 workers. The Scottish Railways purchased three million gallons a year to illuminate signals, stations and trains as shale oil was cleaner, safer, and odourless for lamp illuminations.

The Scots dominated destructive distillation in manufacturing equipment, technological inventiveness, process developments and a skilled workforce. Constant improvements were made to Young’s original batch distilling plant, such as using large vertical stills with auger-like screws to more efficiently permit continuous distillation. Advances in fractional distilling rendered a broader range of purer by-products. Within the decade Scotland was exporting plant and people.

America imported Young’s plant and in 1855 the first shale oil works opened in southern Kentucky. However, the discovery of liquid ‘rock oil’ at Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859 profoundly changed America’s energy consumption, especially as the demand for combustion engines grew. Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb would also eliminate the demand for illumination fluids. The Pennsylvanian oil pumped from drill wells was shipped in arrels for processing and end-use. America’s early whisky industry used the 42-gallon barrel as it was the most practical size. The oil industry copied this format, which is used as the global measurement for oil production.

The world’s richest coal seams and shale oil deposits lie around the Sydney basin. In 1873, the deep Joadja valley in the Southern Highlands, south of Sydney, became the locus of the Australian Kerosene Oil & Mineral Company. Almost everything came from Scotland – the stills, retorts, plant and machinery, along with four locomotives and hundreds of Scottish miners and oil distillers. Joadja became 'Little Scotland'. A local of the time said the Scots spoke ‘the language that is the broadest and sometimes almost incomprehensible' and were ‘the quaintest and their habits peculiar’. One of their habits was to distil illicit ‘blow-your-head-off’ whisky, as most homes had a still. The oil works closed in 1903 as American oil inundated world markets, and electrical generating plants brought incandescent illumination to cities.

Today, the bush is reclaiming the long benches of silent retort furnaces and their sentinel chimneys. In this beautiful ghost-town valley, populated with koalas, wombats, kangaroos and lyrebirds, the distilling tradition was recently revived. The small Joadja distillery produces batches of malt whisky using Scottish-modelled pot stills, malted barley and imported sherry casks. This time it’s constructive Scottish-inspired distillation.