History

The forge of modern whisky

In part two of our voyage through whisky history, we reach the moments when whisky as we know it is formed
By Chris Middleton
Girvan grain distillery
Girvan grain distillery
An extraordinary and transformational period in the history of whisky distillation blossomed between 1785 and 1840. During this golden half-century of invention and innovation, all major characteristics that distinguish the modern whisky industry took place. Other revolutions were happening across the whiskyscape, directly impacting on whisky distillation. The fields of agriculture witnessed new farming practices, including mechanisation to grain hybridisation. As production costs began to tumble and output volumes soared, it made whisky increasingly affordable.

In 1750 a distiller averaged between one to one and a half gallons; by 1790, two gallons, 1800, three gallons and the 1820s three to four gallons. Improved grain varieties, better strains of yeast and advances in extraction technologies produced a more wholesome spirit for distilleries to put into cask. Government excise and regulations began to pave the way to encourage the ageing of whisky, from months to years. Mass packaging using glass moulds and lithographically printed labels signalled the advent of brand marketing and consumerism: all these and more contrivances occurred during this heroic whisky era.

The 1780s was when distilling apparatuses began incubating and engineering remarkable advances in Britain, France and America. The next 40 years saw inventors bringing various iterations to equipment. These incremental ideas, modifications and patents quickly disseminated to the distilling centres, generating localising adaptions. Each country’s fermentation and distillation methods were influenced by its raw materials, creating variations in equipment design, functionality and usage subject to whether it manufactured spirits distilled from grapes, grains, sugarcane, potatoes or sugar beets.

The gamechanger was steam power. Starting in 1772, Irishman Christopher Colles constructed a Newcomen engine to pump water at a Philadelphia distillery. In Britain, John Cooke’s London malt distillery installed a Boulton steam engine in April 1776 and in Scotland, John Stein’s Kennetpans Distillery used Watt’s steam power to grind grain in 1787. The zero date for distillation by steam was July 1785 when the first patent for steam distillation was granted in Britain –awarded to Benjamin Thompson (aka Count Rumford), an American pro-royalist who immigrated to Britain a decade earlier.

In 1802, the London coppersmith Charles Wyatt added heated tubes into the base of the still presaging the development of steam coils.
Sometimes the application of new inventions proved slow for adoption. Steam coils were not adopted in Scotland until 1887 when the Glenmorangie Distillery installed a set of gin stills from a Chelsea distillery.

In the backwoods, farmers used log stills in the late 18th century. Hollowed tree trunks were made into two chambers, then hooped to hold together with copper pipes


The greater efficiency of patent steam distillation met opposition from the Board of Excise. During the next two decades, British authorities rejected patent stills as they did not conform to the measurement standards of traditional pot stills. Many inventors such as Irish distillers, George Birch of Birchgrove Distillery at Roscrea, Joseph Shee of Green Distillery at Cork and Anthony Perrier of Spring Lane near Cork confronted similar resistance to their early versions of continuous distillation.

From 1827, Aeneas Coffey at his Dock Distillery in Dublin and Robert Stein at Kirkliston Distillery Scotland (and also at Atlee’s Wandsworth Distillery) lobbied for trials to enact new standards for their new continuous steam-heated distillation methods. The political and military upheavals in France during this period produced a fever of inventions to encourage the beet and brandy spirits industries. 1801 Edouard Adams adapted Guisippi Saluzzo’s and Glauber’s Woulfe bottle retorts into a series of ‘eggs’ to conduct semi-continuous distillation into scalable production. The number of eggs determined the finished proof. Laurent Solimani developed a horizontal column still, and Michele Baglioni developed a stripping column on a pot still in 1813. Jean-Baptiste Cellier-Blumenthal built the first vertical still with a fractionating column in 1808, patenting the design in 1813; also inventing bells or bubble caps mounted onto plates inside the vertical column. Jean–Baptiste Fournier, adding a second continuous column.

Renowned still engineers Armand Savalle and Louise-Charles Derosne later made further improvements. Whether distilling wine, grain, potato or molasses, ideas and people were cross-fertilising with improvements throughout Western Europe. London distilleries incorporated ideas from Cellier-Blumenthal with Joseph Corty’s compound still, or the German Johannes Pistorius double still for rye and thick mashes producing alcohol at 85% ABV in a single operation. Frenchman Jean-Jacque Saint-Marc moved to London in 1823 and installed his continuous patent still at the Nicholson Distillery, later forming a company with William Fellowes at the Belmont Distillery. His rectified spirit was deemed ‘too pure’ by the official gaugers.

In Scotland, the 1787 Amended Wash Act with the Licensing System inspired Lowland distillers to construct shallow or flat stills for rapid distillation. As the government raised duties on the cubic gallon capacity on the stills, distilleries kept a step ahead by improving the engineering to increase volumetric outputs. One distillery reached 480 charges every 24 hours. Rapid distillation using shallow stills was briefly adopted in the US where 217 of Michael Krafft’s American design were in use by 1804. Like Scotland, they proved unpopular as the spirts varied from noxious to unwholesome. Flat still formats dominated Scottish inventions for two decades. Small alembic pot stills remained common to the Highlands. In England, France, and Scotland, the wooden still was briefly trialled. William Shand’s experiments with a wooden still at the Fettercairn Distillery in the late 1820s prevented the wash from scolding and increased the spirit’s alcoholic strength; however, these stills proved grossly inefficient after Coffey and Stein’s superior continuous copper stills appeared in the 1830s.

American distillers were quick to embrace steam power. The wooden steam still became a uniquely American invention. In the backwoods, farmers used log stills in the late 18th century. Hollowed tree trunks were made into two chambers, then hooped to hold together with copper pipes inserted into a simple beer well where a boiler or heated rocks vapourised the mash.

Design modifications and auxiliary components led to various patents using logs, hogshead casks, tubs and specially fabricated wooden vessels designed to accommodate increased in steam pressure. American distillers also mashed different grains, dominated by local Indian corn and rye, whereas British distillers mainly used wort from barley and oats. The denser viscosity of these American grain mashes had a profound effect on distilling processes and equipment design in North America.

Corn and rye required special cooking and mashing as they produce thicker and stickier washes. Steam distillation was better suited for this type of mash. Surprisingly, the first distiller to obtain a ‘fourteen-year exclusive privilege to distil and brew in wooden vessels’ was George Fletcher in 1652 from the General Assembly of Virginia.

140 years later, the first two American patents for wooden still steam distillation was granted in January 1791 to Aaron Putnam of Medford and in August to Nathan Read of Salem, both rum distillers in Massachusetts. The first patent for improvements in steam distillation using a grain mash was granted to Alexander Anderson of Philadelphia, September 1794.

The superiority of Coffey’s design superseded Stein’s less efficient and more complicated spray method. Coffey’s twin continuous columns, analyser and rectifier stills, allowed twenty-four hour, seven days a week continuous production.


He claimed to have been experimenting with steam and wood stills since 1790. Anderson linked two stills to a single steam source. It was during this decade the doubler or thumper was incorporated into American plant design. All these early still plans employed interconnected stills or separate chambers; first, with a double chamber, with manufacture quickly evolving to triple compartments, allowing distillation to take place in a single vertical process.

In Kentucky, John Cockney working at Bourbon Furnaces began fitting wooden tops on cast iron kettles in 1797. As Coffey later discovered in Britain when he tested cast-iron frames, the iron oxide corrupted the spirit with plumbago making it undrinkable. The two most popular patent stills were by Pennsylvanians, Alexander Anderson and Henry Witmer, while Samuel Brown and Edward West of Lexington were the popular designs in Kentucky.

Of the remaining 38,880 stills these were traditional pots of ‘common design conformity’; of which three-quarters were under 100 gallons. The European developments and America modifications in column distillation post-Civil War lead to the modern copper column beer still. While common pots stills were better for making spirit due to the constant copper contact, patent stills had other benefits, making them popular until Prohibition.

They did not burn the wash or choke the worm needing constant attention which meant less labour, fewer repairs, less frequency of charge turnover and cut fuel costs by a third. The lesser spirit from wooden stills required remediation by rectification using charcoal filtration or extra distillation. By the 1820s Canadian distilleries also installed wooden chambered steam stills for their mashes of rye, wheat and barley,
The most significant equipment advance since the batch alembic was continuous column distillation by Aeneas Coffey in Ireland and Robert Stein in Scotland. The superiority of Coffey’s design superseded Stein’s less efficient and more complicated spray method. Coffey’s twin continuous columns, analyser and rectifier stills, allowed twenty-four hour, seven days a week continuous production.

By 1840, Coffey’ stills produced more than 10 times the daily output of a large pot distillery. It made huge savings in fuel, maintenance, cleaning and a minimal amount of expense using a high proportion of unmalted cereals, with much less labour. The cost per gallon was 70 per cent less than batch malt production, with a proof strength over 94% ABV. These clean, grain spirits would also transform the Scottish, Irish, American and Canadian whisky industries as consumers embraced easy-drinking, lighter tasting blended whiskies.

By 1840, the key components in all the fields of whisky production, from field to consumption, were in place for the modern age of whisky to flourish.


By 1850, 50 per cent of Irish and Scottish whisky was grain or silent spirit. In the US after the Civil War rectifiers and combines dominated the North American market.

With increasing output volumes, large distilleries needed a scale of production from mills, fermenters and condensers. Christian Weisel’s Liebig condensers converted into zig-zag and more efficient configurations for rapid distillation in Scotland. In 1825, William Grimble of London invented the shell and tube condenser, which slowly replaced traditional worm tubs in most distilleries. Instruments to more accurately measure production processes saw the Sikes hydrometer replace Clarke’s in 1816, with Bates saccharometer adopted a year earlier.

In the US, the Government adopted Dicas hydrometer in 1791. Cereal breeders began selecting new generations of superior varieties. John Chevalier bred the first modern malting barley in Suffolk to meliorate brewing from the 1830s. In America, John Lorain cross-bred Virginia gourd seed dent with northern flints in Pennsylvania in 1810, the precursor to James Reid’s yellow dent corn. Mechanical harvesters and threshers, along with improved plough designs, increased acreage and bushel yield. By 1840, the key components in all the fields of whisky production, from field to consumption, were in place for the modern age of whisky to flourish.

Refrigeration developed in the 1850s and permitted distilleries to operate hygienically year-round with controlled fermentation and condenser chilling. Fuel sources shifted from wood, charcoal, peat and coal, later to oil, gas and biogas. Railroads were transporting raw materials and finished goods across the country.

In the late 1860s, cooperages achieved mechanisation in the manufacture of casks. In 1865 a Hungarian invention using steel and ceramic rollers for grinding grain soon replaced traditional Buhr stones. Malting was revolutionised by Jules Saladin in the 1890s when he adapted his pneumatic malting boxes from Michael Gallard’s 1880 drums.

Organic chemistry, discovered by Fredrick Wohler in 1828, led to Louis Pasteur’s work on yeast and microorganisms. Importantly, for whisky, longer maturation involving years, not months, improved the quality of the whisky. Regulations from the 1860s allowed distillers to mature whisky for longer before paying duties. The artifice of brands, advertising and promotional activities was foreboding the arrival of the modern whisky era.
Fettercairn distillery
Fettercairn distillery
Glenmorangie Distillery
Glenmorangie Distillery