A Cup of Coffey

By Sam MacDonald on Sat 25th Feb 2017

Sam MacDonald

The stylish release of Midleton's’ ‘Method & Madness’ range – including the 31-year-old grain – makes the subject of Irish grain whiskey relevant after almost 200 years of conscientious objection.

The term ‘grain spirit’ is a misleading one since the grain itself, whether corn, wheat or even barley, has little impact on the resulting spirit. In this spirit, it is instrument of distillation and not the ingredient which defines the drink. Continuous Distillation is a much more accurate, if possibly less marketable, definition for this ‘whiskey’ and it would do more to explain the nature of the spirit. Continuous by production, continuous by volume and almost continuous by maturation, this spirit allows for the macro-production of spirit which is more economical and consistent in flavour.

In defining the parameters of our Dal Riada whisk(e)y region, it would be remiss to ignore the impact of continuous distillation on the story of our spirit. The popular belief is that the invention of the continuous still by Irishman Aeneas Coffey was vehemently dismissed by his own nation’s distillers and instead found acceptance among their Scottish and English counterparts in the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, like most other factors concerning high-strength alcohol, memory fades and obscures the truth over time. Much of the story of the Coffey still is related to the region of Dal Riada and one might even suggest Aeneas Coffey’s inspiration for the invention may have come from his distaste for distillers in the Donegal countryside where he was a customs officer.

In 1908, Sir James T. Power of Power’s Distillery wrote ‘What is Whiskey?’, an article aimed at preventing continuous distillers calling their spirit whiskey. However, it did little more than highlight the inefficiency of whiskey producers in Ireland’s southern counties.

At the whisky industry’s pinnacle in the late 19th century, Watt’s of Derry in Ireland’s north west was the world’s largest distillery. It produced more than 27 million litres of spirit between its two plants in the city. In Belfast, meanwhile, the Royal Irish Distillery was turning out 850,000 litres from its Coffey stills and in one bizarre episode, it even produced a ‘Scottish Blended Whisky’ under its Dunville logo.

This uptake of Coffey’s technology in Ulster certainly ran counter to the production of their counterparts in the south of Ireland, although it cannot be explained by the partition of Ireland which happened 30 years later. Perhaps it can once again be explained by the collective identity. The Ulster Scots spirit that transformed molasses to rum and maize to bourbon on the American frontier, was the same spirit that shared the industry’s transformation into steam-age technology with the adoption of continuous distillation.

Dunville’s Irish Scottish Whisky

Another explanation for Dal Riada’s embrace of continuous distillation may also exist. Though we boast a 1,500-year distilling tradition in the north of Ireland, most of the drama happened in the latter years. The roots of distillation were humble. In 1782, for instance, the small town of Strabane boasted 74 distilleries. In 1796, the same town was reported to have none! This was not the result of diminishing popularity or production of the spirit, but rather the beginning of distillers going underground and outside the remit of legal practice.

Watt’s on Derry’s Distillery Brae is now a gym.

This culture of lawlessness in the years running up to the first Excise Act in 1823, created an environment that was fertile for the illicit production of spirit. Into this mayhem stepped William Higgin, proprietor of Royal Irish Distillers, and Andrew Watt of Derry City. Their licensed industrial production of spirit was contrary in just about every way to the roots of distillation in their region. In their hands, the 19th century witnessed a dramatic change. From small trickles of póitín distilled by people living in the hills and bogs, the north of Ireland was blown into an era of unprecedented scales of whisk(e)y production using Coffey stills and it was exported to all corners of the globe.

But like all ‘great’ things, it came to an end. In 1921, facing American Prohibition and the partition in Ireland which would place a customs border on his doorstep, Andrew Watt arrived in his Rolls Royce at his behemoth distillery in Derry’s Bogside where the workers were embarking on a two-day strike:

Watts declared, ‘Well men, I shall put it to you like this… what is it to be? Will you open the gates?’

The workers retorted angrily, ‘The gates stay shut!’

‘Very well!’ exclaimed Watt bluntly. ‘Shut they are, and shut they shall remain!’

Thus Watt’s distillery, which had dominated the world of whisk(e)y, ended within the lifetime of its founder. Even today, however, poitín is still made in the hills and bogs by much the same methods as it was 1,500 years ago!

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