Thursday, August 1, 2013

History of the column still

Coffey still
Whisky can be distilled in column or pot stills. Grain whiskies are usually distilled in the faster and more economical column stills, which produce light or almost neutral spirit opposed to the heavier malt whiskies produced usually in pot stills. 

Distilling wine was invented in northern Italy during the 11th century, although the Arabs and the Alexandrians had probably used distillation before that to produce infusions and concotions, perhaps even as early as in the 1st century AD. The early stills were simple pot stills with a collection pot. The apparatus was often made of clay and/or copper, sometimes partly of wood, even of leather. The shape of still was usually onion-like; wide bottom to enable efficient and fast heating and narrower head to enable condensation and collection. Some kind of worm was used from the beginning, but efficient water cooling was probably invented as late as in the 18th century. The knowledge of distillation spread through Europe and Russia during the 14th and 15th centuries and malt spirits were probably distilled in Britain and Ireland at least from the late 15th century. The design of the stills remained quite constant from the 11th to the 19th century, although there were numerous experiments with different shapes. The onion pot still however remained the still of choice until the early 19th century. Heating was provided by a naked flame, often by wood fire in southern Europe, but more often by peat in the north and after the 17th century by coal.

Water-jacketed still was invented in 1526 by Paracelsus (alias Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim the Swiss) and it became known as the Baine Marie or balneum Mariae among the alchemists. The water bath allowed the still to be indirectly heated, thus preventing the wash from burning on the bottom of the still and allowing the distillation of pomace and other thicker washes. The risk of cracking stills, especially made of clay, was also diminished by indirect heating. The fractionating system was invented as early as 1553 by German chemist Philip Ulstadius, but it did not possess any significant advantages for spirit distillers and was used primarily by (al)chemists.

The condenser was improved by a German chemist Christian Ehrenfried Weigel in 1771. He placed the worm into a tube, which was cooled by circulating cold water. The invention was named Liebig condenser. Later an englishman William Grimble invented the tube condenser 1825 and it was later improved and distirbuted widely by the Dutch still-manufacturer Armand Savalle.

The Woulfe bottle
The evolution of the still gained pace during the early years of 19th century, especially in France. An illiterate French workman Edouard Adam from Rouen attended chemistry lectures given by professor Laurent Solimani. Adam understood that the principles of the Woulfe bottle, invented by Angelo Saluzzo and used in chemistry, might also work for alcohol distilling and in 1801 invented and patented the first still to produce alcohol in one operation. In principle, that was the first working column still, although the "column" was placed horizontally and consisted of several chambers or pots. It allowed single distillation for high alcohol spirit, more effective heat exchange and relatively simple fractioning of the spirit. Mr Adam was however not successful in commercializing his invention and several distillers, including Solimani, Bérard, Barré, Brugniére, Pistorius and Carbonel, built either direct copies or similar stills with just minor modifications. The three distilleries built by Adam were not successful and he died poor in 1807.

Nääsi distillery, late 19th century Finland.
Pistorius still on the right, Savalle still at the back
Pistorius improved the Woulfe bottle principle and patented his still in 1817. It had many properties of a modern column still; the wort was fed into the rectifying part of the system and divided by the steam rising from the lower pots into alcohols, feints and the rest was piped to be redistilled in the lower pots. The rectifying plates are unique, but quite efficient allowing good reflux but also thick worts. The Pistorius still was used in central Europe and Scandinavia throughout the 19th century.

Armagnac still
The first truly continuous still was made by Fournier, who used two columns, which were heated alternately and fitted with valves for removing the residues. Professor Solimani introduced indirect steam heating for an modified Adam still in 1814 in his own distillery. French Jean Baptiste Cellier Blumenthal invented the first practical continuous still in 1808 and patented it in 1813. Basically he combined Adam's principle of multiple distilling/rectifying chambers, the early ideas of fractionation by Ulstadius, preheating and the vertical columns and the residue removal of Fournier. The apparatus still had a pot still, but the wine was feeded straight from the top of the column while vapours rose from the pot to the vertical distilling column, which had 9 perforated rectifying plates. Thus the distilling column was cooled with wine, which was simultaneously preheated for the distillation. The first stills were built by Cellier and a Dutch sugar-trader Armand Savalle, later to become a global still-manufacturer. The patent was improved with fractionating plates and draff/residue outlets and sold to Parisian apothecary Louis-Charles Derosne in 1818, who succeeded in commercializing the product. Savalle and his family continued with the original apparatus and sold them to various distilleries around the world. Some of their stills are still in use at rum, brandy and neutral spirit distilleries. Many eau-de-vie, armagnac and bourbon distillers adopted a cross-over between column and pot stills. The wort is boiled in the pot and rectified in single column with a lot of reflux.

Savalle still in Demerara Distillery, Guyana
In England a version of the Cellier Blumenthal still was patented in 1815 by relatively unknown Mr. Dihl, but it did not gain commercial success at the time. In the same year James Miller patented a system for preheating the wash in the worm cooler and in 1818 Joseph Corty described a still with double pots and a Pistorius-like condesenser-reflux-system. So basically all the pieces for working continuous still were available in Britain in the late 1810s. In Ireland the big pot stills ruled, although there were some experiments made with continuous distilling. John Stein at Clonmel distillery developed a triple still, basically just three stills attached to each other and Joseph Shee of Cork had a quadruple pot still, in which the first pot acted as a steam source. In 1822 Irish Andrew Perrier patented his vertical continuous still, which strongly resembled the Fournier and Cellier Blumenthal stills and by 1823 a French immigrant, a veterinary surgeon Jean-Jacques Saintmarc build a variation of the Adam still. The Saintmarc's potato spirit was not a success in England and he advanced into Ireland in 1825 and marketed grain whisky distilled with a continuous column still, but that was considered "too pure". It was until 1828 that the first commercially successful column still was built on the British Isles as Robert Stein, a member of the Stein-Haig distilling family, patented his column still. It had three preheaters and steam boiled in a separate vessel was used to heat the wash, which was intermittently sprayed by pistons into a series of chambers. The chambers were divided by crude cloths (probably haircloths). The cloth permeated ethanol well, but less so water and solubles, therefore acting both as a rectifier and a filter. It enabled large amounts of distillate to be produced in a single run and improved the heat economy compared to the pot stills. The process had to be stopped for discarding the excess oily residue, so it was not exactly continuous operation. Surprisingly the Steins used only malted barley in their Kirkliston distillery for several decades, despite the fact that most of the output was sold for gin manufacturers.

Aeneas Coffey (1780-1852)
The French-born Irishman Aeneas Coffey had retired from excise officers duty in 1824 and bought into Dodder Bank distillery in Dublin. He also managed the South King Street distillery (1828) and the Dock distillery (1834) in Dublin. The first Coffey stills were made of wood and iron and consisted of a single column, but copper plates and metallic columns quickly became the norm, most likely because of the better malleability and spirit quality. By the time Coffey patented his still design in 1830, he had introduced perforated copper plates for rectifying and pipes to remove the residual oils during distillation. During the 1830s the system was divided into two columns as it was easier to manufacture, it had better rectifying qualities as well as better heat economy. Numerous designs for rectifying plates were later introduced, although the most common was the bubble cap design. The Irish distillers trusted their big pot stills and only some Northern Irish distillers experimented with the Coffey stills, first in Derry by Andrew Alexander Watt's Abbey Street Distillery in 1833 and later in Belfast at Avoniel distillery (1882) , The Irish distillery, The Royal Irish distillery (the 1890s) and and at Dundalk (the 1880s?) distillery just south of the present border. As his stills were not selling in Ireland, Coffey moved his business to London. The first Scottish whisky distillery to install Coffey still was Grange in 1834 and during the next few years Inverkeithing, Bonnington and Cambus followed. Aeneas Coffey Jr tried his hand at Lewisham distillery, London in 1840, but was not successful and the Coffeys established themselves as still makers. At first the columns stills were used by rectifiers and gin distillers, but during the mid-1840s the Scottish distillers really started building Coffey stills.

Cameron BridgeStein1830
Port DundasCoffey1845
North BritishCoffey1885
The Scottish patent still whisky distilleries founded in 19th century

The column still was much more efficient compared to the traditional pot still, producing higher proof (usually 86-95% ABV) spirit about ten times more in volume compared to medium sized pot still distillery. Since the malting, heating and maintenance costs were a fraction of those of a malt distillery, the column still grain spirit cost about 50-70% less compared to pot still malt whisky, even if the set-up costs were included. The northern Britons were not used to the light column still whisky and at the beginning large quantities were sold to rectifiers and gin distillers, who spiced the spirit and sold it as gin or imitation brandy or cognac. As shown in the figure below, the English rectifiers and distillers quickly adopted the Coffey still, but the more traditionalist Irish and Scots remained loyal to the pot still at least to some extent.
(Weir 1995)
During the latter part of the 19th century several factors caused the rise of the column still whisky. Branding and advertising became important at about the middle of the 19th century Britain. Several traders begun blending the products of different distilleries and sold them under their own labels. Blending enabled the inclusion of raw grain column still spirits into the mix and on the other hand blended whisky was easier to sell in the big English markets used to lighter non-smoky spirits. The column distillers began to control their pricing, the first price cartel was formed in 1856 and by the 1890's the century the DCL controlled all but most column distilleries and had a virtual monopoly during the 20th century. The tax reform in 1860 raised the taxation of foreign spirits and fortified wines and allowed commercial yeast manufacturing in the distilleries, which became a substantial source of revenue for the grain distillers towards the turn of the century.

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A modern Coffey still in North British distillery