Saturday 3 April 2010

Kilbeggan's Coffey still

I wrote recently about the new whiskeys planned from Kilbeggan distillery. That, however, is not the whole story. Visitors to Kilbeggan will not fail to notice the three big pot stills that squat silently in the open air. You can see two of them in this photo:

Old stills at Kilbeggan Distillery

They are not in use, and there is no plan to fire them up, sadly. If you want to see them restored to operation, put the squeeze on Cooley's Louth distillery by buying more of their whiskey. Only then will they be able to justify bringing this dormant capacity at Kilbeggan online.

Anyway, take another look at the photo. See the copper columns in the background? These are the distillation and rectification columns of a Coffey still. This is the other way of making whiskey. It's a continuous process, unlike the batch process required when using pot stills.

These columns came from the old B. Daly distillery in Tullamore, whose distilling assets Cooley bought. The big news is that Cooley has firm plans to get them running again.

Cooley already has a column still in Louth pumping out grain spirit. The raw material there is about 90% maize, 10% malted barley. The Kilbeggan grain spirit will be all barley, with a high percentage of malt. I assume some will be blended with Kilbeggan's pot still-produced whiskey but I'd put money on a new standalone grain whiskey to complement the existing Greenore, if the results are at all palatable.

Cooley has investigated the history of this Coffey still. Nothing is certain, but it was likely made by John Dore & Co in London in 1910. Destined for India, the still was commandeered by the British government for making fuel during World War I. Things get a little hazy at this point. The still might have spent the inter-war years in Czechoslovakia but by 1940 or 1941 it had fetched up in Tullamore.

It's not known for sure if it was used there. In fact its presence was kept rather quiet, perhaps because of the stigma attached to the use of the non-traditional Coffey still in Ireland.

It's quite a historical piece of industrial equipment because John Dore & Co is the direct successor to Aeneas Coffey's original company. John Dore worked for Coffey & Sons and took over operations in 1872. Happily, John Dore & Co is still in business and has cast its eye over the Kilbeggan stills. They found the original Indian order for the still in their records. The company will make replacements for some copper parts pilfered after Tullamore closed.