seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Death of Aeneas Coffey, Inventor & Distiller

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Aeneas Coffey, Irish inventor and distiller, dies in England on November 26, 1852. He is born in Calais, France, to Irish parents in 1780. He is educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and enters the excise service around 1799–1800 as a gauger. He marries Susanna Logie in 1808, and they have a son, also named Aeneas, who may have been their only child.

According to British customs and excise records, Coffey is a remarkable man with widespread interests and multiple talents who rises quickly through the excise service ranks. He is appointed sub-commissioner of Inland Excise and Taxes for the district of Drogheda in 1813. He is appointed Surveyor of Excise for Clonmel and Wicklow in 1815. In 1816 he is promoted to the same post at Cork. By 1818 he is Acting Inspector General of Excise for the whole of Ireland and within two years is promoted to Inspector General of Excise in Dublin.

Coffey is a strong, determined upholder of the law, but aware of its shortcomings. He survives many nasty skirmishes with illegal distillers and smugglers, particularly in County Donegal in Ulster and in the west of Ireland, where moonshining is most rife. On several occasions he proposes to the government simple, pragmatic solutions to rules and regulations which have hampered legal distillers. Not all of his ideas are accepted. Between 1820 and 1824 he submits reports and gives evidence to Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry on many aspects of distilling, including formalising the different spellings of Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky. His 1822 report is solidly backed by the Irish distillers. He believes in making it viable to distill legally, and illegal distilling might largely disappear.

He assists the government in the drafting of the 1823 Excise Act which makes it easier to distill legally. It sanctions the distilling of whiskey in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit. It also provides for the appointment of a single Board of Excise, under Treasury control, for the whole of the United Kingdom, replacing the separate excise boards for England, Scotland and Ireland. The 1823 Excise Act also provides for not more than four assistant commissioners of excise to transact current business in Scotland and Ireland, under the control of the board in London. Coffey resigns from government excise service at his own request in 1824.

Between his Dublin education and his work as an excise officer, Coffey has ample opportunity to observe the design and workings of whiskey stills, as Ireland is the world’s leading producer of whiskey in the 19th century, and Dublin is at the center of that global industry. This is how Coffey becomes familiar with a design differing from the traditional copper pot alembic still commonly used in Ireland, the continuous, or column, still. First patented by a Cork County distillery in 1822, the column still remains a relatively inefficient piece of equipment, although it points the way towards a cheaper and more productive way to distill alcohol. It is that last point that captures Coffey’s imagination. He makes his own modifications to existing column still designs, so as to allow a greater portion of the vapors to re-circulate into the still instead of moving into the receiver with the spirit. The result is more efficient, producing a lighter spirit at higher alcohol content. Coffey patents his design in 1830, and it becomes the basis for every column still used ever since.

On his retirement from service, Coffey goes into the Irish distilling business. For a short time he runs the Dodder Bank Distillery, Dublin and Dock Distillery in Grand Canal Street, Dublin, before setting up on his own as Aeneas Coffey Whiskey Company in 1830. The development of the Coffey still makes distillation of his own whiskey much more economical.

Nothing is known of the final years and last resting place of Aeneas Coffey. His only son, also called Aeneas Coffey, emigrates to South Africa and manages a distillery. He marries but his wife dies childless. He returns to England and spends his final years near London.

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