The World’s Most Innovative Whiskey-Makers

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The Top 5 Pioneers Of World Whiskey

By Richard Thomas

Aeneas Coffey

Aeneas Coffey
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like many industries, the world whiskey industry has numerous figures that helped nudge it along into what we see today. The big Scotch brands were created in the main by several Scottish grocers, men who invented blended Scotch as we know it. Charles Gordon turned Glenfiddich into the first single malt brand we would recognize today. Bottler W.L. Weller created the wheated bourbon that so many know and love in the form of Pappy Van Winkle or Maker’s Mark.

Yet among these individuals and many others, five stand out as the most innovative figures in whiskey history:

1. Aeneas Coffey: When he perfected the column still (sometimes named the Coffey Still in his honor), Irishman Aeneas Coffey had a profound impact on not just whiskey-making, but the entire distilled spirits industry. The column still’s more efficient process and lighter, cheaper product led to the grain whiskey produced in Ireland, Scotland, Japan and elsewhere, while the column still is used for principal production by most of the major whiskey distilleries in the United States as well. Where the modern whiskey industry would be without Coffey’s invention is hard to envision.

2. Elmer T. Lee: Lee, who died in 2013, is revered by many American whiskey fans as the man who, in his last major act as the Master Distiller at the George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky (now Buffalo Trace), created Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon in 1984. What most don’t realize is that Blanton’s was not just the first single barrel bourbon, but arguably the first release in what became the modern premium bourbon sector.

Elmer T. Lee

Elmer T. Lee
(Credit: Buffalo Trace)

When Blanton’s hit the market neither the single barrel or the concept of the small batch bourbon hadn’t even been invented yet, even though Maker’s Mark had been made in small batches all along and wasn’t hyping the fact. The classics of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection, including Knob Creek, were not released until the early 1990s. Blanton’s, made to compete with the booming single malt Scotch sector, came first.

3. Masataka Taketsuru: In 1918, Taketsuru left the family sake business to travel to Glasgow, where he studied Scotch-making. He married a Scotswoman, Rita Cowen, and built the whisky distilleries that would become Suntory and Nikka. He passed away in 1979, lionized as the father of the Japanese whisky. Without him, it’s hard to see whisky production ever having come to Japan in the first place.

4. Sir Thomas Phillipps: As the man who opened the world’s first documented whiskey distillery, Sir Thomas Phillipps could be looked at as the father of the practical side of making whiskey as an industrial business venture. Phillipps received his license from the British Crown in 1608, opened what became Bushmills, and the whiskey distilling business more or less followed in his path.

5. Harlan Wheatley: In an era when craft whiskey distilleries are sprouting like mushrooms and creativity is the order of the day, Harlan Wheatley is a big distillery Master Distiller who thinks like a craft guy. Wheatley was so committed to tinkering he put a micro-distillery on the grounds, a small still operating next to the big one. From the Single Oak Project to Warehouse X to numerous experimental releases, Wheatley’s Buffalo Trace has become known the big Kentucky distillery most willing to try something new. For that reason, he stands at the forefront of the modern spirits of whiskey experimentalism.

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