Spirit Safes History

Last update: March 20th 2015

When visiting a distillery for the first time many of us have been impressed by the combination of a aquarium and fontain in brass and been confused why it is locked as there are no gold fishes in the bowls.. It plays a major role in the production of spirit and has made so since over 175 years.
When you search for information some words associated with the history come up: Fox, Port Ellen Distillery and Excise Law of 1823. Also the use of molasses is associated with the introduction of the safe and the striving to have common excise laws in England, Ireland and Scotland
However already in the law from 1761 (Anno 2 GEORGII III c 5) safe is mentioned "and the safe at the end of the worm":

In Ireland the open safe is also mentioned in the law from 1798.

Septimus Fox or James Fox?
In many books a Mr Septimus Fox (d. 1863) is mentioned as the father of the spirit safe. He was from Plymouth but vice consul for Guatemala. For unknown reason his name has been mixed with the inventor James Fox (the younge).
James Fox was spirit merchant and lived at Portland Square in Plymouth, Devon. He was a freeman of the city (a privileged person who performed important functions in the Local Government of the Town). Fox had togteher with Thomas Coates and John Williams a company ”Coates, Fox and Williams Co”. This company was spirit dealers and rectifiers. The company leased the rectifying house in Southside Street from 1821 (for 21 years £175 p.a.) from the Kings brothers (Kings Brewery Black Friars Distillery). In 1828 Fox left the company. Coates died 1831 but the company kept the name Coates & Co until 2004 (now Plymouth Gin (Pernod Ricard).
To see the old Coates & Co's Plymouth Gin label click here

After studying old documents I am not really convienced that James Fox was the real father of the spirit safe, but his position might have helped to distort the truth.

Fox's first patent 1819
1819 James Fox got a patent for "An Improved Method or Methods of Diminishing the Loss in Quantity and Quality of Ardent Spirits and other Fluids during the Processes of Distillation or Rectification". This was notreally a safe and Fox called it "encloser". The basic concept was a vessel between the worm and backs where the spirit could be examined without excessive exposure to air and evaporation. This document has eight pages of text and one large fold-out drawing. He calls his invention "Fox's Distiller's Economist". The original drawing has copyright but the sketch shows the principle. Fox does not claim patent for the encloser or the hydrostatic valve, but the arrangement, combination of this making an apparatus.

Pottinger safe in Ireland 1821
in Ireland at the distillery of John Thompson of Carrickfergus a spirit safe invented by Mr Thomas Pottinger was tested. One of the three inspectors was Aneas Coffey (Who got patent 1832 for his Coffey-still) who suggested some modifications to the invention.
”A sample of the liquor running through the worm is drawn off by a small pipe, which conveys into a glass jar, wherein a hydrometer is placed, which indicates the strength of the liquor on a scale outside the jar – the heat being at the same time shown by a thermometer inside placed within. Over this jar, another (also of glass) is fixed, which precludes all access to the liquor or run from the worm, and cannot be removed without breaking it. The liquor that constantly overflows the interior jar, passes between the two jars into another small-pipe, by which it is re-conducted into the worm, and conveyed to the spirits, singlings or feints receiver, as the distiller may think proper, through one cock with three apertures, secured in a cast-iron case, which cannot be removed without breaking it. The apparatus for attaining Mr Pottingers second object is more complicated. The spirits, low wine and feints receivers are covered (so much of them as is above ground) by cast-iron plates, bolted by screws fastened to the inside. Each of these vessels is furnished with a ball-cock, to prevent its being filled above a certain height; and in each there is placed a very large copper ball attached to the pump, for the purpose of regulating the strength at which the liquor in the vessel may be pumped out. These balls are in fact large hydrometers, which, when the liquor in the receivers become stronger than the given or allowed standard, sink to the bottom of the vessel; and, by so doing, the open an air valve which communicates with the pump, and prevents its working. In additions to these devices, there is placed within the spirit receiver, a machine, by which the spirits are measured as they run from the worm, and the quantity registered by an index; the whole so secured as to be inaccessible to the distiller or the officers visiting him. The inspectors came to the conclusion that the first part could be used with some modifications but that the second part could not be used as it was to complicated. Trials were made in January and March 1821.

Barnes safe in Ireland 1822
Charles Barnes, Dublin Ireland sent a letter in December 1822 to the Henry Goulburn. Goulburn was at that time Chief Secretary of Ireland but become 1828 Chancellor of the Exchequer. Barnes suggest a method of preventing excise fraud by commercial distillers through fitting of contraption "to the part of the Still where spirits come from the worm". The Distillery should have no access to the Internal parts and would facilitate recording of an accurate account of liquid going through the system.
Thanks to Niall Tubridy, Dublin I have got the text of his letter:

Sir, I beg to inform you, that on reading over that part of the report of the Commissioners of Revenue Inquiry wherein is expressed the Conviction that Distillers are enabled to defraud the Government of Duty to a very considerable amount; it accurred to me that there might be an apparatus applied to that part of the Still where the spirits come from the worm, that would prevent the possibility of fraud on the part of the Distiller or collusion on the part of the Gauger – I therefore take the Liberty of suggesting the Mode by which I am of opinion it might be accomplished – The Apparatus proposed would be attached to the part of the Still before alluded to, and so constructed that the Distiller could have no access to the Internal parts – The Spirits would pass through it and thence into the Receiver; in its passage it would act on the machinery in such a manner as to turn two hands placed on a Dialplate, one corresponding with the minute Hand of a Clock, to show the Number of Gallons, or tens [ of Gallons of Spirits which has passed through, until it came to the highest Number on the Dialplate (suppose 100) when the other hand similar to the Hour hand would point to One, showing that one hundred or one thousand (according as the Minute hand signified one or ten Gallons) had passed through, and so on until it came to the highest Number (one hundred) when 10,000 Gals – 100,000 Gals – or by means of a third hand, of the same description as a seconds hand, with 50 in its Circle, signifying Gallons, 500,000 Gallons could pass through without any alteration of the hands, and which may be made in the presence of a Surveyor, Surveyor General of Excise as the case might be – While the United Kingdom possesses so many Mechanisms of first rate ability, it might be presumptions in me to point out the Means by which the Machinery could be set in motion, as there might be many who could construct it on better principles than I have any idea of – but should the subject be thought worthy consideration, it is my opinion that it could be done on a very simple principle, so as to have the desired Effect
_ I have the Honor to be
With the utmost (d)efence
Your most obt. humble Sert.
Charles H. Barnes.

Henry Goulburn

A compendious abstract of the public general acts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland 4the Geo IV 1823
This law has over 130 paragraphs - most of them about covering duties, ware housing and Excise officers - such as "Distillers more than 1 mile from a market town shall provide suitable lodging for the Excise Officers". Two of the pragraphs are related to the use of spirit safes.
That if in the distillery of any distiller licensed under this Act, or any place adjoining to such distillery, there shall be any pipe or conveyance whatever, leading to or from any still for making or distilling spirits, or any opening whatever into or out of any such still, other than such pipes, conveyances, and openings as are prescribed by this Act, except such air valve or conductor as shall be approved of by the Commissioners of Excise, or such persons as they shall appoint, such distiller shall forfeit two hundred pounds.
That the end of every worm belonging to every still shall be inclosed and secured at the expense of such distiller, in such and by such mechanism and means as the Commissioners of Excise, or any two of them shall by order in writing direct; and that all spirits, low wines, and feints running from the end of such worm, shall run from thence into a safe so inclosed and secured, and shall be conveyed directly, and by such a pipe as shall be directed as aforesaid, open externally to the inspection of officers for its whole length from such a safe into the spirits receiver, or low wines or feints receiver: and if upon demand by the proper supervisor or surveyor, the end of every such worm shall not be so inclosed and secured as aforesaid; or if the whole of the spirits, low wines, and feints, coming from any such worm, shall not be run into such a safe so inclosed and secured; or if such spirits, low wines, and feints, and every part thereof shall not beconveyed from such a safe into the spirits receiver or low wines or feints receiver directly, and by such a pipe as aforesaid, or if on demand of the proper supervisor or surveyor, all the expenses incurred by providing and repairing, or altering such mechanisms and means of inclosing the end of such a worm and safe, shall not be paid by or on behalf of such distiller to such supervisor or surveyor; or if such mechanism and means of inclosing the end of such a worm and safe shall not be affixed and kept affixed as aforesaid, or if at any time after the end of any such worm and any safe are inclosed and secured as aforesaid, the mechanism or means by which the same shall be so inclosed and secured, or any part thereof, shall be destroyed or injured, or if by any art of contrivance any access shall be gained or had without notice to, and except with the knowledge and in presence of the officer, to any spirits, low wines, or feints, from the time of the extraction or distillation thereof, in any such still, until the same have been taken account of by the officers in the proper receiver or receivers; or the officers shall be in any manner prevented from, or baffled or defeated in the taking a true account of any spirits, low wines, or feints in any such receiver, every such distiller or other person shall for every such offence forfeit two hundred pounds; Provided, That if inclosing and securing the end of such worm or safe shall, upon experiment, be found to injure the quality of the spirits run therefrom, the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, or any three of them, upon proof thereof made to their satisfaction, may direct that no distiller shall be so to required so to inclose any such worm end or safe

The last text (highligted) is interesting. If you could prove that the quality of the spirit suffered you did not have to use a spirit safe.

The House of Commons 1823
In the House of Commons June 30th 1823 it was a discussion about the new act and Sir R. Fergusson ”was glad the Right Honourable Gentleman meant to withdraw the clause respecting the shutting up of the worm, which he understood, would be ruinous to the distillers. Smuggling was a big problem and Mr Hume most strenuously recommended to his Majesty´s Ministers the absolute necessity of introducing more effective measures for the prevention of smuggling. Ireland were more priviledged in exporting spririts to England than Scotland and the aim was to ”put the distillers in all three countries upon the same footing”. Provided this Sir R Fergusson said ”the Scotch distillers were willing to the shutting up of the worm, if it was not found to detoriate the spirit”.

Tests at Port Ellen

The first distillery to install a spirit safe (at least in Scotland) was Port Ellen Distillery. Fox made the trials here in winter 1823/1824. The spirit safe was improved by John Ramsey (1815-1892) who took over Port Ellen 1936 and James Stein from Ardenistiel Distillery. As you see below the costs for these trials seem to have been very high.

Fox's second patent 1825

In July 1825 James Fox gets a patent for: An Improved Safe to be used in the Distillation of Ardent Spirist". Now he calls himself distiller.
Some parts of the safe looks similar to his patent from 1819. He describes all parts in details but states: "I do not claim the invention of several parts thereof. What I claim is only the combination of those parts (with the other above-described parts of the safe), by which personal access to the worm end within the safe is prevented when the safe is closed and locked: and of these parts by which a sample or samples of the spirit or runnings under distillation may be drawn off from under side of worm within the safe, and conveyed to the exterior side thereof for inspection; as well as the right of connecting or attaching, or not, as I may think proper, an indicator or index, by which each revolution of the sample cock herein described may be correctly registered, if desired.
The drawings below shows the principle (these are not original drawings but made in Sketchup)

patent2 click to shrink expand

Remuneration - Waste of money

Fox gets for his "invention" 4000 GBP from the Revenue Board. (in todays value this is around 340.000 GBP !!).
In Mechanical Magazine December 27th 1828 Mr William Gutteridge writes a letter about the patent and the high costs: "...every sensible man of whom has long since adopted his invention, and having had an eye to the introduction of his machine by the Revenue, must necessarily be aware of the progress of others who had projects coeval with his own; and which projects were intended to secure the duty on spirits by an application at the worm-end. Now an invention for this purpose was not only submitted, but was accepted by, the Board of Excise, and applied at the end of a worm in a distillery. For conducting this business at first it was requisite to hire a distillery. After immense loss in spirit, which never has, and never will be, accounted for the Revenue, this grand discovery, as before stated, turned out to have been a “mare´s nest”, for which, and the use of the distillery, the Board became involved in a most expensive litigation, and had to pay many thousands of pounds to the distiller, who, being unable to obtain the payment of his bill, became plaintiff, and recovered of the Excise, who were defendants.".... "waste of public money"....

Mr Gutteridge was also inventor and was behind the New System for Stereometry and the Imperial Gallon Rod. In 1825 came a law that only Imperisal Standard must be used for weights and measures. He also got patent for a distilling apparatus, the Torrecellian Still.

Meeting in Edinburgh 1825
In April 1825 at the Royal Exchange Coffeehouse in Edinburgh a meeting with the Scottish distillers to consider ”the possebility of applying Mr Fox´s Close Safe to the Worm´s End” was arranged.

Caledonian Mercury April 16th 1825

House of Commons 1831
In ”Report and Papers – House of Common – Malting, Brewing and Distilling 1836” (over 700 pages!) several topics are covered and one is the use of safes.

August 1831 Mr James Cornwall Esq, Collector of the Excise Duties in Edinburgh and Leith and Receiver-General of Excise in Scotland, Mr William Baker, surveying-general examiner, John Falconer Atlee distiller at Wandsworth Surrey are called in as experts. Mr Atlee says "The vessel into which it runs is hermetically sealed, I may say: There was an apparatous which Govermnet was disposed to adopt, which induced the trade to fall into the last law more readily, perhaps; it was an appendage at the end of the worm, commonly called a safe, to secure whatever spirits were contained in the wash, be they more or less, as they fell from the worm, and prevent any from being fraudulently taken away. Government went so far as to give the patentee 4,000 l. for the invention, but it has never been applied; I say it should be applied"

He gets the question "Will you have the goodness to say why it has not?" "I think there has been a complaint by the Scotch distillers, that if it It was applied, they had not the means of ascertaining the purity of the spirit. The distillers in London seem to be more positive. He also gets the question "What is the supervision which it would be necessary for the excise officer to exercise when Fox's safe is put at the end of the worm? - It would not require one tenth part of the attention.
Mr Baker however is asked: "Have you had any experience of the security revenue derives from the use Fox's safe?" His answer is: "It has been considered not worth while to introduce it. "The spirit safe is nothing but a box with glasses to see the whole of the product as it comes over"
So far I have not been able to find exact which year it was a must to have a spirit safe. As most of the spirit in Scotland and Ireland was not rectified as in England the safe caused more problem there. In a petition as late as 1848 the Scottish distlller's propose a reform of the excise law. Most proposals are related to the duty, but nr five (V) reads: "That all worm ends be enclosed in a locked up safe".

Dawson safe at St Magdalene Distillery

1853 John Dawson applies patent for "A new instrument or apparatus for the purpose of preventing fraud in drawing off liquids". However this is "'Void by reason of the Patentee having neglected to file a Specification in pursuance of the conditions of the Letters Patent"
"My Invention consists in the use of a distiller’s or rectifiers’s ”safe” closed in every part, except where the liquer pass into and out of it instead of the open safe in ordinary use" There is no drawing attached to the patent but it has moveable cover or frame fitted with plate glass, which shows the internal action of the safe without the possibility of interference from without. He propose that the frame is made of wood, two inches thick.

In a newspaper from !870 the spirit safe at St Magdalene Distillery, Linlithgow is decribed: ”one spirit safe occupies the room, and is constructed upon original principles. It is the invention of Mr John Dawson, the junior member of the firm. This safe obtained a medal at the International Exhibition of 1851, and has been adopted by other destilleries. Alterations were made, or added last year, converting it into a close safe, by Mr MacNaughton, coppersmith, Edinburgh, under the superintendence of Mr William Dawson, the manager, son of Adam Dawson, Esq., of Bonnytoun. It consists of a rectangular glass case, bound strongly with brass, and of course, placed under her Majesty´s keys. The case will be nearly three feet in length, over two feet in height , and six inches in breadth. The sole is entirely brass, and is permeated with pipes from the still. Seven glass vessels fill the bottom of the safe. These are tall glasses, somewhat larger than ale glasses. Into the bottom of each a pipe enters, the flow of which may be regulated by a stopper outside. Into three of these vessels the produce of wash stills can be run, and the gravity tested by the usual instrument-. The other four are connected in the same way with the spirit stills. In two of these, both the strength and the temperature of the products are tested. In the other two the quality of the spirit can be tested by water run into them from an overhanging pipe.

Alexander Johnston, Strathdee, Safe 1853
Alexander Johnston, brewer at Strathdee Distillery invented a spirit safe which was produced by th the coppersmith John Stephen, Aberdeen. It seems that it was some controversies between this two gentlemen. Alexander Johnston started to coperate with Aberdeen Copper Company but John Stephen continued to produce his own version of it, which he claimed was better to "exclude dimness of the Glass, so neccesary for clearly indicating the accurate working of any still"

John Taylor, Kilnflat Distillery, Safe 1854
John Taylor, tinsmith, Forres, made a improved safe (20 in long 16 in wide and 14 in deep). The sides and tops were constructed of plate glass. The tubes were regulated above the fillers by rods. The low wine compartment was diveded from the spirit compartment by a glass partition. It was possible to add water to the sample tubes and empty them by valves controlled by brass knobs on the outside of the safe. In 1855 it was also in operation at Linkwood Distillery.

Compulsory to use spirit safes - when?
The use of safes in Ireland and Scotland was later than in England where rectified spirit was made. In the Excise Officers Manual from 1840 by Joseph Bateman it says:
The end of every worm is to be enclosed in a safe, unless the Treasury shall dispense of the use hereof.
In the second edition 1852 the text is the same.

Act 1860
"The Act to reduce into One Act and to amend the Excise Regulations relating to the distilling, rectifying, and dealing in Spirits 28 August 1860" states that "every Spirit Receiver shall be a closed covered Vessel, and shall not have Communication with any other Vessel or Utensil whatever, except with the Safe of the Still by means of One close Metal Pipe, externally visible for its whole Length, attached to and leading directly from the Safe at the End of the Worm ...".

Violation of the law
In 1865 Mr Robert Kennedy, Ballechin, distiller of low wines and spirits was charged 1000 pounds for
For not maintaining and keeping enclosed and secured by the mechanism, as directed the Commissioners of Inland Revenue the end of the worm of a still, 200 pounds
For having had access to by a certain contrivance to said worm without notice, and not in presence of the proper officer of Excise, 200 pounds
For not having the mechanism enclosing the said worm kept fixed, in accordance with the Excise statutes, 200 pounds
For having said mechanism destroyed and injured, 200 pounds
For having a communication out of the said worm other than that allowed by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue, 200 pounds

The spirit safe is critical for the process but has also caused accidents. 24th of February 1885 the spirit safe at Bon Accord Distillery Aberdeen exploded.
The Scotsman 25th of February 1885.

On Febrary 2nd 1888 it was an earthquake in Fort William and in a paper it says "At Nevis distillery the safes and spirit receivers shook violently" The earthquake lasted for about 10 seconds.

Patent for Distillers Safe 1889 (Anderston)
In 1898 William Dawson (Brewer at Anderston Distillery) and William Mutter got a patent for a very mechanical advanced safe with the purpose of check samplings. They also got patent for it in USA 1893.

Spirit safes around the world

As you see in the gallery there are spirit safes also in countries where it has never been law to have them. In America the spirit safes looks a bit different and are called tail boxes. Improvements of the spirit still are made - for example the spirit safe at Hven Distillery Sweden has special features - the heart is also separated in smaller parts.


Until recently, in 1983 only the local officer from the Customs and Excise, who measured how much spirit was produced, had access to the keys for the safe. Since then the keys have been held by the distillery manager as well as Customs and Excise.