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  • Which alembic is suited to distil spirits such as whiskey, rum or grappa?
    Different types of alembics are suited for different purposes. We have a whiskey still specifically designed for distilling whiskey. We have the Spagyria... read more

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History of Alcohol Distillation

The process of distillation (from the Latin 'de-stillare' for 'drip or trickle down") is the separation of a liquid by evaporation and condensation.  The simplest example of this is when steam from a kettle becomes deposited as drops of distilled water on a cold surface. Distillation is used to separate liquids from non-volatile solids, as in the separation of alcoholic liquors from fermented materials, or in the separation of two or more liquids having different boiling points, as in the separation of gasoline, kerosene and lubricating oil from crude oil. Other industrial applications include the desalination of seawater.

As far back as the fourth century B.C. Aristotle suggested the possibility of spirit distillation when he wrote: "Seawater can be made potable by distillation as well and wine and other liquids can be submitted to the same process." It is an age-old process which may have began as early as 2000 BC.  Some say that the first use of distillation occurred in China, Egypt, or Mesopotamia for medicinal purposes as well as to create balms, essences, and perfumes. About 1810 B.C. in Mesopotamia, the perfumery of King Zimrilim employed this method to make hundreds of litres of balms, essences and incense from cedar, cypress, ginger and myrrh every month. These were used to embalm the dead and for spiritual, medicinal and cosmetic purposes. Queen Cleopatra knew about distillation and is thought to have given an account of the process in a text which is now lost.  In the first century, a Greek physician Pedanius Dioscurides made mention of this process after he noticed the condensation on the lid of a vessel in which some mercury was being heated.

Historians state the alembic was probably invented around AD 200 - 300 by Maria the Jewess, or Zósimo of Panoplies an Egyptian alchemist and his sister Theosebeia, who invented many types of stills and reflux condensers. Others state that during the eighth or ninth century Arab alchemists devised the alembic in an effort to obtain finer essences for perfumes while other Arab alchemists used the alembic in an effort to convert base metal into gold. "Ambix" is a Greek word defined as a vase with a small opening. The vase was part of the distillation equipment.  Initially, the Arabs changed the word "Ambix" to "Ambic" and named the distillation equipment "Al Ambic". This was later changed to alembic in Europe.

Distillation of Wines

Civilizations in almost every part of the world developed some form of alcoholic beverage very early in their history. The Chinese were distilling a beverage from rice by 800 BC. The Romans apparently produced a distilled beverage, although no references are found in writings before AD100. Production of distilled spirits was reported in Britain before the Roman conquest. Portugal, Spain, France and the rest of Western Europe probably produced distilled spirits but this was limited until the 8th century, after contact with the Arabs.

The use of the alembic as a way of obtaining alcohol is attributed to Ibn Yasid. This discovery was probably made after the 10th century. The first use of alcohol was for medicinal purposes and for prolonging life expectancy - it was referred to as "spirited water" – a healing elixir.  The first distilled sprits were made from sugar-based materials, primarily grapes and honey to make grape brandy and distilled mead.

A major change in distillation came with the invention of a coiled cooling pipe in the 11th century. Avicenna invented a coiled pipe which allowed the plant vapour and stream to cool down more effectively than previous distillers that used a straight cooling pipe.

Through the Turkish invasions of Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries in the name of Allah, the Turks left behind many of their customs, traditions and secrets in the countries they crossed. Among these secrets was distillation. The "al-ambiq" or alembic, and the making of "al-koh`l" or alcohol soon became known throughout the Christian world. As knowledge of the process spread throughout Europe the discovery of distillation grew to include its effects on liquid and while the dream to make gold by the alchemists with the alembic remained just a dream, sprits were discovered and named acqua vitae, or eau de vie meaning 'water of life'. The spirits or 'water of life" were used for their therapeutic qualities. Early pharmaceutical observations bestowed healing powers to spirits as they induced a feeling of relaxation and well being. From here it soon became the norm to use beverages made from spirits at social gatherings leading to the endless varieties of spirits on the market today, whether it be Palinka from Hungry, Schnapps from Germany, Grappa from Italy, Eau de Vie and Cognac from France, Whisky from Scotland and Ireland, Aguardente from Portugal, Tequila from Mexico, Rum from Barbados and the Caribbean or Vodka from Poland and Russia, they are all Aqua Vitae or 'water of life.

The alembic gradually improved.  In 1526, Paracelsus used a water bath (called balneum Mariae by the alchemists) for the first time. It prevented the flask from cracking while heating up, and stabilised the liquid's temperature. The vapour cooling system was also improved. The tube was run through vessels of cold water. In 1771, the German chemist Christian Ehrenfried Weigel invented an apparatus later wrongly named the Liebig condenser, the forerunner of the condensing equipment of today. In it, the tube leading the distillate out of the still was inside another one flowing with water.

The many pot stills available such as the alembic changed their shape and evolved depending on the country that used the distillation equipment and of course the capacity of the still depended on the purpose of the distillation. The traditional Portuguese alembic has a very rounded onion shape as earlier distillers believed that the more rounded shape favoured the return of water vapours into the pot thus obtaining higher quality aguardente.

Portugal's manufacture of copper alembics as old as it's tradition in making "arguardente" (eau-de-vie). In fact aguardente is an essential ingredient of the world renowned Port wine. The history of Port wine is long and ancient. The first vineyards are believed to have been planted by the Phoenicians in the Regua region along the Douro Valley. There is no lack of archaeological evidence. Archaeological remains include stone treading tanks that date back to at least the 3 rd or 4th century. It was really only during the second half of the 17th century that "aguardente" was added to this wine and it came to be known as Port wine. During this period the vineyards around the Douro region expanded and there was a dramatic increase in the exportation of Port wine. The enormous expansion of port trade in the 18th and 19th centuries rivalled that of the French wine industry.