The Art of Distilling Alcohol: A Fascinating Journey Through History

The Art of Distilling Alcohol: A Fascinating Journey Through History
Illustration of a sixteenth century alcohol distillation set up showing two boiling vessels (bottom), the central column, or rectifying column, containing cold water & two receiving vessels (top). The illustration was produced by one Ulstadius in 1526. There is no further information on him or the publication.

The Distillation of Alcohol – A Brief History

If you enjoy fine alcoholic beverages like whiskey, you have probably wondered about their origins. And if you’re one of those fascinated by spirits, you may even have a moonshine still at home. So let’s delve into the history of alcohol distillation.

Thank the Arabs

Surprisingly, the Arabs are credited with the origins of distillation. They developed the concept of pure distillation around the 8th – 9th centuries. Despite not being allowed to drink themselves, they took distillation seriously and derived pleasure from producing pure, high-quality alcoholic beverages. Although distillation existed in the region since 500 B.C., it was chemistry, particularly the contributions of Persians and Arabs, that shaped distillation into what it is today.

The word “distillation” itself comes from the Latin “de-stillare,” which means the process of separating liquids through vaporization and condensation. While Aristotle first suggested the idea of distilling spirits, it was the Arabs who put it into practice.

If you’re curious about the term “alcohol,” it has been used in English since the 16th century. However, its roots trace back to the Arabic word “al-kohl.” “Al” means “the,” and “kohl” refers to the powder used as eyeliner by women (a term still in use today). Initially, “al-kohl” or “alcohol” served as a medical solution for eye ailments. It later transformed into the liquor we know today, around the 18th century.

Copper Alcohol Distillation Equipment

Of course, alcohol distillation requires apparatus, and that’s where the alembic comes in. Its origins are somewhat uncertain, with some attributing it to two Egyptian sisters in 200-300 A.C., while others believe it appeared alongside distillation in the Arab lands during the 9th century. The word “alembic” derives from the Greek “ambix,” which means a pot with a small mouth. The Arabs modified it to “ambic,” and combined with the “al” mentioned earlier, it became known as “Al Ambic” and later Europeanized as Alembic.

Distillation Around the World

Distilled alcoholic beverages were not limited to Arab territories. Shochu was distilled from sake in Japan, Arrack was made from molasses and rice in India, and Skhou was produced from mare’s milk in what is now Georgia. Distillation played a significant role on the Asian continent.

In Europe, the Romans are credited with being the first to distill alcohol, primarily from wine. Later, countries like Spain, Portugal, and France adopted distillation techniques after contact with the Arab world.

Real distillation, as we know it today, became prominent in Europe during the Middle Ages. The first recorded distillation of alcohol occurred in the 12th century in Salerno, Italy. Brandy emerged in the first half of the 1400s, and the popularity of distilled spirits grew rapidly. They were even considered medicinal remedies during the Black Death.

What about Today?

The process of distillation has undergone minimal changes since its inception, with traditional copper alembic stills being widely used not only in Europe but also in America. Traditional methods are still preferred over modern techniques, especially by those passionate about distilling alcohol and making moonshine.

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