Some authors argue that alcohol distillation was already practiced by the ancient Egyptians, while others credit the Sumerians or the Celts. There are even those who attribute the invention of distillation to barbarian populations of the steppes. Recent archaeological excavations in Cyprus suggest the use of distillation, possibly for making perfumes, around 2000 BC. The existence of conflicting theories casts doubt on such an early date. Furthermore, no reliable evidence has been produced, and unfortunately, some historians still confuse fermented beverages with distilled ones.
It is important to remember that distilling alcohol is a difficult process that requires both complex mental processes and suitable technology. As Forbes puts it, “One often forgets that behind a simple distilling apparatus lies a wealth of experiences and experiments, combining several principles of natural science with the ability to create the necessary apparatus.”
Another consideration arises: if, in the long ancient history of the Mediterranean before the Classical Age, someone had succeeded in regularly distilling alcohol and drinking it, how did this valuable knowledge get lost?
Because one thing is certain: the Greeks and Romans of the Classical Age did not consume spirits.
They drank wine, a great deal of it, and occasionally beer. They were familiar with and used many other fermented beverages made from palm trees, fruits, honey, etc., both as beverages and medicines, but they did not consume strong distilled spirits. In the famous symposia of Classical Greece, they drank wine, usually diluted with water in magnificent Attic kraters to reduce its strength. The Romans even drank undiluted wine and were able to distinguish between different types of wine, knowing which were stronger than others. We also know that they heated wine to thicken it and that certain wines were treated in various ways for medicinal purposes. However, there is no mention of alcoholic distillation through evaporation and subsequent cooling of vapors.
Nevertheless, distillation itself was not unknown.
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Aristotle and others wrote about the evaporation and condensation of water. They understood that saltwater from the sea turns into freshwater through rain and rivers. They knew that evaporation caused by the sun’s heat drives the water cycle, and that the evaporated water falls back as precipitation. The famous Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides, who lived around 70 AD, is attributed with the famous quote “Distillation imitates the sun, vaporizing water and turning it into rain.”
Artisans likely used rudimentary forms of distillation to make perfumes, dyes, and in metalworking, while sublimation was used to produce mercury. However, it appears that distillation was not used for much else.
Modern archaeology began centuries ago with excavations of Greek and Roman sites. Surprisingly, no archaeological finds, to my knowledge, have provided evidence of distilling apparatuses for producing alcohol and spirits. Additionally, written sources from that time, including agricultural treatises, never mention strong, distilled alcoholic drinks.
There is only one possible exception. The prominent Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD (which also destroyed Pompeii), describes a peculiar “coelesti aqua” or “heavenly water.” According to him, it was used to preserve grapes and had a pleasant warming effect on the stomach. It might have been alcohol, but we cannot be certain.
However, things began to change later on. According to Forbes, “We must generally agree that distillation was first discovered by the Alexandrian chemists in the 1st century AD until further evidence is presented.” For centuries, Alexandria in Egypt had been the cultural center of the Hellenistic World. Philosophers and scientists from different countries studied and experimented in various fields of knowledge, including chemistry. “The Hellenistic era was one of those fortunate periods where craftsmanship and science converged and inspired each other. Young chemistry possessed the typical rational traits of ancient Greek science.” Zosimos, Maria the Jewess, Hypatia, Synesius are just a few of the key figures in this fascinating journey of human intelligence.
In surviving texts, we find the first illustrations of a real distilling apparatus. “These are already well-advanced in the writings of Maria the Jewess, who is generally considered its inventor. It already consists of three essential elements: the cucurbit and alembic, a tube for transferring the distillate and vapors, and the receiving flask.”
Interestingly, the traditional name for a pot still, alembic, comes from the Greek word “ἄμβιξ” (ambix), meaning “cup.” It was only much later that the Arabs adopted the word, adding the definite article in Arabic, “al,” making it “the alembic.” Through the Arabs, the word entered the languages of Latin Western Europe.
Returning to Alexandria, a source from 200 BC states that “sailors at sea boiled seawater and hung large sponges from the mouth of a bronze vessel to absorb the evaporated liquid. When they wrung out these sponges, they found sweet water.” This might be a description of how they distilled seawater.
However, did they actually produce alcohol? Forbes argues that they did not. According to him, the problem lay in the lack of proper cooling: “The use of distillation apparatuses with inadequate cooling prevented the recovery of liquids with boiling points lower than that of water.” Other authors hold the opposite view. Nevertheless, the lack of definitive evidence and subsequent developments lead me to believe that even if isolated experiments did take place, alcohol remained a peculiar and rare liquid primarily used for scientific and alchemical purposes.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the foundations of the history of alcoholic distillation in the West were established in Alexandria. However, it was not from there that the path towards large-scale commercial production of alcohol began.
In 639, the Arabs invaded Egypt, swiftly defeating Byzantine forces and taking control of Alexandria by 642. A Byzantine attempt to reconquer Alexandria in 645 was quickly crushed. Since then, Alexandria has remained firmly in Arab hands, and Egypt has become one of the centers of Arabic and Islamic culture.
Arabic and Islamic culture soon assimilated Alexandrian and Greek knowledge, which had almost completely vanished in Latin Western Europe during the Dark Ages. Among the legacies of the Alexandrines, Arab scientists and alchemists also learned distillation techniques, improved upon them, and made extensive use of them.