Thursday, December 31, 2020

The history of distillation

Alchemy has its origins in Greece, and around the year 300 BC it is referred to in Egyptian and Babylonian records. Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his Meteorology says, sea water can be made drinkable by vaporization; other liquids behave in the same way”.

Nicander (183-135 BC), a Greek poet and physician, spoke of the extraction of perfumes from plants by what should be called a process of distillation.

The first distillers in Western Civilization were probably the famous old Arabian and Egyptian alchemists who were trying to discover the elixir of life, which was supposed to impart long (or eternal) life, health, and youth.

The first alembics (distilling pots) were built in Egypt and images of them adorn the ancient temple of Memphis. The term “alcohol” is derived from the Arabian term “al-kohl”, which is described as a material produced by refinement.

The still was developed in 800 AD by the Arab alchemist Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, who lived around 700 AD and who put the distillation principles to paper. He established the principles of classifying liquid substances by their properties and invented the equipment and techniques to isolate them.

During an experiment to refine the production of al-kohl, he distilled wine – which he discovered resulted in a clear, highly potent spirit. By then, Islam had already forbidden intoxicants, so Jabir wasn’t interested in the spirit beyond its academic value.

The word ‘alembic’ is derived from the metaphoric meaning of ‘that which refines; which transmutes’, through distillation.

When fellow alchemist Muhammed ibn Zakaryia Razi began refining the practice of distilling alcohol specifically in the 9th century, the goals still had little to do with recreation—distilled alcohol was used primarily for ritual or medicine.

Spain, France, and the rest of western Europe probably produced distilled spirits at an earlier date, but production was apparently limited until the 8th century, after contact with the Arabs.

When distillation was first discovered, it was considered by the Europeans to have been a revelation from God. Indeed, for many years after reaching Italy, Spain, and the heart of Europe, the secret of distilling was hoarded by the monks in the monasteries for those who were closest to God.

The likely origins of the term ‘spirituous’, which is used to describe alcoholic drinks, dates back to the 13th century, since it was at this time that the expression ‘spirit of wine’ was widely used.

The popular beliefs are that the distilling secret went from the Arabians to the Spaniards (possibly by the invading Moors in the 8th century) to Ireland where whiskey was invented.

The first distilled spirits were made from sugar-based materials, primarily grapes and honey to make grape brandy and distilled mead, respectively. The earliest use of starchy grains to produce distilled spirits is not known, but their use certainly dates from the Middle Ages.
The history of distillation

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