Alcohol: History of distillation

Text : Marie Josèphe Moncorgé. Translator: Bruce Lee

Distillation of fragrant oils for perfumery during the Antiquity, distillation of fruit brandies in the Middle Ages, distillation of alcohol for consumption starting from the 15th century.

1 - Antiquity

We are in the domain of extraction of aromatic oils and perfumery, but not yet that of alcohol distillation.

alembic from Tepe Gawra (Irak)

Vessels such as the one pictured, containing a 37l capacity and 2l collar, are considered basic stills and were found in Northern Iraq (Tepe Gawra, Mesopotamia). They are from 3500 BC. It appears that these distillation methods were also known by the civilizations in the Indus Valley in the 3rd millennium BC (excavation of Mohenjo Daro).

Alembic from Tepe Gawra (Irak)
by Roget J. et Garreau Ch. 1990

A tablet with an illustration of a vase placed over a fire and covered with a conical top, which could represent a basic still, was found during excavations in Keos, 16th century BC, Crete. The Arab word alembic derived from the Greek word ambikos, which describes a cylindrical vessel with a cone top.

Aristotle (Greek philosopher, 384 BC - 322 BC) was the first to describe the principle of distillation of sea water.

In Alexandria, Egypt, the remnants of a guild of perfumers were found. These perfumers, believed to be from the first centuries BC and AD, used stills to distil elixirs, floral essences. They are one of the earliest groups to be found working in the field of chemistry and alchemy. A manuscript, dating from the 4th century, written by an alchemist named Zosimos of Panopolis, contained an illustration of an alembic.

A legend credits St Patrick, an Irish monk, as the first to import the still to Ireland from his visit to Egypt around 420. This would make St Patrick "the father" of Irish whisky (uisce beatha, holy water)!

Liliane Plouvier, a historian in Brussels specializing in the history of food and confection in Europe, believes that artisans in the Antiquity knew how to distil water but had not yet discovered how to distil alcohol. In fact, it is relatively simple to retrieve water vapour that condenses on the lid of a container. From there, using simple methods for decantation, we can retrieve small quantities of the delicate oils of aromatic plants to use in perfumery. However, to obtain alcohol in sufficient quantities, alcohol vapours must be cooled quickly with cold water (using the coil technique). This process, according to Plouvier, was only discovered in the Middle Ages.

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2 - Middle Ages

We are in the domain of medicine and alchemy: we produced “elixirs of long life or acqua vitae.”

Liliane Plouvier distinguishes between the distillation of water and the distillation of alcohol. She explains, in Les origines de l'art distillatoire, that Arab and Persian alchemists, in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, were interested in the distillation of alcohol and developed the first alembic. In summary, she notes two Arab physicians who made progress in understanding the process for distilling alcohol:

From the 12th century onward, Western societies discovered this technique of alcohol distillation. But alcohol remained a medication reserved for the use of physicians and apothecaries.

It is believed that Irish abbeys were already distilling uisce beatha (holy water) in 1170 when the armies of Henry II of England invaded Ireland. Irish alembics were already being taxed in 1276 by the English, according to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (Histoire naturelle et morale de la nourriture).

Jean de Meung, in the second part of Roman de la Rose written around 1270, wrote: je vois maintes fois que tu plores cum alembic sus alutel.

Arnau de Vilanova, known as Arnaldus de Villa Nova, a Catalan physician from the University of Montpellier (deceased in 1311) described in Tractatum de vinis how to produce aqua ardens (literally “burning water”), a soaking of plants and alcohol. He was the first to use the practice of fortifying alcohol (adding spirits to wine to prolong its shelf life), which seems to be Arabic process. The Templars of Mas Deu in Perpignan then spread this method, leading to the development of the mild wines of the region.

Maître Vital Dufour, a Franciscan friar from the Eauze and Saint-Mont area in the Gers department of south-western France, who later became a cardinal, studied medicine in Montpellier around 1295. In 1310, he wrote a medical work, now housed in the library of the Vatican, in which he described the 40 virtues of aygo ardento or aygo de bito, the predecessor of Armagnac.

He wrote: She cooks an egg, raw or cooked meat, she conserves..., if we add herbs, she extracts their virtues... She sharpens the spirit when taken in moderation, recalls memories past, makes man joyous above all, preserves youth and slows senility... She cures sore throats if gargled frequently... and if drank, she loosens the tongue, gives audacity, if a shy person drinks from time to time...

English translation by Bruce Lee from a French translation by Father Loubès in dossier de presse du Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l'Armagnac.

Aqua ardens is not used in cooking until the 16th century, yet we have found 2 English recipes from the 14th century that use it: A recipe for claré called potus clareti pro domino, uses a quarter pint of aqua ardua with spices and honey. The second recipe is from the Forme of Cury (1390). The entremets' recipe called "chastlet" (a pie in the form of a castle), ends with the following words: Serve it forth with ew ardant. Should we add a dash of alcohol to the pie, as you would with rose water? Should we set the alcohol alight as a cannon spits fire? Do we drink aqua ardens to accompany the pie? It is not always easy to interpret medieval recipes.

In contrast, in Italy, in the Vatican court of the 15th century, record books of Pope Paul II (1464-1467) describe the use of fruit brandies in cooking, usually during festive meals.

The origin of a few words:

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3 - From the 15th century onward

We are now in the domain of alcohols made for consumption.

liqueur from Distillerie Eyguebelle

Liqueur from Distillerie Eyguebelle

Alembics and the commercialization of alcohol for use outside the field of medicine began in the 15th century: there is evidence that aygardent (Armagnac) was commercialized between 1411 and 1441 in Gascony.

Sale of commercial alcohol surged in the 17th century with the production of Cognac and Armagnac in France, whisky in Great Britain, vodka in Poland and Russia.

Alembic in Armagnac

Alambic en Armagnac
Photo BNIA / Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l'Armagnac

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Alcool: histoire de la distillation