The water of life

A short, distracted history of distillation, and a tribute to those who made it happen.  I ponder the origins of the fine spirit.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

An elegant bar.  The gentle clink of rocks glasses.  An array of bottles on burnished shelves.  Unobtrusive service.  Another, sir?  I don’t mind if I do.  Small, measured sips.  An explosion of flavour.  Expanding ripples of relaxation.  Laughter and conversation.  This is a ritual enjoyed by spirits drinkers the world over – a ritual made possible by the magic of distillation.

I’ve often sat back and wondered to myself how it was that this phenomenon came to pass.  By whom, how, and where, in the distant past, the product of a startling imagination, was this remarkable exploitation of nature conceived?  Fermentation I get.  It lends itself to accidental discovery; the juice of a fruit or a sugary plant left standing, the presence of the right organisms, and cheers: a realistic, probable happenstance.  The details of the theory might have had to wait for Pasteur and others, but fermentation was evident enough that people were getting merrily toasted for multiple millennia beforehand.  Distillation though would have been a tougher, altogether-more-deliberate nut to crack.

The basic process, once known, is actually very simple. It uses the different boiling temperatures of the components of a liquid to separate them from each other, and then, once separated, to specifically collect or concentrate one or the other; it is the conversion of sugar to alcohol in fermentation which provides the base which is then concentrated.  The legendary Homer (Simpson, not the guy who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey) once said:  “In America, first you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the women!”  Truer words have never been spoken.  The alcohol from sugar, specifically ethyl alcohol, has a lower boiling temperature than water, its most abundant companion in fermented mixtures, so it can easily be evaporated in isolation and then condensed elsewhere in the form of a powerful, infinitely interesting, and complex liquid known as a distilled spirit.

It is likely then that nature served as the inspiration.  The observation of evaporating and condensing water, and then other liquids put on the boil, would have triggered a dawning realisation.  There are suggestions that distillation was being conducted in various places in the distant past, as far back as 800 BC in China, but the first undisputed evidence of it dates to the Greek colonies in Egypt in the first century AD, where it was being used by alchemists to distil essences for perfumes, balms and other such uninteresting purposes.  It was only much later, certainly in terms of documented fact, in the now teetotalling Arab world ironically (although to be fair it was intended for medicinal purposes), that distillation techniques were applied to alcohol, using a device called an alembic – al-anbīq in Arabic, meaning “still”.

This technology spread gradually to various areas, most impactfully to Europe, where it was added to and refined upon, and used vociferously for the making of acqua vitae, the water of life, which became the basis for our modern spirits tradition.  Stills were developed in various shapes and forms, notably the Charentais used to make Cognac, and the bulbous pot stills used to make whisky.  The structure of a still is believed to have a significant influence on the character of the final liquid, to the point where whisky makers will deliberately reproduce dents and other structural blemishes when replacing their exhausted stills.  Later still (sorry), starting in the early 1820’s and culminating with the device invented by Aeneas Coffey, the Coffey Still, came the onset of continuous distillation, just in time for the Industrial Age with its greater yields, and purer distillates.

Today, sitting in that bar, we’re able to reap the fruits of the toil of our long-gone brothers, selecting from a broad multitude of spirits to satisfy our every whim.  Let’s take break, every now and again, between the brandy and the Benedictine, to doff our caps to those who came before and made all of this possible.  It’s not classical Greek, but let’s not split hairs: Stin Iyiamas!


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