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ORIGINS OF DISTILLATION














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ORIGINS OF DISTILLATION 
Graphic: Cross section of alembic with break, condenser and reseptical. The process of distillation (the Latin root of the word refers to dropping or trickling), that is, separating a liquid into components which differ in their boiling points, was discovered long ago. About 1810 B.C. in Mari, Mesopotamia, (the site of the present city of Tall al-Hariri, Syria), the perfumery of King Zimrilim employed this method to make hundreds of litres of balms, essences and incense from cedar, cyprus, ginger and myrrh every month, using a huge vessel with a lid and a sluice. Queen Cleopatra knew about distillation, and is thought to have given an account of the process in a text which is now lost. In the first century it was mentioned by the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscurides (who travelled with the armies of the Roman emperors Nero and Vespasian) and at the turn of the second and third centuries by the Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis near Thebes.

In medieval times, distillation was the alchemists' secret, and the equipment in every alchemy laboratory. Not until the early fifteenth century was the secret revealed, when Michele Savanrola of Italy described the method of extracting spiritus vini from wine. In 1500, Hieronimus Brunschwygk's work Liber de arte destillandi (Book of the Distilling Art) appeared in Strasbourg. Through the rest of the century it was reprinted five times in Latin, and translated into Flemish (1517) and English (1527).The simplest still had a glass, copper, tin or ceramic flask, often mounted on a special lamp or burner, with a glass, metal or ceramic cap where drops of condensed vapour collected. The cap was beaked, that is, it funnelled to a tube leading down to a receptacle called the receiver. The flask, cap and beak together formed the alembic. The parts were connected and sealed with lutum sapientiae (solder of wisdom), a mixture of clay, powdered brick, egg white and horse manure. (Although wisdom and manure are twinned in many jokes, no humour is intended here.)
Graphic: Early Distillery

The device was gradually improved. In 1526, Paracelsus used a water bath (called balneum Mariae by the alchemists) for the first time. It prevented the flask from cracking while heating up, and stabilised the liquid's temperature. The vapour cooling system was also improved. The tube was run through vessels of cold water. In 1771, the German chemist Christian Ehrenfried Weigel invented an apparatus later wrongly named the Liebig condenser, the forerunner of the condensing equipment of today. In it, the tube leading the distillate out of the still was inside another one flowing with water.


Thus the alembic, a creature of the gloomy laboratories of the alchemists, gave birth to the complicated rectification devices of later times. During the same period the alembic survived virtually unchanged in noblemen's households, right up to the mid-nineteenth century, where it was used to distil spirits and prepare aperitifs.
















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