Designed as a simple distillation instrument, the alembic has been used throughout history to make medicine, perfume, and alcoholic beverages.
Distillates known as whiskey, vodka, rum, gin, brandy, cognac, tequila, etc., are the result of the ancient technique known as distillation, carried out through an alembic to obtain a liquid with a high alcohol content. Depending on the desired result, these beverages can be distilled one or more times, in addition to adding different ingredients during the distillation process to achieve their own nuances such as specific aromas or flavors. Some of these distillates are obtained from cereals such as wheat, barley, corn or millet; others from plants such as sugar cane or agave; and the remainder from the distillation of alcoholic beverages such as wine as well as other ingredients such as herbs, roots and fruits.
What Is the Alembic and What Is It For?
The alembic is a device used for the distillation of any liquid substance through a process of evaporation by heating and subsequent condensation by cooling them from one container to another. The purpose of distillation is nothing more than to concentrate a liquid substance, enhancing its aromas and increasing its alcoholic strength.
This device consists of a metal tank, known as a boiler, cylindrical or spherical, a top or dome, a metal tube that connects both parts, a coil, a condenser and a receiver. Formerly they were made of copper, giving them that boiler color so characteristic of the containers of yesteryear, however, today they can be found in different metal alloys or stainless steel.
Depending on its origin, the alembic can vary its shape although in general they are quite similar to each other, basically formed by a vessel or tank to contain the liquid, with an inclined tube in the shape of a swan neck where the distilled substance leaves until reach the other container to condense it.
Origin and Who Invented the Alembic
Distillation was a skill already known in one of the oldest civilizations in the world, China, to obtain alcohols from rice. In contrast, in Ancient Egypt, the art of distillation was developed by alchemists to make perfumes and skin ointments using medicinal plants and flowers. In Classical Greece, this well-known method was carried out in large pots in which they heated the liquid covered by a kind of domed device as a lid, which the Greeks gave the name of ambix. Later, the Roman civilization used the same system devised by the Greeks for centuries. It was not until the arrival of the Arabs, who learned the technique inherited from the Egyptians, that the technique of distillation was perfected in the al-inbīq, a distilling vessel. The Arabs used it for the production of medicines and perfumes since they did not consume alcohol because of the prohibition of their holy book, the Koran. This bronze artifact then spread throughout Europe, where its inhabitants used it to make alcoholic beverages such as herbal liqueurs, vodka or fruit-based brandy. Over the years, the alembic continued to be improved and spread to South America where they made drinks such as pisco, tequila and brandy, or the Caribbean islands to distill rum.
How an Alembic Works
The operation is relatively simple and has remained unchanged since ancient civilizations developed the method of distillation. The water is introduced into the boiler in addition to the product to be distilled, be it fruits, herbs, plant stems or seeds, to later close it with the dome. Then the process of evaporation of the alcohol from the mixture is carried out by increasing the temperature. When this process begins, the most volatile components of the mixture, that is, those that have a lower boiling point, are the first to evaporate, in this case the alcohol. Consequently, both elements, water and alcohol, flow through the metal tube that connects the two tanks. These compounds then reach the coil, a narrower, spiral-shaped conduit inside the condenser. In this way, since the condenser container contains cold water, the water vapor and alcohol from the coil are condensed to pour into the final container that functions as a receiver.
Basically the alembic works by heating the mixture to be distilled in the boiler, which with the increase in temperature manages to separate the volatile elements that rise up to the gooseneck, to pass to the coil, through which the steam passes condensed through the drop in temperature until it is collected again in liquid form with a higher concentration of aromas and alcohol in the final phase, aided by the refrigeration unit, thus obtaining highly concentrated beverages in both flavor and aroma, as well as a significant alcohol content .