How did distillation come about?

William Faulkner said that civilization begins with distillation. Taking stock of the progress of a civilization through the prism of its scientific and cultural advances in distillation is commendable. Distillation requires knowledge in many fields - agriculture, chemistry, biology, metallurgy, technology - as well as know-how in terms of conditioning, packaging and logistics. The above are the technical measures, but the cultural and sensory criteria require an audience with experienced taste buds and purchasing power to acquire the finished product and recognize its qualities.

We will retrace the brief historical odyssey of grain distillation and its major developments in a series of two articles. We will start with the aqua vitae era grain spirits. The second part will take us into the whisky era. These two eras are differentiated by two entirely different forms of production equipment, product preparation, economies of scale and Consumption habits. The stages and transformations that led to the transition from aqua vitae to whisky did not take place in isolation: the major advances in other industries and sciences have resulted in the creation of new materials, technologies and processes, which have been made available to the distillation industry, but there are also decisive products and differences in organoleptic qualities. Until the end of the 18th century, grain spirits were not aged. Instead, the distillate of plant and aromatic ingredients was added to produce medicinal tonics and flavourful beverages for recreational consumption. From Anglo-Saxon Britain, the locution aqua vitae (“brandy” in Latin) became uisce-beatha in Irish Celtic then uisge-beatha or usque-baugh in Scotland. Finally, in 1735, Uisce was anglicized as “whisky”.

Distillation in medieval times, in the Middle East and in Western Europe

The first documented occurrence of distillation in Western Europe dates from around 1150, in Salerno, Italy. But it was in Mesopotamia, more than 6,000 years ago, that archaic distillation processes were developed. The terracotta objects associated with distillation uncovered by archaeological excavations in Babylon, Crete and the Indus Valley, attest to rudimentary distillation processes intended to produce essences and perfumes. Around the year 400 AD, Zosimus of Panopolis, drawing his inspiration from earlier Alexandrian distillation treatises, depicted stills in the form of retorts, and referred to the capital of the cornet under its Greek name, ambix . Arab scholars transpose its descriptor, al-anbiq , into their language. Five centuries later, in Persia, Jabir ibn Hayyan, says Geber, reproduces versions of these stills on the basis of these Alexandrian sources. He founded the first Arab chemistry laboratory equipped with stills for the manufacture of alcohols and medicinal perfumes. His writings constitute one of the diaspora sources of Islamic and, later, European distillation. The first spirit drinks resulted from the distillation of wine, the alcoholic base common to southern Europe and the Middle East. When stills entered the brewing regions of northern Europe, cereal mash replaced wine.

While the Benedictines administer the medical school and hospital of Salerno from the Abbey of Monte Cassino, seat of their order, other Catholic orders follow their example in caring for the sick and vulnerable. The Cistercians and Dominicans also founded hospitals and dispensaries, thus spreading knowledge about distillation in the Catholic spheres of influence in Western Europe. In the XII th century, distillation is both an ecclesiastical activity and secular vocation adopted by apothecaries and physicians. The technique of distillation spread rapidly northward, through the Po Valley, Venice, France and the Holy Roman Empire. In 1280, in Nuremberg, artisanal distillers madebrenewein (“burnt wine”), which is a distillation of wine. Free German cities which do not have distillers import the aqua vitae produced by the artisanal distillation laboratories of Modena, Bologna and Venice. Around 1300, Modena was the center of distillation in Europe: its prophylactic aqua vitae was marketed to treat diseases and ailments. Genoese traders took advantage of this new product and exported it to London and Moscow. These new distillation centers arouse the curiosity of scholars like Hieronymus Burckhardtwho studied distillation in Modena in the 1330s, encouraged by Emperor Ludwig IV of Bavaria. The latter subsequently granted him permission to distill in Berlin. Across the German Free States, enterprising apothecaries, royal residences, monasteries, and tavern owners practice some rudimentary form of distillation. The recreational consumption of aqua vitae is taking off in drinking establishments and households. From 1360, public drunkenness was an endemic problem in Frankfurt, which prompted the municipality to adopt the very first edicts regulating the profession of distiller to curb drunkenness on public roads due to schnapsteufel.

The basic structure of the still

There are two elements in the first stills: the head (also called cap or capital) and the base (cucurbite or boiler). Distillation consists of filling the cucurbite with wine or beer wort, placing the capital on the cucurbite and luting the latter with paste to prevent any escape of boiling steam. The cucurbite is then placed on an indirect heating stove or on an open flame, the distiller carefully controlling the heating to bring the liquid to the boil, the ethanol vaporizing at 72 ° C before the water (100 ° C).

The first bench stills were thick blown glass retorts, or “retort”, with a capacity of one or two liters. The boiler was often immersed in sand, ash or water, or it was coated with clay to moderate the heat in the manner of a water bath, and thus prevent the glass from breaking or bleeding. its content. These were household stills or small family businesses with no commercial scope. Over the next seven centuries, the design of stills followed this basic two-part structure, but with many variations. Each country describes in its own language the varieties of still shapes. In Great Britain, for example, they are called distillation bell, pelican still, twin still, turtle, hydra, horn, lute, etc. Some configurations involve a series of interconnected twists, similar to the stills used in Jamaican rum distilleries. The more complex arrangements take on the appearance of a beehive with furnaces and internal ducts heating a whole network of small stills. Commonly used until the beginning of the 16th century century, glass and metal stills were expensive and fragile. Unlike terracotta or ceramic stills which were cheap and simpler to manufacture, their internal walls were often enamelled, which improved their performance. Metal stills - brass, pewter, bronze, copper, even poisonous lead - have proven to be as durable as they are easy to use. When copper is abundant from the beginning of the XVII th century and its lower price, its superior features make it the metal of choice for the manufacture of stills of the 1620-to-life.After waters tinning The interior of the copper still and coil prolongs its life.

Renaissance stills

The “Moor’s head” and the rosenhut are the two forms of still most used at the time. The rosenhut ( “pink hat” in German) appears at the beginning of the XV th century. It is a still with a conical, air-cooled capital. By installing a second spout above the capital, the still obtained a coarse fractional distillation. The conical capital was better suited for the distillation of essences and perfumes such as rose water. The Moorish head is used from the end of the 15th century century. It is a bulbous capital inside which is enclosed a second basin in which water circulates. To cool it and cause condensation, the marquee is wrapped in damp cloths, hence its resemblance to a turban. In 1519, a Bavarian metallurgist was the first to fix a “dephlegmator” on a Moorish head, a device partially acting as a rectifier (in which condensation and reflux took place) to improve the purity of the alcohol.

From the XVII th century, several technical improvements are made to the hardware engineering, including the Germans, the Dutch and the English. Robert Boyle designed the first vacuum still in 1670, and Denis Papin, who emigrated to London to be closer to one of the centers of innovation in the field of distillation, manufactured in 1696 valves and pistons improving the safety of new stills. experimental steam. In Germany, political turmoil and religious constrain number of skilled distillers to emigrate to Holland, where Antwerp is the middle of the XVI th century, the largest international market in Europe, a commercial port and an important center distillation. In the 17th century century, Holland becomes the largest European center of brewing and yeast, endowed with the most important merchant navy of the continent; This transported considerable volumes of grain from the Baltic to the Dutch coastal breweries and distilleries. At the same time, the Dutch also controlled the European copper trade. Their technical know-how and engineering prowess in distillation equipment directly shape and influence the French cognac, West Indian rum, Eastern European vodka, Asian arrack industries. South East, and contribute to the modernization of the Scotch whisky industry. After the siege of Antwerp in 1585, thousands of Dutch emigrants settled in London bringing their gin there, and at the same time founded the English gin industry. In Scotland, Dutchman Henricus Van Wyngaarden was recruited in the 1740s to advise the Society of Agricultural Improvers on how to amend distilled aqua vitae in rural estates and encourage the development of distillation.

Invented by Thaddeus of Florence in the 1280s, the condenser is another technical innovation: its serpentium canaleis a simple metal pipe wound into a serpentine and immersed in a tank of cold water. This device, essential to any major production, however, had to wait two centuries before seeing its generalized use. A distillery aiming to profitably produce healthy brandy needed to have efficient stills, improved stoves, installed in fireproof buildings, vigorous yeast strains and inventory management. well organized, from the grain supply to the cooperage to the brewhouse. In London and Holland, distillation is gradually leaving farms and households to settle in urban centers where it becomes the main activity of large commercial enterprises. In 1743,usquebaugh.

Distillation in Great Britain

Distillation landed in England in the XII th century. At the University of Oxford, Roger Bacon wrote a treatise on distillation in 1267 which he included in his Opus Majus . From the XIV th century abbeys, apothecaries and alchemists and administer distill elixirs and etchings in the kingdom. In January 1404, Henry IV banned alchemy and distillation, a ban that his grandson canceled in 1444. From now on, spirits compete with beer and wine on occasions of social consumption. The London writer Geoffrey Chaucer mentions in 1388, in the chapter of his Canterbury Talesthat he devotes to Yeoman, the “cucurbites and stills”, which attests to his familiarity with artisanal distillation. Across the Irish Sea, Irish brewing is also on the way to becoming a national industry. The first written mention of a distilled brandy indicates the death of a certain Richard MacRannnell, on Christmas Day 1405, for having “consumed an overabundance of aqua vitae “. Fynes Moryson, who describes Ireland in the 1590s in his Itinerary , distinguishes between aqua vitae and uisge-beatha , indicating that he prefers the second, the grape-flavored raw grain alcohol, fennel , seeds and other additives. Scotland is also preparing a usgue-baughwith comparable aromas and flavors, adding spices, aromatic herbs and honey to sweeten its flavor. Social affiliation determined the alcoholic drink preferably consumed in a given class. The aristocracy, the clergy and the landed nobility had the means to drink imported wines, and the possibility of distilling in aqua vitae the wine spoiled or in excess. The peasant class had only the ale(“Top fermentation beer”) brewed daily for food, health and recreational consumption. She also had the possibility of distilling the excess quantities of ale in small stills and then adding aromatic herbs to the distillate to make a usgue-baugh with pleasant aromas. to keep it for consumption or later resale in another form. A bushel of oats, wheat, and malted barley produced an average of seven and a half gallons of “good ale”; Distilled again, this gave more than a gallon of proof spirit (” proof spirit “, grading about 57.15% vol.).

Scotland was the third nation in the British Isles to document the distillation of grain. In June 1495, King James IV ordered malted barley aqua vitae from the monk John Cor, from Lindores Abbey, County Fife. Five years later, the king had a laboratory fitted out in Stirling Castle where his alchemist John Damian became a “great distiller who produced ‘three times drawn aqua vitae’”. In July 1505, the Guild of Barbary Surgeons of Edinburgh obtained the monopoly on the distillation and sale of aqua vitae in the city. The distillation of aqua vitae became common practice and spread throughout the British Isles: grain brandy was now ubiquitous. Until the XVI th century, the capacity of household stills was around four to five gallons (18 to 23 liters); that of stills in large estates and taverns, 30 to 40 gallons (136 to 182 liters). Scotland’s first commercial distillery, the Ferintosh Brewery-Distillery Farm, rebuilt by Duncan Forbes in 1690, likely used stills of comparable capacity to make his aqua vitae. Until the 19th century century, London is the most important center of distillation of Great Britain; Considerable quantities of malt brandy are distilled there for the production of gin, English brandy and etchings. It is also a city where there is strong competition conducive to innovation: in 1635, Théodore de Mayerne, of the Distillers Company, obtained the very first patent for the distillation of strong waters. John Tatham filed in June 1692 the first patent for a “copper kettle” and a “wooden vessel” for “brewing and distilling all kinds of liquors and spirits”. From the middle of the 18th century century, the Industrial Revolution would transform the manufacturing industry, and more specifically the whisky industries in Ireland, Scotland and North America, paving the way for the whisky era.

The distillation of whisky underwent an extraordinary period of change between 1785 and 1840. It was during this “golden age” of half a century that the inventions and innovations which gave the industry of whisky its main modern characteristics. Other revolutions affecting the whisky landscape have had direct consequences on whisky distillation. In agriculture, new advances marked at this time agricultural practices, from mechanization to the hybridization of cereals. Whisky is becoming more affordable as production costs per bushel plummet and yields soar. In 1750, the average production of whisky per bushel was from a gallon to a gallon and a half; in 1790, two gallons; in 1800, three gallons; in the 1820s, three to four gallons. Improvements in grain varieties and yeast strains as well as progress in extraction techniques result in the production of a more salubrious brandy that can be put into barrels by distilleries. Excise taxes and government regulations encourage whisky maturation time of years rather than months. New scientific advances lead to the development and improvement of instruments for measuring and controlling production. The large number of packaging made possible by glass molds and lithographic printing of labels signaled the advent of brand marketing and mass consumption: all these techniques emerged during this heroic era of whisky. strains of yeast as well as advances in extraction techniques result in the production of a healthier eau-de-vie that can be put into barrels by distilleries. Excise taxes and government regulations encourage whisky maturation time of years rather than months. New scientific advances lead to the development and improvement of instruments for measuring and controlling production. The large number of packaging made possible by glass molds and lithographic printing of labels signaled the advent of brand marketing and mass consumption: all these techniques emerged during this heroic era of whisky. strains of yeast as well as advances in extraction techniques result in the production of a healthier eau-de-vie that can be put into barrels by distilleries. Excise taxes and government regulations encourage whisky maturation time of years rather than months. New scientific advances lead to the development and improvement of instruments for measuring and controlling production. The large number of packaging made possible by glass molds and lithographic printing of labels signaled the advent of brand marketing and mass consumption: all these techniques emerged during this heroic era of whisky.

Remarkable progress thanks to steam

During the 1780s, distillation equipment benefited from remarkable technical progress in Great Britain, France and the United States. Over the next forty years, thousands of inventors developed a number of versions for different devices. These ideas gradually implemented and modified, relating to production facilities as well as patents, quickly spread to the main distillation centers before being subject to local adaptations. The fermentation and distillation processes specific to each country are directly influenced by their raw materials, which explains the appearance of variations in the design, functionality and use of the equipment depending on the spirits produced. result from the distillation of grapes, cereals, sugar cane,

What changed the situation at the time was the recent invention of the steam engine. From 1772, the Irishman Christopher Colles built a Newcomen steam engine to pump water into a distillery in Philadelphia. Twelve years later, Daniel Latham installed a steam pump in his Philadelphia rye distillery. In Great Britain, in London, John Cooke equips his malt distillery, in April 1776, with a Boulton steam engine, and in Scotland, in 1787, John Stein’s Kennetpans distillery uses the motive force of steam to grind the seed. July 1785 was the year zero for steam distillation: the first patent protecting this technique was granted to Benjamin Thompson (Earl Rumford), a pro-royalist American who had immigrated to Britain a decade earlier. In 1802, London boilermaker Charles Wyatt adds heating tubes to the base of the still, foreshadowing the development of steam coils. Sometimes, the implementation of new inventions suffers from delays: these steam coils will not be adopted in Scotland until 1887, with the installation in the Glenmorangie distillery of a set of gin stills from a distillery in Chelsea.

New forms of stills

Continuous still steam distillation and its improved yields meet opposition from the Excise Duty Office. During the following two decades, the British authorities rejected patent stills [column stills, with continuous distillation], because they did not comply with the measurement standards of pot stills.Traditional [iron stills]. Many inventors, such as Irish distillers George Birch of the Birchgrove Distillery in Roscrea, Joseph Shee of the Green Distillery in Cork and Anthony Perrier of Spring Lane, not far from Cork, have encountered similar resistance when presenting their firsts. versions of stills with continuous distillation. From 1827, Aeneas Coffey, of the Dock distillery in Dublin, and Robert Stein, of the Kirkliston distillery in Scotland (but also of the Wandsworth distillery at Alee) pleaded for tests to be carried out for the adoption of new standards taking into account their new steam-heated continuous distillation processes.

Along with the political and military upheavals that it experienced during this period, France was seized with a fever of inventions encouraging the development of beet and cognac brandy production industries. In 1801, Édouard Adams adapted the “bottles” of Woolfe, Saluzzo and Glauber, arranging them in a series of oviform chambers to achieve an evolving semi-continuous distillation, the number of chambers determining the final alcohol content. Laurent Solimani designed a still with a horizontal column and in 1813 Michel Baglioni made a still topped with a rectification column. Jean-Baptiste Cellier-Blumenthal built in 1808 the first vertical still with a fractionation column, and patented it in 1813; he also equips his vertical column with bell trays of his invention. Jean-Baptiste Fournier adds a second continuous distillation column.

Renowned engineers, Armand Savalle and Charles-Louis Derosne, subsequently made other improvements to the stills. Whether it’s the distillation of wine, grain, potatoes or molasses, ideas are mutually enriching with improvements offered across Western Europe. London distilleries adapt Cellier-Blumenthal’s inventions to the combined still of Joseph Corty, or to the double still of the German Johannes Pistorius, which lends itself to the distillation of rye and thick musts and produced in a single pass a wine containing 85% vol. In 1823, the French Jean-Jacques Saint-Marc emigrated to London where he installed his continuous column still in the NicholsonDistillery, then joined forces with William Fellowes to found BelmontDistillery.

In Scotland, legislation in force since 1787 - Amended Wash Act associated with the Licensing Systemtaxing the production of licit distilleries - prompts Lowland stills to make shallow or flat stills that allow rapid distillation As taxes on still capacity increase, distilleries stay ahead of the curve through technical improvements that allow them to distill quickly. allow them to increase their production volumes. One distillery even manages to distill 480 loads of stills in twenty-four hours. Rapid distillation in shallow stills was briefly adopted in the United States where 217 stills designed by the American Robert Krafft were in operation in 1804, but, like in Scotland, these stills were less and less popular as the the alcohol they produce is at best unhealthy, at worst harmful. The format of the stills constituted the main part of Scottish inventions for two decades. Small stillspot stills remain common in the Highlands. In England, France and Scotland, the wooden still is briefly tested. At the end of the 1820s, William Shand experimented at the Fettercairn distillery with a wooden still to obtain a higher alcohol content. However, the performance of this type of still remains considerably insufficient compared to that of the continuous copper stills developed by Robert Stein and Aeneas Coffey in the 1830s.

Corn, rye, barley or oats?

American distillers are quickly embracing steam. The wooden steam still is a strictly American invention. At the end of the XVIII th century in remote rural areas, farmers use the still log. Hollowed tree trunks are shaped to form two compartments, secured by strapping and connected by copper pipes inserted into a simple guard tank where a boiler or heated stones vaporize the mash. Design changes and the invention of auxiliary components lead to the filing of various patents for log stills, hogshead drums, wooden vats and containers specially designed to withstand the increase in steam pressure. American distillers also brewed various local grains, primarily Indian corn and rye, unlike the British who mainly distilled barley and oat wort. The higher viscosity of American grain musts has profoundly affected distillation processes and the design of stills in North America. Corn and rye require specific baking and mashing, as they produce thicker, stickier brews. Steam distillation lends itself best to this type of mashing. The first still to obtain an “exclusive privilege of distillation and brewing in wooden vessels for a period of fourteen years” granted in 1652 by the General Assembly (parliament) of Virginia is a certain George Fletcher. One hundred and forty years later, the first two U.S. patents for wooden still steam distillation were granted in January 1791 to Aaron Putnam, of Medford, and in August to Nathan Read, of Salem, both distillers of rum in the Massachusetts. The first patent for the technical improvement of the steam distillation of grain mash was filed in September 1794 by Alexander Anderson of Philadelphia. He claims to have been experimenting with steam distillation in wooden stills since 1790. He also connects two stills to a single source of steam.doubler or thumper (allowing to increase the alcohol content of the vapors) is integrated into the design of American stills. The first construction diagrams make use of stills interconnected or with separate compartments, and first of all, provided with a double compartment; manufacturing is rapidly evolving towards models with triple compartments allowing vertical distillation in a continuous process.

The invention of beer still

In Kentucky, John Cockney, who worked at the Bourbon Furnaces, undertook in 1797 to install wooden capitals on cast iron boilers. As Coffey would later observe in Britain while experimenting with cast iron frames, iron oxide alters alcohol with plumbago, making it undrinkable. The two most popular continuous stills are those of the Pennsylvanians Alexander Anderson and Henry Witmer; the most popular models in Kentucky are those of Samuel Brown and Edward West of Lexington. The remaining 38,880 stills are pot stillstraditional “common model”, three-quarters having a capacity of less than one hundred gallons (approximately 380 liters). The evolution of column stills in Europe and the modifications made to them in the United States after the Civil War led to the invention of the beer still , the modern copper distillation column. If the pot stilltraditional lends itself better to the distillation of brandy because of the permanence of the contact with the copper, the column stills, with continuous distillation, have other advantages which explain their success until prohibition. They don’t scorch the mash, clog the coil, or require constant attention, which means less work, fewer repairs, less frequent renewal of the still charge, and a reduction by one-third. fuel costs. The lower quality brandy from wooden stills required rectification by filtration through a layer of charcoal or additional distillation. In the 1820s, Canadian distilleries also equipped themselves with steam stills with wooden compartments to distill their rye brews,

The advent of the Continuous Distillation Column Still, developed by Aeneas Coffey in Ireland and Robert Stein in Scotland, represents the most remarkable advancement in distillation apparatus since the batch still . Due to its technical superiority, the Coffey model supplants the Stein spray technique, which is more complex and less efficient. The Coffey still, with twin columns (one for analysis, the other for rectification) allows continuous distillation, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 1840, the Coffey stills produced more than ten times the daily production of pot stillsof a large distillery. They allow considerable savings in fuel, maintenance and cleaning, keep costs to a minimum, distill a significant proportion of unmalted grain, and require much less labor. The cost of a gallon is 70% lower than that of a batch production of malt whisky, for an alcohol content above 94% vol. These clean grain spirits would in turn transform the Scotch, Irish, American and Canadian whisky industries as consumers embraced the lighter-tasting, easy-to-drink blended whiskies. In 1850, grain whisky and good-tasting alcohol made up more than half of Irish and Scottish production. In the United States, after the Civil War,

The acceleration of distillation calls for innovation

With the increase in their production volumes, large distilleries require crushers, fermentation tanks and condensers whose production is proportional to their needs. The refrigeration circuits invented by Christian von Weigel and improved by Liebig are adapted in Scotland in the form of condensers in zigzag or having a more efficient configuration, which allow an acceleration of the distillation. In 1825, the Londoner William Grimble invented the multi-tube shell condenser which gradually replaced the traditional coil condensers in most distilleries. Instruments measuring production parameters more precisely were developed: the Sikes hydrometer replaced Clarke’s in 1816, the Bates saccharimeter having been adopted a year earlier. In the United States, the federal government adopted in 1791 the hydrometer of Dicas. The grain industry selects new generations of varieties with superior qualities. From the 1830s, John Chevalier grew the first modern malt barley in Suffolk, which improved brewing. In Pennsylvania, John Lorain in 1810 crossed the Virginia dent corn (“squash seeds”) and horn corn (“northern flint”) to obtain the precursor of the yellow dent corn of James Reid. With the advent of mechanical harvesters and threshers as well as improved plow models, cultivated areas increased, as did crop yields. By 1840, in all areas of whisky production, from the grain field to the glass, the essentials were in place which allowed modern whisky to flourish.

After 1840, the industry benefited from continuous scientific and technical progress. The refrigeration that developed in the 1850s gave distilleries the ability to operate in good hygienic conditions all year round, to control fermentation and to cool the condenser. The fuel sources are successively wood, charcoal, peat and coal, then fuel oil, gas and biogas. The railroad transports raw materials and finished products across the country.

Drums on the way to industrialization

At the end of the 1860s, cooperages mechanized the manufacture of barrels. In terms of milling, traditional millstones were replaced in 1865 by a Hungarian invention using steel and ceramic rollers to grind the grain. Malting was revolutionized in the 1890s by Jules Saladin who adapted the Galland system malting drums (1880) to manufacture his pneumatic germination boxes. Organic chemistry, inaugurated by Frederick Wöhler in 1828, paved the way for Louis Pasteur’s work on yeasts and microorganisms. Importantly, prolonging the aging of the whisky in barrels for several years, and not just a few months, improves the quality of the whisky. The unhealthy congeners and fusel oils then have time to decompose in the barrel where smoother, smoother and more complex whiskies age. From the 1860s, regulations allowed the distiller to age his whisky for longer periods without having to pay taxes. In 1861, the legislation ofSingle Bottle Act provides the Scotch whisky industry with now economically affordable glass products. In the 1840s appear the processes of brands, advertising and promotional activities which foreshadow the entry of whisky into modernity.

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