Whiskey Dossier: Water Of Life

Latin-speaking medieval Christian monks called them “aqua vitae”. The monks’ contemporaries in France referred to them as “eau-de-vie”. Gaelic-speaking distillers in Ireland and Scotland identified them as “uisge beatha”. Poles and Russians labeled them as “zhizennia voda”. All of these regional monikers meant one thing: “water of life”.

These names were employed in direct reference to the fermented and distilled liquids that by the fifteenth century had become firmly rooted in societies from Russia, Poland, Scandinavia, Germany, and the British Isles in Europe’s northern tier to France, Spain, Italy, and Greece in the south. But, what was meant by “water of life”? Why use this evocative combination of terms? The meaning has to do with how distilled liquids were viewed in the first place and how they evolved over two and a half millennia.

>> Fermentation First, Then Distillation
The beverages that we’re talking about come about through two necessary transformative processes: fermentation and distillation. Well prior to the discovery of the process of distillation, which most likely occurred in or around the region of what is today Pakistan and northern India in the second century B.C.E., Eurasian farmers utilized fermentation to convert commonplace fruit juices, especially grape juice, and grain mashes into low-alcohol (5 to 12 percent) beverages. Alcohol, carbon dioxide, and heat are generated when a universally available microorganism – yeast – consumes innate sugars in either fruit juices or mashes of grain.

Fermentation is a natural biochemical process that is triggered whenever sugary liquids come into contact with either airborne or purposely injected yeasts. Because fruit juices are innately sugary, wines can, under the right circumstances, virtually make themselves. A bit of human intervention, as the world has observed for the past thousand years as wines have dramatically improved, helps.

With beer, the procedure is a bit more complicated, in that the starches in the grains must first be converted to sugar through dampening which stimulates partial germination. Once the grain starches have changed over to sugars, the resultant soupy mash starts to transform with the introduction of yeast cells. Thus, beer really does need an assist from mankind in order to happen. And for at least 5,000 years, mankind has been delighted to oblige. That, in rudimentary terms, is what happens in fermentation, the initial step in the process of making distilled liquids. Via fermentation, fruit juices become wines and grain mashes become beers. Simple.

In the historical sense, these two beverages have very likely existed since before historical events were formally recorded. Early agrarian communities from 3,000 B.C.E. and before have displayed indisputable archeological evidence of winemaking and brewing. Pinpointing exactly when fermentation took flight within the framework of an ancient community must be left to speculation.

Regarding distillation, historians now have a relatively clear sense of when this second step may have first bubbled up to the surface. Archeological digs in the 1960s conducted in the ancient Greek-Indian city of Shaikhan Dheri in Pakistan unearthed compelling evidence of earthen pot stills that suggested the existence of small-scale distilleries. Similar findings near modern-day Peshawar, a city in northern Pakistan located near the Khyber Pass, have been appeared in various reports. Adding to the debate are textural interpretations in India’s Vedic literature that appear to support the archeological discoveries of the twentieth century, drawing tantalizing attention to the period of around 300-200 B.C.E. as a possible launching date for distillation.

So for the moment, history aside, how does distillation work?

Distillation, the word, is derived from destillare, the Latin verb meaning “to drip down”. At its most fundamental, distillation is a purification process that utilizes concentrated heat to boil fermented liquids, such as beer and wine, for the express purpose of separating the alcohol from the water and base materials. Alcohol boils at precisely 173.1 degrees Fahrenheit while water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, so the alcohol turns gaseous before the water turns to steam.

This procedure works best when carried out in a kettle or any variety of mechanical contraptions, in which intense heat can be generated and sustained and in which vapors can be captured. These kettles are referred to as “pot stills”. (More on pot stills and how they developed straight ahead.)

As the alcohol changes from liquid into vapor, it rises in the pot still’s chambers and is guided through channels whereupon it cools and condenses (drips down) back into clear liquid form. The intense heat of distillation strips away impurities in fermented liquids, thereby leaving behind the liquids’ essence, or, as the Christian monks were inclined to describe it, the “spirit” or “water of life”. With each round of distillation, the liquid gets less contaminated and the percentage of alcohol is elevated.

In the German book on distillation, ominously titled Das Buch zu Destilliern (1519), that was translated into English in 1527, author Hieronymous Braunschweig defined distillation as “Distylling is none other thynge, but onely a puryfyeng of the grosse from the subtyll and the subtyll from the grosse.”

The subtyll from the grosse. Those five words tidily sum up distillation better than any other long-winded description.

>>Ancient roots
Interestingly, the ancient civilizations that became proficient in distilling didn’t use it for the making of recreational libations as we do today. Dynastic Chinese distillers, for example, boiled fermented liquids to make potions that purportedly enhanced sexuality, encouraged youthful behavior and reversed aging. Wouldn’t you, if you could?

Indian physicians in the first millennium created medicines through distillation that were administered for topical and internal ailments. Priests in Pharaonic Egypt used distillation to make their god-like royalty more exotic perfumes out of flower oils and more effective cosmetics to deal with the blazing desert sun. Alchemists in ancient Greece employed distillation in their futile pursuit of turning ordinary non-precious metals into gold. It wasn’t until distillation became widespread in Europe by the fourteenth century A.D. that spirits began to be consumed for pleasure as much as for medicinal reasons or to salve over the everyday horrors of medieval life.

But before distillation debuted in Europe circa 1000-1100 A.D., its evolution took a dramatic turn in the Middle East from its modest beginnings in central Asia. Two Arab scientists and alchemists forever changed the process and the status of distillation. Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Haiyan, who resided in Kufa or present-day Iraq, invented the pot still fashioned out of copper, a.k.a. alembic, in the last quarter of the eighth century A.D. Jabir Ibn Haiyan, known later in Europe as “Geber”, realized that earthen or ceramic pot stills were neither as efficient nor reliable conductors of heat as malleable metals, most specifically, copper. What Jabir Ibn Haiyan created was nothing less than the modern, onion-shaped copper kettle, which is still in use today around the entire world.

Two centuries later in Persia (today’s Iran), Abu Ali al-Husain Ibn Abdullah Ibn Sina, a noted physician, educator and author of 450 books and essays, catapulted Jabir Ibn Haiyan’s distillation methods further by extensively writing about the vital importance of gathering, cooling and condensing the alcoholic vapors to create the quintessence of the process, the pure spirit. Abdullah Ibn Sina, referred to in Europe as Avicenna, used his prominence within Middle Eastern culture to establish distillation as a major social phenomenon and process of the Arabic sciences.

Little wonder, then, that the words alcohol and alembic are derived from Arabic terms. Al-koh’l is Arabic for “antimony powder”, the powder utilized as a base for cosmetics and ordnance, and al-‘anbik translates to “the still”.

Three centuries after the invasion of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula by the Islamic Moors in the eighth century A.D., the instruction of distillation turned up in the Salerno School of Medicine in Italy. The Benedictine Order operated the school, producing educated missionaries, physicians and clergy. Over the subsequent two to three centuries, distillation spread throughout Western Europe along with the opening of Christian monasteries, hospitals and abbeys.

Over time, the monks became highly skilled distillers as they routinely dispensed their soothing and restorative homemade spirits packed with herbs, spices and honey to weary travelers and the infirm or dying. Influential doctors of the period, most notably, Arnaldus de Villa Nova, the thirteenth century physician to popes and kings, advanced the cause of distillation even further through their espousal of the method. Their water of life elixirs gained no small measure of fame with Europe’s aristocracy. Soon other schools of medicine, like those at Avignon and Montpellier, France, taught the art of distillation.

The three-century period of 1000 to 1300 A.D. proved to be the dawn of the first Great Age of Distilled Spirits. By the mid-sixteenth century Europe’s noble class swiped the baton from the monks and physicians and using their influence and riches turned distillation and distilled spirits from a rustic abbey cellar hobby into an increasingly sophisticated minor industry.

>>On the boil/Off the boil
For approximately twenty-three centuries there was but a solitary way to distill liquids: the pot still method. For the last thirteen hundred years, as cited earlier, the pot-bellied, kettle-like pot still has been made of metal, predominantly copper. Copper has been preferred because it is strong and is easier to shape than other metals.

The concept of pot still distillation is direct in its simplicity. Here’s how it works, step-by-step:

  1. The distiller pumps fermented liquid (beer or wine) into the chamber of the pot still.
  2. The pot still is heated, gradually bringing the alcohol to the boil whereupon it vaporizes.
  3. The vapors ascend into the upper region of the pot still chamber and flow through a “swan neck” pipe at the top of the pot still. (The pipe is referred to as such for its resemblance to its namesake.)
  4. The vapors move from the swan neck through to cooled coils where they condense, turning back into liquid form (spirits), purer, clearer and higher in alcohol than when they started.
  5. The distiller carefully selects the middle part of the distillation run, the best portion or so-called “heart”(similar to the best cuts of meats, like the center cuts, tenderloins, filets, etc) and separates that prime segment from the rest of the run.
  6. The lesser, more impure parts of the distillation run, the “heads” and the “tails” are often put through another distillation to purify them to the desired degree.
  7. Many single-batch spirits are distilled again in other smaller pot stills to elevate levels of purity and alcohol.

Once this basic sequence of “individual batch distilling” is completed, the pot still requires cleaning before the next batch of fermented liquid can be placed into the pot still chamber. The resultant spirits are typically high in quality and distinctive in character. Fresh, virgin spirits smelled right off a pot still are pleasantly fragrant in a floral or fruity sense. They are also crystal clear in appearance.

This age-old method, while expensive and labor-intensive, remains an irreplaceable source for thousands of the world’s finest distilled spirits. But even though it’s the original way of distilling liquids, the pot still individual batch method isn’t the only way to produce quality spirits.

Beginning in the first decades of the Industrial Revolution, an innovative, more efficient and less expensive kind of distillation was introduced by a Scottish distiller, Robert Stein. Stein, who made spirits at the Kilbagie Distillery in Clackmannanshire, devised the first patented (1827) model of the single-column method in the form of a metal columnar still that ran continuously and didn’t need to be stopped and cleaned.

Shortly thereafter, another inventor-distiller, Irishman Aeneas Coffey, took Stein’s design and added more height to the cylindrical column, thereby increasing the purity of the distillate as well as the volume of the output.

Here’s how Coffey’s revolutionary still design worked: The base of the column was called the “analyzer” and the top tier was known as the “rectifier”. Every section enclosed a series of chambers that were separated by perforated metal plates. As alcohol vapors rose through each plate, more impurities (congeners, esters, fusel oils) collided with the plates and fell back down the chamber, allowing purer vapors to advance up the chamber. Coffey discovered that the taller the column, the cleaner the resultant spirit. Coffey patented his design in 1830.

Within a decade, other distillers added another column to Coffey’s basic design and were soon making ethereal spirits of remarkable purity, quality and lightness with a double-column system. Soon, this new-fangled type of still was being referred to as “patent still”, “Coffey still”, or “column still”.

What was obvious to the distilling industry across the world by the 1870s was that this new, efficient, industrial, low-cost, continuously functioning process, the precise opposite of customary, stop-and-start, labor-intensive pot still distillation, was the wave of the future for creating large volumes of spirits. Nowadays, the process called “continuous distillation” is practiced in every nation that produces spirits and is the distillation of choice for the majority of lighter, mostly unaged spirits like Rum, Gin, Vodka and Cachaça.

Many distillers use both methods, frequently in tandem, to produce high-grade spirits that contain elements of each system. A prime example of a world-class spirit with international acceptance that combines both pot still and column still spirits is blended Scotch whisky from Scotland. Master blenders from renowned companies, such as Chivas Brothers, Dewar’s, Ballantine’s, Berry Brothers and Johnnie Walker, to name only a few, marry multiple whiskies from column stills made in large industrial complexes and single malt whiskies made in pot stills at smaller distilleries to arrive at a highly palatable marriage of the two styles.

The near 150-year period of 1870 to the present day is what is considered to be the modern age of spirits. Both distillation processes are vital components to the contemporary worldwide distilling industry. As the world has supposed become “smaller”, the spirits industry has become larger.