Wine Culture and Information since 2002 - Volume 18
Home Page Events Wine Guide Wine of the Day Aquavitae Wine Places Guide Podcast Polls EnoGames EnoForum Serving Wine Alcohol Test
Follow DiWineTaste on DiWineTaste Mobile for Android DiWineTaste Mobile for iOS Become a Registered User Subscribe to the Mailing List Tell a Friend About DiWineTaste Download DiWineTaste Card
About Us Write Us Back Issues Advertising General Index
Privacy Policy

 Events  Share this article     Summary of Corkscrew column Not Just Wine 
  Corkscrew Issue 29, April 2005   
DistillationDistillation  Contents 
Issue 28, March 2005 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 30, May 2005


A noble art with a long and rich history, the result of a wise process capable of extracting the soul of a product and to transform it into precious and elegant aromas

 The world of distillates - such as grappa, fruit brandies, brandies, cognac, armagnac and calvados - represents an universe rich in history, traditions and man's talent who in the course of centuries has been successful in improving an ancient technique in order to extract the most intimate part of the matter for the production of essences. The history of distillation is an amazing course made of intuitions, mistakes and progresses, until our days where the talent of wise distillation masters are capable to obtain products and beverages of very high quality and finesse. Distillation is not only the result of the skill of talented men, it is also the result which is obtained by the characteristics of an alembic still and by the way it is being used and - last but not the least - the quality and nature of the raw matter to be distilled.


Short History of Distillation

 The origins of distillation are dated back to very ancient times and it is not clear how it was discovered. It is more likely the invention of distillation is to be recognized to ancient Egyptians and Persians, who subsequently passed this knowledge to Arabs. Despite today it is not clear what were the matters used at those times for the distillation, it is however certain distillation was used for alchemical purposes and for the production of medical and therapeutic remedies. Written evidences about alchemy and medicine which have survived up to nowadays, thoroughly describe the distillation of officinal herbs, the methods used to extract essences and their usage for therapeutic purposes. It is certain Egyptians knew the distillation technique since 4000 B.C. and Cleopatra, the Egyptian scientist and homonymous of the famous queen, described in his writings the alembics used at those times and, in particular, a type of alembic with an air operated steam cooler, later known as Cleopatra's Crisopaea.

The Technology of Discontinuous alembics has
Developed with the Production of Grappa
The Technology of Discontinuous alembics has Developed with the Production of Grappa

 The spreading of distillation and of alembic was probably done by Arabs. Some believes grappa - the renowned Italian distillates obtained by grape pomace - was produced for the first time in Sicily when Arabs introduced the alembic and from here it spread all over the Italian territory. Even today the influence of Arab culture on the art of distillation is present in the name of two terms strictly associated to this practice: alembic e alcohol. The word alembic derives from the Arab Al-Anbiq, whereas alcohol derives from the Arab Al-Kulh. With this term it is referred the fine cosmetic powder used to draw the border of eyelids and - for extension - every type of impalpable powder representing the concentration of a matter, or in case of alcohol, the quintessence or spirit of a fermented matter from which it is being produced.

 With Romans the alembic was improved and it is right in this period the quantity of raw matters from which extracting alcohol and essences increased: not only officinal herbs but also wine, fruit ciders and fermented grains. As the distillate substances increased, this practice was not exclusively used for the production of therapeutic remedies and this led to the production of distillates used as beverages. With the arrive of the eleventh century we find the first written documents about the distillation of wine and about the concentration of alcohol: these rules were set by the famous Salernitan School. In fact, it can be said the development of the distillation of wine and of grape pomace has greatly improved thanks to the contribution of Italy. The invention of new and sophisticated alembic stills will later allow alchemists to make the famous aqua ardens (burning water) - as that crystalline liquid, similar to water, was easily flammable - and aqua vitae, that is water of life.

 The practice of distillation rapidly spread all over Italy and Europe. In the 1400's and 1500's, as witnessed by many documents of those times, the distillation of grape pomace and the production of grappa were widely practiced in Friuli Venezia Giulia and in Veneto, and since those times the renowned Italian distillate was exported in many European countries. In the course of the Middle Age wine distillates become very common, in particular in Germany, where they were known as gebrandtwein (burnt wine), a term derived from the Dutch brandewijn which will later become brandy. In later years the technique of distillation pays its attention on the development of devices capable of increasing the concentration of alcohol and around the half of 1600's Giambattista Porta invented the hydra with seven heads. This system never had any practical application, however thanks to this idea, in the 1700's Boerhaave developed the first distillation column which allowed a higher concentration of alcohol.

 The construction of alembic stills will be highly developed in Italy and in particular for the production of grappa. The most common system used to heat the raw matter to be distilled was represented by a heat source in direct contact to the boiler containing the raw matter. This system did not allow an efficient control over the temperature with the risk of burning the pomace. New alembics were then invented in which the boiler containing the grape pomace to be distilled was not in direct contact with fire, leading to the introduction of the classic water bath alembics and steam operated boilers. This type of alembics allowed the distillation of raw matters with pretty long times and at the end of every operation it was necessary to unload the exhausted matter and to restart the procedure from the beginning. In order to limit this inconvenience were introduced continuous machines - also known as disalcoholators - which allowed the distillation of grape pomace and of wine without any interruption, therefore reducing the distillation times while increasing the quantity of the processed matter.


Types of Alembics

 The distillation technique is based on the principle of boiling a liquid and to the subsequent cooling and concentrations of its vapors. In the specific case of brandies, the distillation process essentially consists in separating and concentrating alcohol. Despite the principle on which is based the distillation is unique, this process can be achieved with different methods, each of them having proper characteristics which will affect the organoleptic qualities of the finished product. The distillation is obtained by using alembic stills whose constructive characteristics determine the method. In the course of centuries the distillation process has developed thanks to the progresses done in the construction of alembics and, in particular, in the technical solutions adopted for the concentration of alcohol and for the keeping of the distillating matter's qualities.


 An alembic still, despite the way it is being constructed, is made of fundamental parts which allow the raw matter to be distilled to boil and which is subsequently cooled down in order to concentrate its vapors. Before discussing the main types of alembics used for the distillation of alcoholic beverages, it is appropriate to list their components and their functions. The heat source is responsible for heating the matter until boiling; the boiler (also known as cucurbit) contains the raw matter to be distilled; the cover (also known as dome, capital or helmet) which closes the boiler and begins the concentration and the cooling down of vapors; the collector (also known as swan neck) which transports the vapors from the boiler to the cooler; the cooler which condensates the vapors and takes them back to their liquid state and from its end is obtained the distillate.

 Alembics are divided into two categories: continuous and discontinuous. Continuous alembics - also known as disalcoholators - allow a distillation with no interruptions, whereas in discontinuous alembics it is necessary to divide the working procedures - each of them defined as chauffe - in which the alembic's boiler is filled with the raw matter to be distilled, then follows the distillation and finally, after having unloaded the exhausted part, the cycle is repeated. In the continuous alembic the raw matter is continuously loaded in the device and processed by a steam flow which extracts the volatile components. The alcoholic vapors will raise to the column, which thanks to its characteristics will concentrate alcohol, and then passes through the cooler which transforms it into a liquid. Continuous devices allow the processing of huge quantities of raw matter in a short time and give a distillate with no faults. Despite the technological improvements introduced in these devices, the result will not have the same personality of a distillate obtained with a discontinuous alembic as the possibilities for the master distiller to control the process are limited.

 Discontinuous alembics are the ones generally used by small distilleries where the processing is done with craftsmanship criteria and the skill of the master distiller can be completely expressed. The fundamental characteristic of a discontinuous alembic is represented by the heat source and the way the heat is transmitted to the matter to be distilled. Discontinuous alembics are divided into direct heat, water bath and steam operated boilers. In direct heat alembics the boiler is in direct contact with the fire, therefore their usage is more difficult because of the lesser control over the temperature that can also burn the raw matter. In water bath alembics, the boiler has a hollow space in which hot water or steam is being flowed. In this way it is possible a gradual and constant heating of the raw matter while avoiding any possible burning. Alembics with steam operated boilers - currently the most common type in Italy for the production of grappa - allow the extraction of volatile components by having the raw matter passed by a steam flow. The boilers of these alembics have some baskets in which is put the grape pomace that will be then passed by the steam. Despite the way in which the matter is being heated, vapors go up to the alembic's dome in which takes place the first alcoholic concentration, it is then transported to the cooler which will give the distillate in its liquid form.


The Distillation Process

 The distillation has the purpose of separating alcohol from a raw matter - fermented grape pomace, wine or other fermented matters - and it is always based on the same principle. Ethyl alcohol begins to boil - and therefore to evaporate - at a temperature of 78.4°C (173°F) and water at 100°C (212°F). These two factors are of primary importance as the matter to be distilled is not exclusively made of alcohol, but also water and other substances. The evaporation of raw matter's components will occur at a temperature from 78.4°C and 100°C, according to the quantity of alcohol found in the matter. The higher the quantity of alcohol found in the raw matter - and therefore the lesser the quantity of water - the lower the temperature will be towards the one of alcohol. The skill of the master distiller also consists in keeping the alembic at the right temperature in order to have the alcohol and the aromatic substances evaporate while extracting the least possible quantity of water. The process of distillation begins by filling the boiler with the raw matter which will be subsequently heated. The distillation process allows the evaporation of many substances, including the ones having negative organoleptic qualities and that will be eliminated in order not to compromise the qualities of the distillate.

 This operation is called cut of heads and tails. These unwanted substances have boiling temperatures different from ethyl alcohol and other positive substances, therefore their elimination is done by means of an accurate control of the temperature. the first part of the distillate produced by this process is called head and it is made of unpleasing and noxious substances - such as methyl alcohol - and therefore it is eliminated. The second part of the distillate is called heart and it is made of all those substances whose boiling occurs between 78.4°C and 100°C, all of them being considered positive and fundamental for the organoleptic qualities of the distillate. The final part of the distillate - called tail - is made of substances which boil at a temperature higher than 100°C and which give the distillate unpleasing aromas and tastes, therefore they must be eliminated. It should be remembered many of these substances are however transported by the vapors of the heart, therefore it will be the skill of the master distiller to ensure the distillate will be exclusively made of good substances. The skill of the master distiller - and his skill to cut heads and tails - will give the distillate its personality. At the end of the processing the distillate will be properly stabilized - as well as being aged in containers according to the type of beverage to be produced - and then reduced to its typical alcohol volume.


 Events  Share this article     Summary of Corkscrew column Not Just Wine 
  Corkscrew Issue 29, April 2005   
DistillationDistillation  Contents 
DiWineTaste Polls
What should restaurants improve in wine service?

Result   Other Polls

 Share this poll   
Do you decant an aged wine before serving?

Result   Other Polls

 Share this poll   
What kind of wine do you like having in June?

Result   Other Polls

 Share this poll   

Privacy Policy

Download your free DiWineTaste Card  :  Test your Blood Alcohol Content  :  Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on Twitter

Download DiWineTaste
Copyright © 2002-2020 Antonello Biancalana, DiWineTaste - All rights reserved
All rights reserved under international copyright conventions. No part of this publication and of this WEB site may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from DiWineTaste.