The aqua vitae era

An odyssey through distilling expansion
By Chris Middleton
William Faulkner observed that civilisation begins with distillation. Auditing a civilisation’s progress in distillation through scientific and cultural advancements is a commendable measure. It demands knowledge of agriculture and farming, chemical and biological processes, metallurgy and technology as well as skills in packaging and logistics. If these are the measures, the cultural and sensory criteria necessitate a public with discerning palates and incomes willing to purchase and appreciate the finished product.

In a two-part series, we will look at developments in the distillation of grain-based spirits. We start with the Aqua vitae era of grain distilled spirits. The second part takes us into the whisky era. The stages and transformation from aqua vitae to whisky did not operate in isolation as major advances in other industries and sciences took the distilling industry into new materials, technologies and processes. There are also critical product and sensory points of difference. Until the late 18th century, grain spirits were unaged. Instead new make was commonly compounded with botanicals and flavourings to make medicinal tonics and palatable beverages for recreational drinking. From Anglo-Saxon Britain, aqua vitae (Latin for the water of life) became Celtic uisce-beatha in Ireland and uisge-beatha, or usque-baugh in Scotland. Uisce was Anglicised to whisky in 1735.

Medieval distillation in the Middle East and Western Europe

The first documented instance of distilling in Western Europe was at Salerno Italy around 1150. Archaic methods of distillation reach back more than 6,000 years to Mesopotamia. Archaeological digs have unearthed terracotta distilling artefacts from Babylon, Crete and the Indus Valley revealing crude methods of distillation to make essences and perfumes. By 400 CE, Zosimo of Panopolis, borrowing from earlier Alexandrian distillation treatises, sketched retort-like alembic stills. In ancient Greek, Zosimo called the distilling head an ambix. Arabic scholars modified his descriptor to the alembic. Later in Persia, these Alexandrian sources allowed Jabir ibn Hayyan to replicate versions of alembics. He established the first Arabic laboratory, including alembic stills for the manufacture of medicinal spirits and perfumes. His writings became one of the fountainheads for the diaspora of Islamic and later European distillation. The first drinking spirits were distilled from wine, the common alcoholic base to southern Europe and the Middle East. When distilling apparatuses penetrated the beer cultures of northern Europe, grain or cereal mashes replaced wine.

While the Benedictines administrated the Salerno Medical School and the hospital from their headquarters at nearby Monte Cassino, other Catholic orders followed the Benedictines in caring for the sick and vulnerable. Cistercians and Dominicans also began to establish hospitals and dispensing clinics disseminating distillation knowledge into the Catholic spheres of influence in Western Europe. By the 12th century, distilling was both an ecclesiastical activity and a secular vocation by apothecaries and physicians. Distilling knowledge rapidly travelled north, through the Po Valley, Venice, France and into the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. By 1280, Nuremberg’s private sector distillers were manufacturing bernewein, distilled wine. German free towns without distillers imported aqua vitae from artisan distillers in Modena, Bologna and Venice. Modena became Europe’s distillation centre by 1300 exporting aqua vitae as a prophylactic against disease and ailments. Genovese merchants capitalised on this new product trading aqua vitae to London and Moscow.

These new distillation centres attracted academic curiosity such as Hieronymus Burkart who studied distilling in Modena with encouragement from Emperor Ludwig IV of Bavaria in the 1330s. Ludwig granted Burkart imperial licenses to distil in Berlin and Spree. Across German Free States enterprising apothecaries, royal residences, monasteries and tavern owners were active in basic distillation. Increasingly aqua vitae was consumed recreationally at public houses and in homes. By 1360, public drunkenness became an endemic problem in Frankfurt prompting officials to pass the first edicts regulating the distilling trade and to curb the public intoxication by schnapsterfel, spirit devils.

Construction of the basic alembic still

Early still construction required two components. The head (also known as the alembic or capital) and the base (cucurbit, flask or kettle). The principle was to fill the base with wine or beer wort, put the head or alembic over the base and lute them together with paste to prevent boiling vapours escaping. With the base sitting over an indirect furnace or naked flame, the distiller carefully controlled the heat to boil the liquid causing the ethanol (+72C) to vaporise before the water (100C). Early benchtop stills were thick-blown glass retorts holding a litre or two of liquid volume. The base was often submerged in sand, ash, water or coated in clay to moderate the heat in bain-marie style preventing the glass from breaking or scolding the wash. These were small private household or cottage industry stills lacking commercial scale.

Over the next seven centuries, still design conformed to this basic two-part construction with many different shapes and configurations. Each country applied their local terms to a variety of still shapes. In Britain, they were called the bell still, pelican, twins, triple closed, turtle, hydra, horned, etc. Some configurations employed a series of connected retorts, similar to the still formats used by Jamaican rum distilleries. More complex constructions had the appearance of a beehive with internal ovens and flues heating a galley of small stills. Glass stills and metal were popular until the early 16th century but costly and prone to breakages. Terracotta and ceramic stills were cheap and easier to manufacture and often had the interiors glazed to improve their efficiency.

Metal stills made of brass, pewter, bronze, copper and even toxic lead proved durable and easier to use. When copper became cheap and plentiful from the early 17th century, its superior distilling qualities made it the preferred metal for spirits. After 1620, tinplating the interior of a copper pot still and the worm was applied to prolong the working life of the apparatuses.

Renaissance apparatuses

The two most popular alembic designs were the moorshead and rosenhut. The rosenhut, German for rose hat, appeared by the early 15th century. It was a still with a conical head and cooled by air. By installing a second spout up the head, a distiller achieved crude fractional distillation. Conical still heads were more suitable for essences and perfumes such as rose water.

The moorshead came into use during the late 15th century. It featured a bulbous head with a second internal water basin enclosed inside the head with water circulating water inside. The head of the still was wrapped in wet cloths to cool for condensation. Hence, the resemblance of a turban. A Bavarian metalsmith was the first to attach a dephlegmator to a moorshead in 1519, partially answering the function of a condenser and reflux to improve spirit purification.

From the 17th century, a range of technological improvements were made to equipment engineering, especially by the Germans, Dutch and English. Robert Boyle designed the first vacuum pot still in 1670, and Denis Papin who immigrated to London to be close to one of the centres of distilling innovation devised valves and pistons to improve the safety of new experimental steam stills in 1696. The political and religious unrest in Germany forced many skilled distillers to emigrate to Dutch towns and Antwerp. Antwerp in the mid-16th century was Europe’s largest international market, trading port and a major distilling centre.

By the 17th century, Holland became Europe’s largest brewing and yeast centre with the largest merchant navy transporting huge volumes of grain from the Baltic to their coastal breweries and distilleries. By 1600 the Dutch also had control of Europe’s copper trade. Their technical skills and engineering prowess in distillation equipment directly shaped and influenced the industries of French brandy, West Indies rum, East European vodka, Southeast Asian arrack, and helped modernise Scotland’s whisky sector. Dutch genever emigrés also founded the English gin industry after the Seige of Antwerp in 1585 when thousands of Flemish moved to London. In Scotland, Dutchman Henricus Van Wyngarrten was recruited in the 1740s to advise the Improvers of Agriculture on how to improve the quality of aqua vitae on country estates and encourage the expansion of distillation.

Another equipment innovation was the condenser, invented by Taddeaus Alderotti of Bologna in the 1280s. His ‘canale serpentium’ was a simple metal tube submerged in a tub of cold water. While this device took a couple of centuries to come into common use, it was essential for any scalable production. For a still house to make wholesome and economic spirit it also required efficient stills heated by improved furnaces, fireproof buildings, vigorous yeast strains and well-organised inventory management from grain supply and brewing to coopering. In London and Holland, distilling shifted from farms and households into large commercial city enterprises. By 1743, London annually distilled eight million gallons of malt spirit, mostly for gin, Scotland around 300,000 and Ireland 250,000 gallons of malt spirit.

Distillation in Britain

Distilling arrived in England during the 12th century. Roger Bacon at Oxford University began writing on distillation in his Opus Majur in 1366. By the 14th century abbeys, apothecaries and alchemists were distilling and dispensing elixirs and strong waters. In January 1404, Henry IV banned alchemy and distilling until his grandson struck this prohibition down in 1444. By now, spirits were competing with beer and wine in social drinking.

Across the sea, Ireland’s brewing history was also transitioning into a domestic industry. Fynes Moryson describing Ireland of the 1590s discriminated between aqua vitae and uisge-beatha. Moryson preferred uisge-beatha, the raw grain spirit flavoured with raisins, fennel, seeds and other additives. Scotland was also compounding a similarly flavoured usgue-baugh adding spices, herbs and honey to sweeten and flavour. Social class predicated the source of the alcoholic beverage drunk. Aristocrats, ecclesiastics and gentry afforded imported wine. Should it spoil or be in excess to their needs they could distil it into aqua vitae. Peasants had only ale or beer, brewed daily for their nutrition, health and recreational drinking. With small stills, excess ale could be distilled and compounded into flavoured usguebaugh. Beer stales in a matter of days, distilling preserved it for future consumption or trade. A bushel of oats, wheat and malted barley would make on average seven and a half gallons of ‘good ale’ when double-distilled it made more than a proof gallon of spirit.

Scotland was the next country in the British Isles to document the distillation of grain. King James IV placed an order of malted barley aqua vitae with Father John Cors of Lindores Abbey, Fife in June 1495. Five years later James fitted out a laboratory in Stirling Castle where the ‘great distiller John Damian made ‘thrice-drawn aqua vitae’. July 1505, the Surgeons and Barbers Guild of Edinburgh gained a public monopoly to distil and sell aqua vitae within the burgh. Distilling aqua vitae was common and widespread in the British Isles, ensuring grain spirit was pervasive. Until the 16th century stills, household stills averaged four to five gallons. Large estates and tavern stills were thirty to forty gallons. Scotland’s first commercial distillery, the Ferintosh farm brewery-distillery was rebuilt by Duncan Forbes in 1690 who likely used stills of similar capacity to make aqua vitae. Until the 19th century, London was Britain’s distilling powerhouse producing huge quantities of malt spirit for gin, English brandy and strong waters. It was also a competitive locus for innovation. In 1635 Theodore De Mayerne of the Distillers Company of London obtained the first patent for strong waters. John Tatham obtained the first machinery patent in June 1692. The mid-18th century Industrial Revolution would transform manufacturing, especially distilling in Ireland, Scotland and North America paving the way for the whisky era.

China made the world’s first whisky

If the old definition of whisky describing the distillation of a fermented cereal mash, then China is the likely origin for the earliest whisky. Mashing and distilling rice with other grains in Chengdu reaches back to at least 220 CE. By 1368 the Sichuan province was China’s distilling centre with distilleries such as the Shui Jing Fang distillery fermenting a wash of barley, rice, sorghum and wheat in bronze stills. Whether storage or even ageing took place in cedar or oak containers is not known, although this seems very probable. A thousand years before the Germans became the first Europeans to distil beer it appears the Chinese were pioneering cereal grain distillation using bona fide Pocaea cereals which Western Governments mandate today.