The Accidental Beginning Of Distilling Alcohol

Welcome to Persia in the year 830. By the flickering, undulating light of a flame burning in an oil lamp a man pauses, the feathers of his quill brushing his graying beard. He is a doctor and teacher in Persia, and his name is Jabir ibn Hayyan. He’s writing his findings on the building of alchemy experiments. This adds to his already existing corpus that includes philosophy and astronomy. He’s noticed that different substances boil at different temperatures, suggesting their constituent components vary wildly, and that their states alter after boiling. It has been his life’s work to scribe and collect ideas on the make-up of the world we live in.

The most important thing he’s developed is a scientific method for producing the same results, with consistent equipment, when the same experiment is attempted. In fact, go into any laboratory today, over a millenia later, and you’ll find the precursors to the likes of the Bunsen Burner, the Ehrlenmeyer flask, filters, and last, but not least, the Alembic (Pot) Still. One day his pot still will be used to create Señor Rio tequila (not his, obviously. I imagine he’s still using it). Hayyan has been ascribed to have been the first to distill alcohol, but this is unproven. However, it is from his equipment, and his methodology that a student of his did just that.

Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi is, like his teacher, a polymath. His interests and studies include music, psychology, cryptology, and of course, the study of chemistry known as alchemy. He’s about to revolutionize the world forever. He noticed that heating wine and condensing the steam produced a liquid stronger in alcohol than the wine had been. Al-Kindi has just distilled alcohol, but as a devout Muslim, he’ll never consume his creation. His idea was to use this new substance as the base for perfumes and possibly make-up. It’s known that the drunkenness inducing aspects of wine were an ideal medium for imparting the charcoal of mascara and perfume. One day mascara will be known as the kohl (al kohl) and the word alcohol will derive from that.

What they’ve discovered is that wine, and other liquids with deleterious properties, boil at a lower temperature than water. If the steam from this boiling is condensed again, would it then increase the property of this al-kohl? The answer is…YES. The alembic still Hayyan created allows the heating of a liquid, and above it, piping to collect the steam. This piping is cooled, condensing the steam back into liquid form. The collected liquid is considerably stronger than the wine, and repeating the process strengthens and purifies this al-kohl even further.

Hayyan and Al-Kindi live in the Abbasid Caliphate in Persia, our modern-day Iran. But Persia is a very different place from the strict Islamic nation of Iran. It’s a forward-thinking society leading the Golden Age of Islam. Scholars and poets are pushing the frontiers of philosophy and knowledge at paces that would make the renaissance seem plodding. And it’s not just an Islamic venture either. Persia is home to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and many of the polytheistic holdouts from the days of the Greek and Roman Empires. All of these people are allowed to worship as they see fit. They create a vibrant culture with no limits as to the possibilities of learning. And most of them drink.

The tabernacle, as mentioned in the bible, is the modern-day equivalent of a bar or tavern. The most commonly produced and consumed drinks in Persia is wine. It makes sense that these were the first to be distilled and it wouldn’t be long before the distillation was consumed for pleasure.

Abu Nuwas is a poet, man of pleasure, and influential enough to be an inspiration for A Thousand and One Nights. Despite being Muslim, he was not devout and spoke often of wine. He spoke of drinking a wine that “was the color of rainwater and burned the inside of the ribs like a firebrand.” Abu Nuwas comes along a half-century after Al-Kindi and describes drinking what will be termed mual al nabidh, the water of life. It’s one of the earliest iterations of brandy and distillation is being consumed for pleasure in a different city. This proves that distillation is a known science and people are aware that it’s enjoyable to drink.

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