The Marvelous Art of Distillation

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Distilling is the natural outcome of the process of evaporation followed by condensation of a vapor. The term comes from the Latin dēstillāre, to drip down, and the simplest form of this phenomenon can be observed when we boil water in a pot with a lid. If we lift and tip the lid, we can collect the condensed steam, successfully completing the process of distillation. If the boiling water has salt, the vapor collected in the lid would be unsalted, and the water is purified. Since its inception, the process of distillation has remained the easiest way of obtaining pure chemicals. This technology has been incorporated into many industries including: water purification, manufacturing of substances such as alcoholic spirits, perfumes, pharmaceuticals, food extracts and flavorings, as well as in the oil and gas industry for the extraction of various chemicals.

The history of the art of distillation is long and closely linked to the history of civilization, particularly to the evolution of alchemy (or magic) to chemistry (or science). Sometime during the Middle Ages, people figured out how to use the phenomenon of distillation to separate (enrich) the alcohol present in fermented must of fruits. This discovery was followed by the development and evolution of various distillation apparatus (stills) and techniques. The art of apothecary eventually evolved to pharmaceutical chemistry, and art of distillation of alcoholic beverages shifted from the monastery and the home to the hands of private artisans, and finally to the large scale industrial level. Irrefutable evidence of where, when, and who exactly first used distillation to enrich alcohol remains elusive and controversial. The first documented evidence of distillation was written around the 1300’s. On those early records, there is mention of distillation as the most important method in alchemy, and there are outlines of recipes to obtain aqua ardens (burning water) from strong and aged dark wine- described as follows: “when wine is sublimed like rose-water, a light flammable liquid is obtained” (from the De Secretis mulierum by Albertus Magnus, 1193-1280). Physicians, having acquired Arab-inspired rose water to treat high fevers, added distillates of wine as remedies for many ailments. Alchemists also incorporated distillation to their armament in their quest to convert metals into gold. The early stills to extract ‘burning water’ were similar to the ‘rosewater stills’, often referred as alembics, from the Arabic al-anbīq. This early alembic or still consisted of two vessels connected by a tube, where the vapors were collected in one vessel and condensed in the second vessel. From these early beginnings, many distillation apparatus, techniques, and recipes evolved, and by the 1500’s texts dealing exclusively with the craft and art of distillation started to be published and translated into several languages. What was once the domain of few expanded and became part of everyday life. The process of distillation was extensively used to produce all kinds of water-soluble and alcohol based herbal extracts for medicinal products, perfumes, and alcoholic spirits.

Our still (Dora la destiladora) at Onilikan “Licores Artesanales de Mazatlán” is a direct descendent of the early alembic, with all the improvements that generations of engineers and master distillers have developed not only to improve the distillation of spirits but also to optimize the harvesting of aromas present in the fermented fruit must being distilled. With Dora, we are able to produce delicious spirits (burning water or aguardiente) of blue agave and mango from southern Sinaloa.


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