hist-brewing: Re: distillation

Hiram Berry burningb at burningbridges.com
Tue Jul 29 18:21:28 PDT 2003

That took quite a bit of ingenuity to build an operable fractional
distillation apparatus from household hardware. Congratulations.  I hope you
don't mind a little criticism however, technically and from the vantage
point of this list's nominal subject (historical distillation would I think
be a valid adjunct of historical brewing, since one enables the other.)
There do seem to be a few inaccuracies.

OudBruin at aol.com wrote:
> Home distilatation is a topic near and dear to my heart, several years ago
> made some peach spirits, used an electric hot plate, and a big pressure
> with a big condensation coil(i used 20 or 30 feet of food grade plastic
> in an ice bath-it worked!)

I'd think that peach wine would be an excellent thing to distill.

> the key to making good spirit verses bad spirit is to "lose" the
> bigger(fusal& methyl) alcohols which have a higher boiling point. you want
to not go over
> 173 degrees.

Well, this is wrong.  It isn't the key to making good spirit; distillers in
medieval times had no idea of what "173 degrees" meant nor the means to
maintain it; and the key to eliminating foul contaminants in the product is
good brewing practice on the front end, not damage control in your
distillation technique.    Methyl alcohol (aka wood alcohol, methanol)
actually has a lower boiling point than ethyl alcohol, 148F I think, and
will come over _first_ in a column still.  Indeed the fusel oil components,
chiefly amyl alcohol, have higher boiling points. That brings up another
issue, though.  If you exclude the undesirable higher boiling components
like amyl alcohol via rigorous fractional distillation, you are also
excluding the flavor and aroma components (mostly heavier esters and ethers)
that you _want_ to have in the final product.  You just end up with nearly
pure ethyl alcohol/water azeotrope with little flavor-- not a very desirable
product. The point is moot though. Stills capable of precise fractionation
like this are recent inventions.  In medieval times they were not just
unknown, but people wouldn't have understood them. The stills they used (and
are still used for many liquours) for the various national forms of aqua
vitae were simple pot stills called "alambics" I believe: different
components did not separate into precise fractions at precise temperatures,
rather the temperature of the distillate vapor rose in a continous curve.
They weren't capable of eliminating the contaminants you mention.  And
because they weren't, while these stills are not nearly as efficient as
modern column stills and don't yield everclear strength distillate without
several redistillation steps, they do possess one enormous advantage over
fractionating stills:  the esters involved in imparting a flavor are carried
over with the ethanol-enriched steam into the condenser, and thus into the
product.  It's the same principle used in steam distillation, widely used to
extract essential oils from herbs.  Modern fractionating stills will not
achieve that result; their only usage is to separate the undesirable
chemicals mentioned earlier, but honestly if you question drinking something
in its raw state then why on earth would you consider consuming its

>  i have also had a flertation with vacume distilatation, which is too

And out of period by about 400 years.  The alchemists and clerics who
distilled elixirs (first for medicine, then later for recreation, much like
several more modern diversions) and aqua vitae in its various forms, whisky,
armagnac, vodka, etc., had absolutely no conception of different chemical
components fractionating over at specific temperatures and pressures.  In
their minds they were concentrating a mysterious life principle present in
the original source, and nothing more analytical.  This is the problem with
nondistilled cordials: within the framework of medieval thought process, why
would anyone make them?  Obviously the best way to extract all the essential
life force of a plant is distillation, and if adding some wine to the
macerate helps achieve that then great!  But trying to dissolve out much of
the life essence with some liquid solvent?  It would have seemed

[... political diatribe snipped ... that argument has been going on in the
U.S. at least since the Whiskey Rebellion, over 200 years ago, with no
apparent end in sight]

> My recomendation is to go LOW TECH - BIG BROTHER is less apt to watch you
> buying a 32 quart canning pressure cooker from the local hardware store

An alambic still functionally identical to ones used in the Middle Ages can
be constructed with very modest metalworking skill from sheet copper and
operated over charcoal.  The lazier but more compromising (and definitely
safer,potentially cleaner) way which however generates comparable product to
the medieval drinks is the electric countertop water still, available from
waterdistiller.com and similar places. You can also use them to make
essential oils and nonalcoholic elixirs from herbs.

> than if you decide to do it- make sure you have adequate venting and your
> neighbors won't smell your mash...

If your "mash" is really good then it's indistinguishable from homebrewed
ale, wine or mead, and there shouldn't _be_ any problem with the neighbors;
they should _want_ to smell it.  But then again I guess there do sometimes
exist bad neighbors...


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