Distillation: A Story of Evolution and Advances (2)

Distillation: A Story of Evolution and Advances (2)

Today, distillation is widely used in various industries, from the production of alcoholic beverages to petroleum refining and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Over the centuries, distillation has evolved and perfected while maintaining its basic goal of separating and purifying the liquid components of a mixture.

In 1975, Paolo Rovesti (1902-1983), a chemist and pharmacist known as the “father of phyto-cosmetics,” discovered a terracotta distillation apparatus in the Indus Valley in western Pakistan, dating back to around 3000 BC. This discovery provided concrete evidence of early distillation in that region.

Evidence of distillation has also been found in Akkadian tablets dating back to 1200 BC, describing perfumery operations. These tablets provided textual evidence that the Babylonians in ancient Mesopotamia knew a primitive form of distillation. Additionally, early evidence of distillation was found related to alchemists working in Alexandria in Roman Egypt in the 1st century.

Distilled water has been in use since at least 200 AD when Alexander of Aphrodisias described the process. Works on distilling other liquids continued in Byzantine Egypt under Zosimus of Panopolis in the 3rd century. Furthermore, distillation was practiced in the ancient Indian subcontinent, as evidenced by clay retorts and receivers found in Taxila and Charsadda, in modern-day Pakistan, dating back to the early centuries of the Common Era. However, these “Gandhara stills” could only produce very weak liquor as there were no efficient means to collect vapors at a slow rate.

In China, distillation may have started during the Eastern Han Dynasty (2nd-3rd centuries), but the distillation of beverages began in the Jin (12th-13th centuries) and Southern Song (12th-13th centuries) dynasties, according to archaeological evidence.

Clear evidence of alcohol distillation comes from the Arab chemist Al-Kindi in the 9th century in Iraq. This knowledge later spread to Italy, where it was described by the School of Salerno in the 12th century. Fractional distillation was developed by Tadeo Alderotti in the 13th century. Additionally, an alembic was found at an archaeological site in Qinglong, Hebei Province, China, dating back to the 12th century. During the Yuan Dynasty (13th-14th centuries), distilled beverages were common in China.
In 1500, the German alchemist Hieronymus Braunschweig published “Liber de arte destillandi” (The Book of the Art of Distillation), the first book dedicated exclusively to the subject of distillation, followed in 1512 by an expanded version. In 1651, John French published “The Art of Distillation,” the first major compendium in English on the practice of distillation.
As alchemy evolved into the science of chemistry, vessels called retorts began to be used in distillation processes. Both alembics and retorts are glass containers with long, downward-sloping necks, acting as air-cooled condensers to condense the distillate and allow it to drip down for collection. Over time, copper alembics were invented. Riveted joints were often kept tight using various mixtures, such as a paste made of rye flour.

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