1989 James F. Guymon Lecture
Distillation in Alambic
Robert Léauté
[ History ] [ Origin of Alambic ] [ North America ] [ Cognac Still ]

Robert Léauté presented the James F. Guymon Lecture at the 40th, Annual Meeting of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture in Anaheim, California, on 30 June 1989. Léauté has been with Rémy Martin since 1973 and is currently Head Cognac Master, Research and Development Manager, and RMS Vineyards Technical Advisor. The text of his presentation has been edited for publication, but not subjected to the normal review process.

History of Distillation

Alambic Distillation is a very old technique, which was, used by the Chinese 3000 years BC, the East Indians 2500 years BC, the Egyptians 2000 years BC, the Greeks1000 years BC, and the Romans 200 years BC. In the beginning, all of the above cultures produced a liquid, later called alcohol by the Arabs, which was used for medicinal purposes and to make perfumes.
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By the sixth century AD, the Arabs had started to invade Europe and at the same time released the technique of distillation. Alchemists and monks progressively improved both the technique and the distillation equipment.

In 1250, Arnaud de Villeneuve was the first to distill wines in France; he called the product, which resulted from this process, eau-de-vie or Water Of life. He attributed to it the virtue of prolonging life.

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Origin of the Alambic still:

Today, the pot still used in the Cognac area is known as an alambic. "Ambix" is a Greek word defined as a vase with a small opening. This vase was part of the distillation equipment. Initially, the Arabs changed the word "Ambix” to "Ambic' and called the distillation equipment "Al Ambic." Later in Europe, the word was changed to alambic. The Dutch, French, Irish, Scottish, and others started producing distilled spirits around the 15th and the 16th century. They created gin (Holland), whiskey (Scotland and Ireland), Armagnac (France), and Cognac (France).

If the capacity of the still depended on the purpose of the distillation, then the shape was related to the country that used the distillation equipment. In the Cognac region around 1600, the Chevalier of Croix Marron perfected the eau-de-vie through double distillation. In France, Chaptal (1780) and Adam (1805) dramatically improved the efficiency of distillation and gave the alambic its final design. The Cognac makers, continually seeking to obtain the best quality for their Cognac, brought both the Alambic design and the double distillation methods to the peak of perfection.

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In North America,

Bourbons and whiskies were first produced around 1750. In the booklet America Brandy Land, published by the California Brandy Advisory Board, the Mission San Fernando produced around 2000 barrels of brandy during the 1830s. Father Duran, the brandy maker at Mission Santa Barbara, produced brandy double distillation.

Progressively during the 1950s, most of brandy producers gave up distilling. Those who continued to distill preferred use of the column still because of its ability to produce a brandy compatible to the consumer trend.

During the last decade, in California, one has noticed the American palate becoming more and more educated and ready for sophisticated products. At the same time, many wines and sparkling wines have reached a very high level of quality and are recognized as world-class products. In the 1980s, well-established and new brandy producers decided the time had come to develop a more complex California brandy. Today, if one produces a brandy using an 'alambic" and the Cognac distillation method, the brandy can be called Alambic brandy.

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Cognac Type of Still ( Alambic )

The most famous alambic manufacturers (Binaud, Chalvignac, Mareste, R. Prulho, and the creator of our own still, Jean-Louis Stupfler) are based in the Cognac and Bordeaux regions of France.

An alambic is made of copper and bronze. Some of the alambic parts not important to the quality of the Cognac or the brandy can be made of stainless steel for practical reasons (e.g., valves, fittings, condenser tank).

However, copper remains the most efficient metal to build alambics. Copper offers the following advantages:

It is malleable; it is a good conductor of heat; It resists corrosion from fire and from wine; It reacts with wine components such as sulfur components and fatty acids (this property is always favorable for the Cognac or brandy quality); And it is a catalyst for favorable reactions between wine components.

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