What is Distillation?
Distillation is a process involving the conversion of a liquid into vapor that is subsequently condensed back to liquid form. It is used to separate liquids from nonvolatile solids, as in the separation of alcoholic liquors from fermented materials, or in the separation of two or more liquids having different boiling points, as in the separation of gasoline, kerosene, and lubricating oil from crude oil.
Distillation vs. Fermentation
Fermentation is the process of creating alcohol by adding yeast to a raw liquid that contains sugar. Beer and wine are examples of fermented drinks.
Distillation occurs when a liquid is heated to a certain temperature so that a vapor is produced and caught in a still. This refines the substance, separating the different parts so that one ingredient is distilled from another, to produce things like spirits and perfumes. Fermentation is the first step in creating spirits, and that fermented liquid is then distilled to render a finer alcohol.
While simple distillation equipment found in Mesopotamia dates to the 4th century BCE, it was likely used for perfumes or medicines. It was not until later in the Arab kingdom that distillation would be regularly applied to wine to create a drink higher in alcohol content. This process was spearheaded by the creator of the modern alembic still, scholar Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-816), and carried on by academics working in Cordoba, Spain. From there, knowledge of distillation practices were disseminated throughout Europe around 1000 CE. This spread of knowledge coincides with the Vikings' voyage to the Americas, the first time Europeans crossed the Atlantic.
Image: Jabir ibn Hayyan Geber, Arabian alchemist, 1584.
If we fast forward a few hundred years, we will find that European explorers were eager to chart the Americas and establish colonies after Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies in 1494. Jamestown and Plymouth often come to mind as the first European settlements in the "New World," when in reality the Spanish founded a colony in St. Augustine, decades before the others existed. It is unclear whether or not these colonists had a brewer among their ranks, but after settling, they befriended the local Timucuan tribe, who may have shown them how to access clean water and reduce the need for fermented or distilled drinks.
Image: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (founder of St. Augustine), 1791
Remember learning about the lost colony in U.S. History that disappeared without a trace? Well, they happen to have another claim to fame: Brewing the first beer in North America. These settlers were intended to arrive in Virginia's Chesapeake Bay region, but were instead left at Roanoke Island in modern-day North Carolina. Drinking water was unsafe, and the colonists brewed their own beer out of local maize. It was so repugnant, that when they sent John White (1539-1593) back to England for supplies, they requested he return with beer from the homeland. Unfortunately, when he did return 3 years later, the colonists had vanished – beer and all.
Image: Virginia Dare's Baptism in the Roanoke Colony, 1876
Even though St. Augustine was established first, Jamestown is the oldest successful colony that produced beer, wine, and spirits in the Americas. Indigenous tribes in Virginia did not make any kind of alcoholic drinks, so it is likely the settlers at Jamestown were the first to produce Spirits in the area. They may have been the first settlers to perform any kind of distillation in the Americas, and the activity was important enough that these colonists had their own alembic still like the one featured in this exhibition. Beer was brewed by wealthier settlers from grains imported from England, while more modest settlers used local barley. Apples were used to create cider, which could then be distilled into brandy with a much higher alcohol content.
Image: Map of Virginia, 1624, by John Smith and William Hole
Upriver from Jamestown was a College at the Henricus settlement, the first school of its kind in the Americas that aimed to convert and educate indigenous boys. Reverend George Thorpe, a preacher and physician, came from England to run the school and worked closely with the Powhatan community, becoming an advocate for their equitable treatment. In 1620, he confirmed the discovery of a method to create Whiskey out of local corn mash, writing to John Smith of Nibley: “Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that.” Not only was this whiskey promising with corn being a readily available crop, but it was more enjoyable to drink than beer brought from England - a shift in opinion from the ill-fated Roanoke colony.
Image: Indian or Turkie Wheate, John Parkinson, 1640
The first written records of rum production appear in Barbados around 1650, and the drink becomes widely popular for its ability to keep well on long journeys. The demand for rum sadly encouraged a blossoming slave trade: sugarcane and molasses went to New England to be made into rum, rum went to a British port where it was traded for African people, and those enslaved people were forcibly transported to the West Indies and America to work on sugarcane plantations. This vicious cycle made the rum trade inseparable from the slave trade, and the drink would retain its status as the most popular drink in the colonies until the Revolutionary War. Rum was distilled in both pot stills and column stills, and was cheaper than other drinks the colonists had access to. While it was common to find whiskey omitted from tavern price lists prior to the revolution, rum tended to be available.
Image: Sugar Works, French West Indies, 1667