The alembic, as I know it, or alembic (in American and English), is an anciently curious and cleverly designed distillation contraption that looks like it comes from another time and has little changed over the centuries (alambic from French, alembicus from Medieval Latin, al-inbiq from Arabic and ambix from Ancient Greek). All of these are other names for stills, or parts of a still in the case of ambix, which means cup, cap of a still or vase with a small opening. Arabs adopted the word, changing ambix to ambic, and named the distillation equipment al-ambic.
The first mention of an alambic was on a Babylonian tablet in cuneiform script around 1200 BC, and at this time, it was perfumes that were being distilled. Rose water or rose hydrosol was revered by women as a potent beauty remedy.
It was, however, Mary the Jewess (sometimes known as Mary the Prophetess), between the first and third centuries AD, who was considered the first true alchemist of the Western world, according to Zosimos of Panopolis, the alchemist and gnostic mystic from the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th century, who wrote the oldest known books on alchemy. Mary can be attributed in some texts as the inventor of the Tribikos, a kind of alambic that is still used today in chemistry laboratories. She recommended using copper or bronze; that it should be the thickness of a frying pan and the joints should be sealed with flour paste. Mary is also known for inventing the bain-marie, which is named after her.
As early as the 10th century, Islamic chemists were using alambics to produce medicinal grade alcohol (Arabic al-kuhl) for use as a solvent and antiseptic. Known as Abulcasis, Abul al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (AD 936–1013) pioneered the use of distillation to produce the “simples” for which the complex medicines of the time were compounded. Simples (or simple medicines) was the name given to medicinal plants in the Middle Ages, taken from the Latin simplicis medicinae.
Although the history books tell of many different materials used for making an alembic, such as pottery, glass, stainless steel or bronze, copper is the most common material used for an alambic. gcCopper has a variety of virtues that make it ideal for distillation: It is a resilient, malleable and long-lasting material that has very high thermal and electrical conductivity. Copper distributes heat evenly and quickly, while allowing vapors to cool efficiently. Ito has antimicrobial effects that destroy a wide range of bacteria and viruses, hence why copper is also used for water pipes. It performs the very important function of greacting with any sulfur compoundsn that occur naturally in fruits. Copper is a catalyst for the Maillard reaction, which is critical to the production of fine brandy, and finally, copper is very resistant to corrosion, especially under extreme temperatures and humidity, which explains why copper artifacts dating back to ancient Egypt and Rome have been discovered in good condition.
While copper is also the preferred metal for stills that produce Cognac and whiskey, the Armagnac alambic, or alambic Armagnacais, is the focus of this article and should not be confused with the alambic Charantais, which is the most common style of still used in Cognac prduction. The alambic Charantais was reintroduced into Armagnac in 1972. Armagnac producers are authorized to use an alambic Charantais if they also use the alambic Armagnacais. Today, only three producers do so.
An Armagnac alambic, with its gleaming copper columns, is an apparatus that would be equally at home in a tale of medieval history as in a story of magic, or with the hissing and gurgling machines found in Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
A direct-fired, continuous-run, pot still with a rectification column… What?
The alambic Armagnacais is a special type of continuous pot still. The first Armagnac alambic was patented in 1818, prior to other column stills, such as Robert Stein’s invention in 1828 and the Coffey still in 1830. Different horses for different courses: a Coffey still can be used to obtain a much higher-proof spirit, approaching 95.6% alcohol, and batch stills are used for Scotch, Irish whiskeys and Cognac.
Today, the oldest working alambic in Armagnac is at Domaine d’Ognoas in the Landes region. Built in 1804, this wood-fired alambic is listed as a historic monument and distills 800 hectoliters (approximately 21,000 gallons) of wine every year. It is a priceless testimony to the history of Armagnac distillation. While the type of column stills used in Armagnac are forbidden for use in Cognac. Both are types of pot stills.
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An Armagnac alambic has two columns; one that serves as the wine heater but also the condenser, the other is the rectification columnt containing plates. Cold wine is fed by gravity into the preheater , rising to the top as it is warmed by vapor coming from the rectification column. The warmed winettt pours into the distillation column, where it descends toward the furnace. From the direct-fired pot below the columns, vapors rise through the plates, being forced into the descending wine at each level, becoming more and more highly charged with aromas, before arriving at the top. The vapors travel through the swan’s neck, returning to the first column via the serpentine coil, which is cooled by cold wine. (Note: Most stills use water to chill down the vapors, whereas the iArmagnac alambics traditionally use wine.) The vapors condense into eau de vie.
Unlike the alambic Charantais for Cognac, which can cope with the heavier lees, an Armagnac alambic can only distill the fine lees, because of the possibility of lees coagulating to blockf the column. A key point of difference between continuous and discontinuous (even in column stills) distillation is that, in continuous stills, the wine (or wash, in the case of whiskey) and the vapors come in direct contact with one another in the column. This cross flow can directly add characteristics of the wine to the eau de vie. In a discontinuous still (or batch still) the vapors are always separate from the wine.
Armagnac is one of the few great distillation regions where the spirit is tied closely to the culture. The distillation period in Armagnac is known as La Flamme de l’Armagnac and normally starts at the end of October hr. Distillation of Armagnac stops at the end of March of the year following the harvest. Most producers will distill before the end of the year because although the wines are acidic, they are still fragile. It is important to have very fresh and fine lees in the wine to add aromatic value to the spirit.
Distillers look for a wine that is high in acidity and low in alcohol, ideally around 9 to 10% ABV. The addition of sulfur or any other product to the wine is forbidden, so even though the producers can keep the wines cool, they are keen to distill as soon as possible once the wine is ready. According to the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) rules, Armagnac can be distilled within a range of 52%–72.4% ABV). All Armagnac houses have a slightly different approach, so some will be distilling quite low, at around 53% ABV, while others will prefer to distill at a higher ABV, around 60%. Another consideration is the different grape varieties.
Only 10 varietals are permitted for the production of Armagnac, and they are often distilled at different percentages of alcohol. Folle Blanche, Armagnac’s historical grape, gives very fine and floral eau de vie. Folle Blanche will often be harvested early due to its fragility and distilled at a higher degree to retain its delicate aromas, and it is often valued in a younger Armagnac or for Armagnac Blanche. Wines made from Baco are distilled much lower because the congeners found in a Baco distillate improve with many decades of maturation. Ultimately, the style of eau de vie and the optimum percentage of alcohol at distillation will depend on the producer’s final intentions for the spirit.see
At least 95% of Armagnac is distilled using an Armagnac alambic, and 25% of these Armagnac alambics are still fired by wood. When using wood as the heat source, it is critical to keep a regular and constant temperature to produce great eau de vie. Distillers firing with wood have to be vigilant at all times. The wood used to fire these alambics is most often old vine posts from the vineyards that give the same caloric value and thereby help to avoid spikes and dips in temperature. This is of an ecological benefit too, especially because the continuous Armagnac alambic uses four to five times less energy than a discontinuous still.
The Last of Its Kind
While one may still see in use today the alambics of old manufacturers—such as SIER (closed in 1936), ORTHES (closed in 1960) and GEMDO (closed in 1978)—there is only one remaining company in the Armagnac region making traditional Armagnac alambics: Société de Fabrication d’alambics Armagnacais et Charantais (SOFAC). SOFAC is owned and operated by the Chiaradia family, who emigrated from Italy to Gascony around 1927. Arthur Chiaradia founded an Armagnac distillery in Condom, in the Gers.
In 1973, due to difficulties in getting hold of the right distillation equipment and parts, his son, Michel Chiaradia decided to start building alambics for Armagnac producers. SOFAC began making Armagnac alambics for producers in the AOC Armagnac appellation zone. h eyisrNow 83 years old, Michel gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day and is still very active in the business.
His son Alain, 56, is the third generation of the Chiaradia family to oversee the workshop. He is known locally as the alambic doctor, as he prefers to restore and renovate old alambics rather than make new ones. He feels it gives the soul back to old alambics.
Amid the clangs, hisses, taps and bangs in this busy workshop, the new sits beside the old and the very old, as skilled hands craft these magical tools for distillation. Dull copper alambics, some with a touch of verdigris, seem to have many stories to tell and feel as if they could be rubbed, like Aladdin’s lamp, and a genie would appear. One of them is a roving alambic, dating back to 1920, which hasn’t worked for at least 40 years: a thing of beauty with wooden wheels and brakes that will soon get the loving care and attention necessary to bring it back to its former glory. Chiaradia promises it will be working again for the 2018 distillation season.
It is certainly easy to understand what Chiaradia says about bringing the soul back into a machine when they restore it. One of the pieces was an urgent repair for an Armagnac producer that was going to be distilling in two weeks’ time. The copper on the plate that sits closest to the furnace had become very thin and worn over the years of contact with heat and alcohol. An alambic is incredibly resistant with a long life of at least 60 years and even then it tends to be mostly the distillation plates or serpentine coils that need repair.
In addition to repairs, SOFAC makes about five brand-new alambics a year. At the time of my visit, there was one large, 11-plate alembic, being wrapped kyup and crated for its long journeyp to California for the Osocalis Distilleryap. This beautiful beast took about 850 hours to build.
One of SOFAC’s latest Armagnac alambic projects was for the Grassa family, at Chateau du Tariquet in the Bas Armagnac, who have worked using the same traveling-style alambic (though it does not travel) to distill the Château’s Bas Armagnac. The company’s original alambic was sold to the grandfather, Pierre Grassa by Michel Chiaradia, in 1983 and just last year, Pierre Grassa’s grandsons Armin and Rémy asked Chiaradia to make an identical twin brother and mirror image of their grandfather’s alambic. Its inauguration was the 2016 distillation campaign and it is truly a beautiful sight to behold both wood-fired alambics as they work side by side in the Tariquet distillery. else1s
Food and Distillation and Culture
Michel Chiaradia even added a reason for using wood that seems to have nothing to do with the production of eau de vie but more to do with satisfying stomachs. Feasting is a very important occupation here and, traditionally, a lack of wood also meant no embers on which to cook food! Armagnac alambics work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the distillers, who have to constantly survey their charges will live, eat and drink by their apparatuses. This gives rise to many festive and convivial meals among friends as the alambic bubbles away.
Chabrot is an ancient custom in the southwest of France: When there is just a little soup or broth left in your bowl, add red wine to dilute the liquid, then bring the bowl up to your mouth and drink it all down. Chabrot is an essential part of the distillation traditions.
Michel Chiaradia laughs as he recounts a little Armagnac anecdote that says, “To make a good Armagnac, you must distill with wood, wear the typical Gascon beret and know how to make the Chabrot.”