What Is an Alembic Still? (And How Do They Work?)

Image of diy distilling what is an alembic still and how do they work

Alembic stills have been in use for millennia. They quickly gained traction as the craft market exploded with distillers and home crafters wanting unique products that would give them the final alcoholic products they wished for. The history of these stills is long and rich, and they are also used for processes like oil extraction and purification. So, what exactly is an alembic still and how does it work? Read on to find out!

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What Is An Alembic Still?

An alembic still is a type of pot still used in the production of distilled beverages. It was originally used by Arabs, who called it al-ambiq, meaning “the still”. The name alembic comes from the Arabic word for “distilling vessel”, which is related to the Greek word ambix, meaning “cup”.

The most commonly used material for alembics is copper because it conducts heat well, making it easier to maintain temperatures during distillation processes. Copper is also excellent for keeping impurities out of your distilled products, such as alcohol and essential oils.

Alembic stills were first used in ancient Egypt and have been used ever since to make essential oils, such as rose and lavender, essences and perfumes, and liquors such as brandy, gin, and whiskey.

Image of diy distilling what is an alembic still and how do they work 2

A Brief History Of The Alembic Still

It’s believed the alembic still was first used by the Egyptians to make spirits. The alembic stills were simply made from clay pots and glass tubes. They quickly became popular throughout Europe because of their impeccable distilling abilities. They were also called cucurbits by medieval alchemists, who used them to extract essences from herbs and flowers.

In 800 AD, alembic distillation was refined by an Arabic alchemist named Jabir ibn Hayyan. He improved the design by adding a cooling system that would prevent the alcohol from overheating and burning up during distillation.

What’s the difference between an alembic still and a pot still?

Semantics and personal options – that’s all. An alembic still is a type of pot still.

Some say that they are one in the same, and use the term alembic and pot still interchangeably.

We however consider an alembic still to look and operate as a traditional alembic still would. That is;

  • Be primarily of copper construction
  • Have a traditional ‘onion head’.
  • Condense product directly off the line arm. i.e. no thumper or secondary distillation.

How Does An Alembic Still Work?

The pot is filled with water and heated to boiling point. As the steam rises from the boiling water, it passes through the tube into the condenser where it cools down and turns back into liquid form. The condensed liquid drips down into a collection jar.

Parts Of An Alembic Still

An alembic still is made up of four parts; the retort pot, onion head, lyne arm, and condenser. Here’s an explanation of the parts below.

1. Retort Pot

A cylindrical or cauldron-like pot with a narrow mouth. It holds the raw materials (such as mash) that will be distilled, and it’s connected to an onion head. The retort pot is heated by a flame or, in some designs, steam.

2. Onion Head

The onion head sits on top of the pot. It has a pipe similar to a swan’s neck (lyne arm) which extends from the top and leads to a condenser. The onion head allows for easy release of alcohol and quality flavors to pass through as vapor.

3. Lyne Arm

A curved pipe that connects the onion head to the condenser. This is where vapors flow as they head to the condenser. 

4. Condenser

An instrument that cools vapors by removing heat from them. It often takes the form of coils of tubing, and the tubes are placed inside a container filled with water. As the vapors flow in the tube, they get cooled by the water surrounding the coils. 

What Is An Alembic Still Used For Making?

The alembic is a highly efficient and versatile piece of equipment. The alcohol industry uses this type of still for many different purposes. Distillers use them to create high-quality liquors like rum, vodka, and gin. Brewers use them to make beer and wine. You can also use it to make essential oils and perfumes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Who invented the alembic still?

The alembic is a distillation device that was invented by an Arab alchemist, Jabir Ibn Hayyan, in about 800 A.D. They called it an al-ambiq, which means “the still” in Arabic. The alembic pot still was one of the most important inventions in history because it made it possible to produce fine spirits such as whiskey and brandy, as well as high-proof distilled alcohols such as grain spirits and neutral spirits.

Q. Can you make gin in an alembic?

You can make gin in an alembic. An alembic still allows you to make gin using the steam or hydro distillation method. When employing the hydro method, you pour your mash into the pot and run your still until you collect neutral alcohol in a collecting jar. Then you run a second distillation for a cleaner final product.

For the steam method, you pour your mash into the pot, then hang some herbs on the neck of the still. Some alembic stills come with a column. So, you can place your herbs in the column and connect the column to the pot. The vapors will collect the flavors as they move into the onion head and lyne arm.

Q. Can you make whiskey with an alembic still?

You can make whiskey with an alembic still. The advantage of this still is that it has a unique shape that allows it to vaporize more alcohol than other types of stills.

Alembic stills are often used in distilling cognac and whiskey because they leave much of the flavor behind in the liquid. This gives these spirits a smoother taste than other varieties.

Q. What’s the difference between an alembic and a pot still?

There’s no difference between a pot still and an alembic still. A pot still is also called an alembic. The only difference is the design and material used. The alembic still is shaped like an onion, and the pot still is shaped like a kettle. Alembic stills are made from copper, whereas pot stills are (almost always) made from stainless steel with a few copper parts. 

Q. What’s the best alembic still for a beginner?

That’s a big question! We’ve written this article which explains what we think are the best basic alembic stills. In short, we think the T500 Turbo Still with the alembic pot head is the best option for most price permitting.

Conclusion

If you’re interested in bringing more flavor to your moonshine without losing the alcohol, an alembic still is a great solution. Although they’re not the most affordable distillation units on the market because they’re mostly made from copper, they’re perfect for making your spirits taste as they should. 

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