The alembic is the oldest and most recognizable design for stills. Its ancient origins can be traced back to the works of early alchemists who conducted the first documented, scientific experiments with distillation.
The curvy onion-shape is iconic. It is believed that the alembic takes its name from the Arabic “al-anbiq,” meaning still, and from the Greek ambix, which means cup or pot. Some dictionaries define Alembic as “obsolete” but nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to home-craft distillation.
Modern knowledge suggests that the Egyptians were the first to build stills. Journalist Fred Minnick, in his book: ‘Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey’, claims that an Egyptian woman was the first inventor of the alembic still. However, other sources claim that it was the Saracena alchemists who conducted the first scientific studies on distillation and they attribute the invention of the alembic still to Muslim alchemists in the Middle Ages, such as Jabir ibn Hayyan. Tribal Arabs are likely most responsible for sharing the art of distillation, and the alembic still is credited to them. Some historians believe that grappa, the Italian spirit obtained from grape pomace, was produced for the first time in Sicily when Arabs introduced the alembic, and from there it spread all over Italy.
Regardless who invented or first brought it into widespread use, the alembic has been perfected over time for easy and efficient production of alcohol. It consists of 3 parts: the pot, the onion head and the condensing unit. Although the results can be magical, the process is quite simple: As the mash boils, the alcohol vapors rise, pass through the onion head, and then through a serpentine coil submerged in a cold-water bath, which condenses the vapors back to liquid form.
Due to their distinctive, curvaceous shape, alembics can only be handmade. They are skillfully built by master craftsmen who transform plain sheets of copper into complex works of art.