Early wines were little more than sour grape juice in early times. Depending on the natural sugars of the fruit, the level of natural fermentation would determine the natural production of alcohol. In the arid regions of the Middle East, the cradle of civilization, sugar production is low compared to grapes grown in more temperate climes. As people studied this natural fermentation, the production of wines became an organized part of agriculture. As far back as the fourth century B.C. Aristotle suggested the possibility of spirits when he wrote: “Seawater can be made potable by distillation as well and wine and other liquids can be submitted to the same process” But this insight does not seem to have been pursued until the eighth or ninth century AD.
Originally, beers and wines were crudely produced, until the process of distillation came about. 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.
The principal food crops of ancient Egypt, barley and emmer, were used to make beer and bread, the main staples of the Egyptian diet. Grains were harvested and stored in granaries until ready to be processed. The quantities harvested each season far exceeded the needs of the country, so much was exported to neighbouring countries, providing a rich source of income for the Egyptian treasury.
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.
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 “Ambixâ€ 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.
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 few decades, 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.