A Concise History of Home Distillery

Classic Distilling at Home.

The science of distillation has been around since 3000 BCE. There are four types of distillation: laboratory, industrial, herbal/perfumery, and food processing. These last two, herbal/perfumery and food processing, are the two we concern ourselves with today.

What Is Distillation?

Distillation is a process of purifying liquids through controlled boiling and condensation. A liquid is converted into a gas/vapour through heat, and then recondensed through cooling to return the vapor to a liquid form.

How Do You Distill?

You’ve probably seen an apparatus called a retort, or alembic, a glass container with a long, bent neck sloping downwards. As the substance heats up, the vapor travels down the neck and cools. A separate container catches the vapor as it returns to a liquid state. Figures III and VII below show two vessels that could be used to distill (1727).

Fig. VII shows a distillation setup. 1727

As you can imagine, the chemistry and art behind distillation has evolved over time. Fast forward 100 years to 1817 and we see that the distillation setup can be simple, as with the alembic above and Fig. 1. below, or much more complicated for larger production.

L'art du distillateur-1817-distillation-apparatus
Various Distillation Apparatus 1817

When a substance goes through the distillation process multiple times, it purifies the substance further, creating a stronger by-product. You can see that the technology evolves to create vessels with multiple twists to allow the liquid to vaporize and re-condense several times before it reaches the final collection point.

L'art du distillateur-1817-distillation-print
Large Scale Distillation 1817

What Can You Distill?

We tend to think of distilling as a process mainly aimed at producing alcohol, perhaps moonshine made in the backyard shed. While this is certainly one possible by-product, we use distillation for a wide variety of useful distillates, to include essences of substances, think perfumes or extracts that could be added to recipes, medicinal cordials, and, of course, liquors.

Distilled Peppermint Recipe for Fragrant Use, 1827.
Distilled Lavender Water Recipe for Fragrant Use, 1827.

How Common Was Home Distillation in the Georgian or Victorian Era?

This is a more difficult question to answer, but we can get some sense by flipping through cookbooks and history books. British cookbooks printed in the 1700s will often include wines, beers, and liquors, the latter being the by-product of distillation. Recipes for liquor, however, largely call for adding ingredients to an existing distillate. A recipe for raspberry cordial, for example, might require adding raspberries to brandy. I have yet to find a recipe for making the brandy in a cookbook written for the home cook, so we can assume that the brandy might have been purchased from the local merchant. Additionally, I have never come across an explanation of the distillation process in a home cookbook. This might have to do with the overabundance of distillers during the era. Or perhaps it was common knowledge?

Raspberry Brandy Recipe 1827.

In the 1700s, Georgian England was experiencing something of a gin craze. Anyone was allowed to distil their own gin and there were several small-scale distillers. The Gin Act of 1751 required merchants to purchase expensive licenses, eliminating these small gin shops. Between 1757-1760, bad grain harvests led to a ban on distillation of grain entirely, and when the ban was lifted, it was only with higher taxes, again limiting scope and consumption. And while gin isn’t brandy, if there were several merchants with distillation setups, what would be the need for a home distiller?

Meanwhile across the ocean…

By the late 1800s, America was heading full tilt into Prohibition. You find recipes for wine, beer, and sometimes distilled cordials in cookbooks up until the 1870s, but these largely disappear as we close in on 1900, along with recipes for distilling perfumes and other essences that could be used in home cookery.

Can You Distill At Home Today?

Simple answer: Yes. But that, my friend, is a post for another day.

More Fun Discoveries from Antique Cookbooks


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