• Richard Murff

Civilization Begins with Distillation


Let's just call her Maria, and leave it at that.

William Faulkner said that "Civilization begins with distillation." He may have been onto something. There is evidence of crude attempts at distillation as far back as 2000 BC to make perfumes and balms in ancient Babylon. In the 4th century BC, Aristotle wrote that “Seawater can be made potable by distillation, as well as wine and other liquids can be submitted to the same process.”


By 800 BC the Chinese were using distillation to refine a fermented rice beverage that must have been a precursor to sake. In the Levant, the Israelites nt appear to have made something like grappa – from apples – called “sheikhar.” The Romans, for their part, produced a distilled spirit but its earliest record reference is 100 AD well into the “Real Housewives” stage of the empire.


In the oldest surviving text on alchemy – written by Zosimos of Panopolis – mentions a woman known to history as “Maria the Jewess.” I suppose that she was, but it seems bad manners to just point it out like that. Of the inventions attributed to Maria are an early version of alembic still with three arms used to obtains liquids purified through distillation, the kerotakis, used to heat substances and collect vapors within a tight vacuum, and what is now called a bain-marie (named after the lady herself) essentially a double-boiler used to regulate temperature when separating liquids.


Alchemy gets a bad name because its practitioners spent so much time trying to turn lead into gold, but let’s face it, before it was proved impossible, the matter was worth looking into. Alchemy, though, was an entire field of study, the forerunner of today’s scientific age. And it happened, ironically enough, in Arabia.


In the Qu’ran, the Prophet Mohammed forbids drinking… eventually. In early surahs (a surah is like a Biblical verse, only more exotic) paradise is described as having rivers of wine, and despite these, when good Muslims enter heaven, they are given sealed casks of wine where even the dregs are delish. Surah 16:67 states ”And of the products of the palm and the vineyards you take to yourselves there from an intoxicant and fair provision.” Over the course of the text, there are some warnings against drunkenness, and the foolishness you get up to while really gassed, but wine on its own is still pretty wholesome: a gift from God. Until … according to Islamic tradition, a drunken brawl broke out among the prophet’s followers during a game of dice.

Understand that Qu’ran is not a collection of narrative stories and morality tales, like the Bible. It is more a series of pronouncements dictated by Mohammed to his followers, (or according to tradition, by Allah to the faithful through Mohammend). It isn’t until a later surah where, following a drunken brawl amongst his followers, that Mohammed says “O ye who believe! Strong drink and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it aside in order that ye may succeed.”


Islamic jurists decided that this last dictate superseded earlier memos on the subject. The whole story has a “this is why we can’t have nice things” air about it.


Regardless, straightforward Islam spread – fast. Early Muslim leaders were pretty tolerant of Jews and Christians. (and Zorastorians) as “People of the Book.” For one thing, the Qu’ran commands it. More practically, the time of Islam’s “Golden Age” coincides with Europe’s Dark Ages, so Islamic leaders weren’t intimidated by Europeans, they felt sorry for them. Until the Crusades, the only white people they ever saw were dumpy refugees from Europe’s brutal feudalism. Later Christian retelling to the contrary, Islam’s early expansion wasn’t at the point of a sword but fueled tax breaks and entry into all the good clubs for Muslims. For the rest were what might call “second class citizens” but generally left alone. The QED being that prohibition of booze in Muslim lands was applied only to Muslims, non-believers could drink. So booze was around if you wanted to go slumming in the Jewish or Christian quarters, although it tamped down on the public spectacle of drunkenness.


From what I saw during my Murff of Arabia phase, Islam’s proscription against drinking is about as effective as the Southern Baptist proscription of the same. There was a whole genre of Golden Age Arabic poem called the khamriyat that centers around illicit night of drunkenness in shadowy non-Mulsim quarters that included booze, food, sodomy and, on occasion, more orthodox orgies with anyone handy, whether they want it or not. The appeal seems to have been something akin to the anything goes glamour of the 1920’s speakeasy. It reads pretty rapey to the modern eye.

There is no evidence that Jabir ibn-Haygen was into any of the above foolishness when he designed the first truly modern alembic pot-still that made the first effective distillation of what the Arabs called al-koh’l. Jabir was an Arab academic who published a bewildering variety of topics like alchemy, chemistry, magic, Shi’ite religious philosophy, grammar, medicine and pharmacology. He was smarter than you or me. So much so that it is more likely that “he” was probably an entire school of academics writing under the same pen name. And at the risk of insulting the reader, even taken separately, these people were still probably smarter than you or me. And as much as it pains me to write, at this distance we just don’t know what Jabir’s pronouns are: he or they?


A century later Mahomed ibn-Zakaryia refined the process still further, again, apparently for perfumes or medicines. The real break-through came in the 11th Century when Avicenna invented a coiled pipe that allowed the vapor to cool quicker than the straight cooling pipe. The East /West technology exchange here was huge – for the preceding century, pathetically poor Europeans had been coming to the Near East in waves, then terrifying Europeans in the form of the Crusaders. Then, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire – the Muslim world returned the favor. It’s all messy as hell, but this is historically how ideas get exchanged.


Although a Christian reformer and legendary doctor, Armaldus de Villanova was born in present day Spain at a time, around 1240,when all the high end real estate of Iberia was in Muslim hands. He moved to France and gained international fame as a doctor, and translated several medical texts from their original Arabic – including the above mentioned Avicenna. He was the first European doctor to distill alcohol to use as a antiseptic. Which is all high-minded and wholesome until it appears the Germans started to produce the stuff for fun, distilling beer into “hot water” in effect the first vodka.