The Millennium Gap: Why Did It Take So Long For Distilling To Take Off?

Distillation, as a process, has been known since at least the first century AD. Yet a readily reproducible process of distillation did not really take off until the 13th century or so. Why the gap of 1000 years?

The answer is almost banal. Yes, a handful of people knew how to distill. The problem was with the technology. Glass broke easily, and ceramic implements were little better, as they transferred heat ineffectively, and inconsistently, depending upon the mineral content of the ceramics. In short, no one knew how to make good distilling vessels.

It was the Venetians, who combined different glass-making techniques (Roman and Syrian), that were able to consistently produce high-quality glassware. However, this didn’t occur until the mid 1200’s in history’s timeline.  Once this glass took off, distilling on a regular basis took off soon afterwards.

Here’s an interesting side-note: You can still see remnants of Venice’s glass industry in work if you visit the city. Murano island has all sorts of places that both sell and pay homage to the industry that helped solidified Venice’s empire.

The Science of Ethanol Fermentation

A foundation of knowledge must be set before I can write/talk about the history of liquor. This is how I operate. In order for me (or anyone else) to talk/speak about, oh I don’t know, let’s say…vodka, a fundamental understanding of fermentation, distillation, and the history of similar such topics is a necessity. This is a subjective opinion, but it has worked well for me in the past, as I feel more confidence in experts when they can not only speak well of a topic, but also to items that directly (and in many cases, indirectly) influenced said topic. Consider this post my initial effort at establishing a solid foundation.

Fermentation sits firmly at the core of any alcoholic beverage. Without it, our planet would be a far more boring place. There would not only be no alcohol, but no leavened bread, no yogurt, no kimchi, nor even a bottle of Tabasco. But what is fermentation?

Simply put, fermentation is the conversion of a carbohydrate, typically sugar,  into an acid or an alcohol.  There  two types of fermentation that are usually studied.  There is Lactic Acid Fermentation, which converts sugar into lactic acid. Then there is the type which brings us our happy goodness, namely ethanol fermentation, or alcoholic fermentation.  This type of fermentation  is the biological process in which glucose is converted into cellular energy and result in ethanol and carbon dioxide. It looks like the following from a chemical formula perspective:

C6H12O6 + Zymase → 2 C2H5OH + 2 CO2

We start with a mole of glucose (C6H12O6) and add zymase, an enzyme complex found in yeasts. This enzyme is a catalyst that takes the six carbon molecules, twelve hydrogen molecules, and six Oxygen molecules within the glucose , and creates a chemical reaction that results in two moles of Carbon Dioxide (with combined total of two carbon molecules and four oxygen molecules) and two moles of Ethanol (with its combined total of four carbons, twelve hydrogen molecules and two oxygen molecules).

Those two moles of ethanol are what makes life more enjoyable, and their creation are as rudimentary of a biochemical reaction as we can see on a day-to-day basis. We don’t even need a laboratory environment to see it happen. Many grapes contain all there needs to start fermentation, as their fruits have the requisite sugar, as well as ambient yeasts on the grapes themselves. If you find the correct kind of grape, all you need to is wait. 

From this process, we get dozens, if not hundreds of drinks that have resulted in several multi-billion dollar industries. All of them combined affected our culture for almost 10,000 years.

This is where we start.




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