Traditional Portuguese Alembic Still
Our traditional alembic stills are all made from the finest copper, since this metal not only conducts heat better, which helps both the fermentation process and consequent distillation, but also improves the outcome of the final distillation in terms of flavor. Copper also reduces bacterial contamination (which is why it is also used for water pipes, as it helps to preserve the anti-bacterial quality of the water) and absorbs the Sulphur produced during fermentation. Copper has been used to make stills since ancient times, and as successive generations have found, it remains the best option, thanks to its properties and natural advantages in the distilling process.
The Egyptians were the first people to construct stills, and images of them adorn the ancient temple of Memphis, but it is from the Arabic that we get the words 'alembic' (al ambic) and alcohol (al cohol). The first means the distillation vessel, and the second, while it was used to describe a very hard lead or antimony-based powder, expresses the idea of delicacy and subtlety, as in distillation vapor. The still was developed in 800 AD by the Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan.
Distillation is a method of separation based on the phenomenon of liquid-vapor balance in mixtures. In practical terms it means that when two or more substances form a liquid mixture, distillation may be an appropriate method to purify them: they only need to have reasonably different volatilities. One example of distillation which has been practiced since antiquity is the distillation of alcoholic drinks. The drink is made by condensing the alcohol vapor released on heating a fermented must. As the alcohol content of the distilled drink is higher than that in the must, this is characterized as a purification process.
The many pot stills available such as the alembic changed their shape and evolved depending on the country that used the distillation equipment and of course the capacity of the still depended on the purpose of the distillation. The traditional Portuguese alembic has a very rounded onion shape as earlier distillers believed that the more rounded shape favored the return of water vapors into the pot thus obtaining higher quality aguardente (moonshine).
Portugal's manufacture of copper alembics is as old as it's tradition in making "arguardente" (eau-de-vie). In fact, aguardente is an essential ingredient of the world-renowned Port wine.