History of essential oils distillation

Curiosity is inscribed in the genetic code of humans. Who knows who transferred the first scent of the plant into a drop. The star was born, but the path was thorny. The job of distillation in the old cradles of civilization was a painstaking work and the product a royal one. Little by little we improved the yields to finally culminate in enough for a slightly wider population. And then we had to take a step towards medicine and not just cosmetics.

Historians disagree as to who exactly invented the distillation process. Levey in his work Evidences of Ancient Distillation, Sublimation and Extraction in Mesopotamia (Centaurus, T IV, 1955, p. 22-3) confirms that there are definitely records of a double-edged pot from the end of 4th millennium BC which could be used for distillation. In Histoire de la chimie (1866, Paris), Hoefer states that Zosimos of Panopolis describes in detail the distillers he saw in Memphis, Egypt, and thus left us the first clear written trace of the use of distillers whose concept remained alive to this day. The drafts are preserved in a transcript of the 11th century Zosimos manuscript and appear in Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris, 1887.-1888.). The name alambic comes from the Greek word ambix, which means vase, because its shape resembles a vase.

An advance over the previous technology, where steam condensed on the lid, is a tube that descends towards the bellows (recipient). The number of recipients could be two (dibikos) or three (tribikos). The still alambik was unchanged in its design until the 16th century.

It was taken over by other cultures, like Arab. Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815), known by the Latin name Geber (جابر بن حیان) was probably the first true alchemist, but also a philosopher, to describe the process of distillation in his works. Abu Yusuf Yu’qub ibn ‘Ishaq as-Sabbah al-Kindi (801-873, أبو يوسف يعقوب بن إسحاق الصبّاح الكندي) of the Latinized name Alkindus, a versatile mathematician, chemist, musician and philosopher, was reportedly one of the first to describe the distillation of ethanol. In the book Kitab Kimya al-‘Itr wa al Tas’idat or the Book of Perfumes, Chemistry and Distillation, he describes the preparation of as many as 107 fragrant essences, thus becoming the first person to shift his focus to the art of distillation in his wprk. Each essential oil really requires a specific method of distillation, so this work was a precursor to today’s modern understanding of the diversity of distillation techniques.

However, the then alambik was quite imperfect. The main problem was the condensation process, because the apparatus itself did not allow efficient heat exchange. Therefore, the distillation process would be an at low temperatures so that the vapours could condense quickly enough. It is believed that the distillation process in this way lasted for days and maybe weeks and we cannot know what these essential oils really were, compared to today. Europeans took over the distillation process partly from Hellenistic but mostly from Arab heritage. The main revolution in distillation came from the school in Salerno from in the 13th century. In the 16th century, this modernized knowledge was published in the works:

  • Hieronymus Brunschwig: Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus. (1500)
  • Hieronymus Brunschwig: Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (1512)
  • Giambattista Della Porta: De distillationibus, libri IX. (1609)
  • John French: The Art of Distillation (1651)

It is in the work De distillationibus the progress of distillation technology can be seen, because the process of slow condensation and, most importantly, the classic appearance of the coil (“snake”) was introduced, which enabled better heat exchange and more efficient condensation. Porta was the first to mention the concept of fractional distillation where the outlets of the pipes themselves were placed at unequal heights, and the highest pipe gave the finest essence. This later opened the door to knowledge about the unequal distillation properties of certain components of essential oils. The most complicated apparatus had as many as seven unevenly placed tubes and resembled the Greek Hydra.

Basically, the apparatus underwent only a few minor modifications during the period of industrialization and advances in science. Steam distillation was introduced, the cooling process, and temperature and pressure controls so that the oil is always of reproducible yield and quality.

For a detailed study of the history of distillation, I recommend an outstanding book: R. J. Forbes – A Short History of the Art of Distillation (1970).


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