Wines and Rosewater – Distilling Techniques from the Middle East

Jābir ibn Hayyān (Geber), a Persian alchemist ...

Jābir ibn Hayyān (Geber), a Persian alchemist whose experimental research helped to lay the foundations for chemistry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post won’t be for ‘everyone’ – it is about the transfer of technology from the Middle East to Europe, specifically, about distilling techniques.

The entry is condensed from the this site, from which full footnotes are available.

Alcohol and the Distillation of Wine in Arabic Sources From the Eighth Century Onwards [1]

The distillation of wine and the properties of alcohol were known to Islamic chemists from the eighth century. The prohibition of wine in Islam did not mean that wine was not produced or consumed or that Arab alchemists did not subject it to their distillation processes.



Above: Alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, from a 15th c. European portrait of “Geber”,
Codici Ashburnhamiani 1166, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence
Reza Abbasi 17th.C. Safavid School. Source:  Smithsonian
Reza Abbasi 17th.C. Safavid School. Source: Smithsonian

Jabir ibn Hayyan described a cooling technique which can be applied to the distillation of alcohol.[2]

The first reference to the flammable vapours at the mouths of bottles containing boiling wine and salt occurred in Kitab ikhraj ma fi al-quwwa ila al-fi`l of Jabir ibn ayyanHayyan (born c. 103/721, died c.200/815).  He says:

“And fire which burns on the mouths of bottles due to boiled wine and salt, and similar things with nice characteristics which are thought to be of little use, these are of great significance in these sciences.”[4]

Jabir ibn Hayyam 8th.C. Kitab ikhraj ma fi al'quwwa ila al'fi'l  -

Jabir ibn Hayyam 8th.C. Kitab ikhraj ma fi al-quwwa ila al-fi’l – Source:

Among the early chemists who mentioned the distillation of wine is al-Kindi (d.260/873) in Kitab al-Taraffuq fi al-‘itr (also known as The Book of the chemistry of Perfume and Distillations). He says after describing a distillation process:

“…and so wine is distilled in wetness and it comes out like rosewater in colour.” [6]

al-Kindi d.873. Kitqb al'Taraffuq fi al-'itr.  distillation process.  Source: hist. of arab sci

al-Kindi d.873. Kitab al-Taraffuq fi al-‘itr. distillation process. Source: hist. of arab sci

…Alcohol was called by Arabic chemists such as Ibn Badis (11th century) خمر  مصعّد (distilled wine).  The current word for distilled wine in Arab Lands is `araq عرق which means sweat. The droplets of ascending wine vapours that condense on the sides of the cucurbit are similar to the drops of sweat.

You find this word in Arabic alchemical treatises describing drops of condensing vapours during distillation. Jabir Ibn Hayyan in his Kitab al-jumal al-`ishrin (The Book of Twenty Articles) says in Article Thirteen:

The material under discussion should be “dried slightly after grinding so that its wetness is dehydrated and this is done to avoid the (formation) of `araq because if `araq is formed the quantity of the distillate will be smaller than if the `araq is not formed. Know this.” [11 a]

أن يجفف بعد السحق قليلا حتى ينشف ما فيه من نداوته وذلك فإنما يفعل ليومن عليه من العرق فإذا عرق كان المصاعد اقل مما لم يعرق فاعرف ذلك.

From a study of early Arabic poetry on wine we infer that distilled wine was one of several types of wine  خمر and was not denoted by a special name. The poet Abu Nuwas (died 198/813) described wines in beautiful verses. When enjoying a drinking session with a friend he tasted three kinds of wine in succession. Each time he would ask the bartender (khmmar) for a better (stronger) drink and in the third time he asked for a wine that:

“has the colour of rain-water but is as hot inside the ribs as a burning firebrand”.[12]

في لون ماء الغيث إلا إنها                بين الضلوع كواقد الجمر

It seems that the word `araq was either not yet used or was not common at that early date.

An interesting name for wine was ma’ al-hayat ماء الحياة (water of life) which is the same name as aqua vitae (water of life) that was given to distilled wine in the West when distillation was first transferred from the Arabs in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. An Arabic poet says:

“I am wandering how those who had pressed [13] it had passed away, whereas they have handed down to us ma’ al-hayat (the water of life)” [14]

عجبت لعاصريها كيف ماتوا     وقد تركوا لنا ماء الحياة

The etymology of `araq is of great interest in the history of alcohol. We have given evidence above about the existence of wine distillation since the eighth century. But what was the common name for the distilled wine among the public?  This interesting topic was not investigated as yet. We started such an investigation into earlier literary sources.

We found that in Hikayat Abu al-Qasim al-Baghdadi (written c. first half 5/11 century) a mention of `araq al-nabidh عرق النبيذ (the `araq of wine)[15]. Al-Nuwayri (d. 732/1331) mentions in his encyclopaedia that the taxes that were levied on `araq amounted to 10 %.[16] Al-Antaki (d. 1008/1599) mentions the `araq of sugar cane and of grapes. When discussing khamr (wine) he mentions `araqi as a distilled kind that is useful in certain cases. [17]

Syria was particularly known for the production of wines and `araq. They were produced by Christians in the numerous monasteries and convents of Syria, Iraq and Egypt.[18] Wine shops were plentiful in the main cities such as Baghdad and were run by non-Muslims. They catered for all sectors of wine-loving persons including poets who left a rich poetry about wine خمريّات.

In the fourteenth century alcohols were exported from the Arab lands of the Mediterranean to Europe. Pegolotti mentions alcohol and rose water among the list of exported commodities (1310-1340).[19]

By the fourteenth century the distillation of wine was transferred to the East and West and the word `araq in its various forms in the Latin alphabet (arak, araka, araki, ariki, arrack, arack, raki, raque, racque, rac, rak, araka)became widely used outside the Islamic lands of the Near East. The word arak was used for example by the Mongols in the fourteenth century. Mongol araki is first mentioned in a Chinese text in 1330.[20] The word spread to most lands of Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.

It is assumed in Western literature that the earliest references in a Latin treatise to the distillation of wine occurred in either in a text from Salerno around 1100 AD or in a cryptogram which was added by Adelard of Bath to the Mappae Clavicula (c. 1130). The solving of the riddle of the words in the Mappae cipher was suggested by Berthelot.[21] But as with the whole science of chemistry, the recipes for the distillation of wine were part of the Arabic alchemical legacy that was transmitted in its totality to the West.

The Arabic influence on the School of Salerno is well-known, and Adelard of Bath himself was an Arabist and several of the recipes that he added to the Mappae Clavicula have Arabic words in them.[22]

In this limited space we mention only that most histories of distilled spirits acknowledge that the art of distillation of spirits is credited to the Arabs especially the Arabs of al-Andalus.[23] Jerez (Sharish), Malaga, Seville and other regions in al-Andalus were renowned for their wines. They were exported but the details of trade in wines are not fully documentd.[24]

In Cordoba there was a state-operated market for wine in the Christian quarter during the time of al-Hakam I (796-823). [25] Wine was distilled in al-Andalus as we have seen above (see al-Zahrawi).

It is thought that distilled spirits were produced in Jerez and that sherry (from Sharish the Arabic name for Jerez) was known since the Arab days.[26]

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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