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THE STORY OF EAU DE VIE
Jeanne Rose

Definitions:

          Absolute and concrètes and resinoids are described as follows in The World of Perfume by Fabienne Pavia, 1995.  Solvent extraction takes place in stainless steel vats which are filled with perforated trays covered with plant material stacked one on the other so that the plant material is not crushed. The solvent must be allowed to circulate freely. The solvent is introduced, this strips the plants of their fragrance (sort of like dry-cleaning clothes of their scent). Once the solvent is saturated with fragrance, the solvent is decanted to remove excess moisture and then the material is transferred to a vacuum still where it is partially distilled.  It is evaporated, retrieved and then recycled in various processes, leaving a paste-like mixture, composed of fragrant molecules, waxes and pigments, at the bottom of the machine.  This mixture of such things as seeds, roots, mosses, balsams, gums or resins is called a resinoid; it is called a concrète `when it is obtained from flowers. Resinoids are used as is.  Concrètes are further processed and refined. Floral concrètes are thick and viscous and contain plant waxes and paraffins that are insoluble in alcohol. The waxes are filtered out, and the concrète is washed in alcohol repeatedly to dissolve the fragrant molecules.  It is chilled, the waxes are frozen because they congeal at low temperatures.  The mixture is filtered again to remove all the wax particles.  Finally, the mixture undergoes low pressure distillation and evaporation of the alcohol yields the absolute essence, called simply the absolute.

          Arthur O.  Tucker is a Research Professor at Delaware State University in the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.  He has an intense interest and knowledge in all things aromatic. He has published widely on many herbs and essential oils,  is an acknowledged authority of the Lavenders and is on the editorial board of Economic Botany, Journal of Essential Oil Research, and Herbs for Health, as well as an advisor for many other journals and groups.  Dr. Tucker has just completed a new book, called The Big Book of Herbs, one of the top three herb books selling on Amazon.  The Big Book of Herbs references every statement with a scientific paper in a readable format. 

          Distillation is the process of boiling a substance in a closed system. A plant material is heated over or in water until the scent of the plant bursts from the cells, is vaporized as a gas, and then condensed again into fluid by submerging the pipe full of vapors in cold water.  This is condensation. Plants are distilled for their essential oil and hydrosol.

          Dr. Tucker sent me a message regarding distillation. “Gildemeister (1913) has a wonderful history of distillation but no definition per se, but he does say: "Owing to the practice of using alcohol in the preparation of many of these aromatic waters (hydrosols), the oil must frequently have remained in solution wholly or in part.  Thus, e.g. the plants or plant products to be distilled were moistened with wine or aqua vitae before distillation.  Moreover, both alcohol and volatile oil were lost, in part at least, by submitting the plant products to a process known as circulation, a preliminary operation consisting of more or less prolonged digestion...In some instances recourse was again taken to the process of fermentation before distillation which was in vogue during the 15th and 16th centuries.  This was done e.g. with Juniper berries, Wormwood, Sage and other herbs, honey and yeast occasionally being added.  The old practice of previously moistening the plant material with alcohol was also resorted to.  In this manner a larger yield of oil was obtained but it would seem that the dilution of the oil with alcohol was not recognized."  Haagen-Smit in Guenther (1948) says: "In early work, therefore, we find the term "essential oil" or "ethereal oil" defined as the volatile oil obtained by the steam distillation of plants.  With such a definition, it is clearly intended to make a distinction between the fatty oils and the oils which are easily volatile.  Their volatility and plant origin are the characteristic properties of these oils, and it is for this reason more satisfactory to include in our definition volatile plant oils obtained by other means than by direct steam distillation." Arctander (1960) says " An essential oil is a volatile material, derived by a physical process from odorous plant material of a single botanical form and species with which it agrees in name and color."”.....thus, because distillation was involved in the preparation of the "pear essence" it could conceivably be called an essential oil according to the above. ___private communication from Arthur O. Tucker

          Fermented fruits or wine are distilled  for the alcohol that is produced.  This is a closed system and the boiling produces vapours that are captured and condensed into a new liquid within the swan's neck and the condenser called the eau de vie  or grape spirits(*see below). Grape wine eau de vie that is diluted down to 40% and then aged in oak is called cognac or brandy. In the case of the fermented fruit or wine, this vapour is very high in alcohol which is collected, reboiled again, collected at about 60-65% alcohol.

          Eau de vie is an aromatic alcohol distillate of fruit such as grape, pear or apple or other fruit.  Around the world there are some really expert eau de vie distillers. Eau de vie, water of life, the burning water,  is an ancient substance, a high alcoholic beverage that was added to plain water to purify it, that was drunk on its own, that was distilled by ancient cultures, that was more a potent medicinal potion than a leisure drink. It is a substance written about by the ancient alchemists, a classic spirit honored by all. In The Newe Iewell of Health by Conrad Gesner, and dated 1576,  is "the fourth Booke of Dy∫tillations, conteyning many ∫ingular ∫ecrete Remedies" The first chapter is about "Of the distilling of Aqua vitae, or as some name it, burning water, and of the properties of the same."

            It goes on to say... "that the water which is distilled out of wine,  is named by some the water of life, in that it recovers and maintains life, yes and slays old age.  But this may rightly be named the water of death, if it shall not be rightly and Artly prepared."

          In the book Classic Spirits of the World, a Comprehensive Guide by Gordon Brown, dated 1996, it is explained that the Arabs studied distillation and took their techniques with them on military campaigns. They distilled grapes in Sicily to make lamp-fuel and as a disinfectant for wounds. The knowledge of distillation spread. The book, defines eau de vie as grape spirits.  First an organic substance has yeast added and it ferments and turns to alcohol which is collected by distillation.          

          The making of eau de vie is thus simple. It is both Art and Craft with a good bit of Science added. Ripe grapes or fruit are collected and yeast is added. As the fermentation process proceeds, the yeast eats up the sugars and produces alcohol.  When the alcohol is boiled such as in a enclosed copper pot, a still, the alcohol vapourizes.  This vapour is collected and condensed and the alcohol is thus concentrated. When wine which is 8% alcohol is distilled, it is subjected to the heat and boiling in the still, it produces alcohol at 20%; if it is boiled or distilled a second time the alcohol increases in volume and this vapour that is collected, its alcohol strength increases to about 60% by volume. Only the best part of the distillate is collected, that is what comes off during the middle part of the distillation process and you thus you have eau de vie or grape spirits(*see above).  If your organic substance is a fruit such as Pear, that is fermented and then distilled,  the final product is then Pear eau de vie.

          Vapour is the word used in the distillation industry to mean the volatile matter or the gaseous form of the distillate before it cools.

          Vapor is the smoke, fog, mist or steam that is the suspended matter or is floating in the air and disrupts the airs transparency.

Bibliography

1. Winters, Lance • St. George's Spirits distiller from a private communication. Nov. 2000
2. Brown, Gordon . Classic Spirits of the World • A Comprehensive Guide . Abbeville Press of London and New York . 1996.
3. Rose, Jeanne . 375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols . Frog. Ltd. of Berkeley , CA . 1999.
4. Pavia , Fabienne . The World of Perfume . Knickerbocker Press, New York . 1995
5. Gesner, Conrad . The Newe Iewell of Health .   London . 1576 [from the Da Capo Press edition, 1971.
6. Tucker, Arthur O. Journal of  Essential Oil Research.  to be published. 2001.  

©All Rights Reserved 2003, 2004. No part of this article may be used
without prior permission from The Aromatic Plant Project.
©Author's Copyright and Jeanne Rose, info@aromaticplantproject.com



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