History and Use
The history of distillation in general dates back to 200 – 300 A.D. It is a distillation process where there is a separation of more than one liquid of different boiling points into a more pure form. The purpose this serves is to separate undesirable parts of a liquid and obtain the more preferred component. It is often used in alcohol production (i.e., at a distillery), with crude oil, for the production of a more usable fuel, and for the desalinization of seawater into freshwater.
What is an alembic? Alembics were basically distillation equipment used for these processes. All it took was boiling the liquid in one container and then funneling the liquid vapor, usually via gravity, into another container where it was cooled, condensed, and brought back to its liquid state. The resulting product of distillation was then used for whatever corresponding function it was intended for. Again, the purpose of this was to boil out the unwanted impurities in the original raw oil.
In 850 A.D. the Muslims perfected the process. Their alembic equipment consisted of three components: a flask in the shape of a gourd that held the intended crude petroleum product to be distilled, also known as the curibit; a condenser device that captured the distillate or vapors that rose up from the crude oil; and on the receiving end of it all, the collection vessel that received the distilled oil from the spouted curibit.
The end result was called “White Naptha" or in Muslim terms, “naft abyad", which was used in lamp oil.
Their process was pretty much similar to current methods, except with smaller volumes and without the continuous distillation towers that we use today. The Arabs used, in their terms, an “al-inbiq" which thus coined the English variant of the term, “alembic." Though spelled either way, it sounds the same.