Distillation is one of the most evocative metaphors in the English language. ‘Whisky’ is anglicised Gaelic for ‘water of life’ – eau de vie in France and aquavit in Scandinavia – the all-important fifth element (quintessence), which, alchemists believed, was necessary for life. This concept has outlived alchemy itself, and the analogy has become an accepted part of everyday speech, used unconsciously in phrases such as ‘distillation of the truth’, and the word ‘spirit’ as a synonym for the soul.

In Liber de arte distillandi simplicia et composita (1500), the first printed book about distillation, ...


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