Abu Musa Jābir ibn Hayyān – known simply as Gerber or Al-Jabir by the scholarly Latin communities – is acknowledged as being the first documented to design and implement the common “pot still” circa 790 AD. Today the pot still remains an essential tool for producing premium spirits and other chemical compounds.
While there is little doubt as to the role played by Al-Jabir in bringing distillation into modern world, an irrefutably accurate alembic pot still design was recently discovered in a museum in Pakistan. Dated at around 450 BCE, this terracotta still was discovered on the Indian sub-continent in the ancient city of Taxila, the old capital if the eastern Punjab region, 30km northwest of modern-day Islamabad. Where the knowledge of this incredibly modern still design came from is unknown but the role of Taxila in the then developing world is made clear with mention of trade with the city found in Rome (Taxilla), Greece (Ταξίλα) and China (Chu Ch’a-shi-lo). Conveniently located on the Silk road between Babylonia in the far west and China in the far east, Taxila would have been a virtual melting pot of different religions, cultures and technologies. It is also during this period that we derive the word “alcohol” from the ancient Vedic Sanskrit word, khola which was used to describe a genre of alcoholic beverages – [see: Origin of the word “alcohol”].
As a well documented alchemist, philosopher, geologist and physician of his time, Al-Jabir was also known for his quest to uncover the key to the Philosopher’s Stone, the legendary substance that was said to both bestow immortality and enable a base metal to turn into gold. Distillation was widely believed to be the tool required in its discovery and through his quest for the key to eternal life, Al-Jabir would be credited with first developing the modern pot still naming it a taqtir or al-ambiq, from which the latter name – “alembic” – is still used today when describing this classic still design. With his still to hand, Al-Jabir distilled many compounds in experimentation beginning with wine and salt, later observing a “fire which burns on the mouths of bottles due to boiled wine and salt”, an acute observation of the flammability of alcohol.
Unfortunately Al-Jabir would not discover the Philosopher’s Stone or any secret to immortality but would go on to uncover some of life’s key chemical elements by separating out, hydrochloric, sulfuric, nitric, acetic, tartaric and citric acids.