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The Flemish influence.

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

Spirits today are distilled in two or three times or in a continuous system and almost always in copper alembics. From primitive stills to the imposing and elegantly shaped pot stills of today, the principle has always remained the same. It is true that there have been no earth-shattering changes in this process over the past centuries in terms of innovation. Unless maybe one! The arrival of la Colonne Belge (the Belgian Column)...

The first evidence of distillation can be found on stone carvings made in ancient Mesopotamia around 1200 B.C. It contained a reference to a primitive form of distillation at the service of perfumery. This separation technique was further developed and studied via the Ancient Greeks and ended up in Europe. During the first centuries AD, the technique was used in the laboratories of the alchemists who tried to convert common metals into gold by means of the Philosopher's Stone. We can deduce from numerous Flemish paintings and encyclopedias that many Flemish people were bitten by the phenomenon of distillation.

The Laboratory of Duke Francesco I de' Medici, 1570 by Jan Van der Straet. The oldest known painting by an alchemist showing a still.

Jacob van Maerlant (Damme, ca. 1235 – 1300) was the first to describe the distillation process in Dutch in 1266 when he published his collection Der Naturen Bloeme. Incidentally, the genever tree was also used for the first time in its recipe and was therefore a first form of genever. Jacob's work was not an original but rather a collection of other works in which his greatest source of inspiration was the book Liber der natura rerum, written between 1230 and 1245 by another Fleming Thomas van Cantimpré (Bellingen 1201 – Leuven ca. 1272). The part on distillation was here completely new written by Jacob. Later, in 1351, the Fleming Johannes van Aalter also described in detail how wine could be distilled in steps and how to seal a primitive still with flour and the white of an egg. But artists such as David Teniers, Jan van Eyck and Jan van der Straet also showed their sympathy for alchemy and distillation. The latter was a painter born in Bruges who worked in Florence for the court of the famous Medici under the acronym Joannes Stratensis (1523 – 1649). All these artists knew and practiced the art of distillation well.

The plague epidemic of 1348 was partly responsible for the rise and spread of distillation in the Netherlands. From then on, the alembic could also be seen outside the secretive workrooms of the alchemists and was used not only by pharmacists, but also by painters, goldsmiths, metalworkers and textile dyeers. However, the pharmacists took the lead here. During the 15th century more and more pharmacists started distilling so that by the beginning of the 16th century distillates had acquired a permanent place in pharmacies. The profession of distiller or distiller itself also became a respected métier and the first distiller was noted in the Bruges Resolution Book in 1447 in which a certain Baptista Gambaro's official profession as a distiller was described. Throughout the 16th century, the alembics become technologically better and larger through researches by both Northern and Southern Dutch people (currently the Netherlands and Belgium). In 1476, the very first booklet entirely devoted to distillation is published in Augsburg. It was written by the physician Michael Puff von Schrick (c. 1400 – 1473), professor at the University of Vienna. Apart from a few fragments or descriptions of the process by Flemings, Dutch, Italians and Arabs in the preceding centuries, this work was more detailed and mainly contained the preparations of medicinal waters. After this, the books about distilled waters follow quickly, with the two books from 1512 by the Strasbourg physician Hieronymus Brunschwijgk (ca. 1450 – ca. 1512) often used as a source of inspiration and also translated into Dutch in 1517 already. great interest and potential of distilling once again in our region at that time. His books contain many images and are therefore important for the history of the technique of distillation.

Drawing out of the Constelijck Distileerboec

The Constelijck Distileerboec by the Antwerp physician Phillipus Hermanni, published in 1552, was so successful that by 1622 it had been copied several times and was republished mainly in Amsterdam. After all, it also contained a very first recipe of a mixture of crushed juniper berries with wine that had to be distilled, but Hermanni also added that in addition to wine, wine lees, brewer's yeast and mead could be used. That the Flemish at that time were completely up to date with distillation and that they had a great deal of mastery in this is also apparent from a 1604 minute from the Cognac region. Some consuls invite Flemish people to help them make a large quantity of eau-de-vie. The presence of Flemish people in Cognac can still be seen: large cognac houses such as Martell and Hennessy are located on the Quai des Flamands. Also in the same year there were at least 8 faiseurs d'eau-de-vie in La Rochelle, 4 of which were Flemish. An important invention in the mid-17th century is from a German physicist who lived in Amsterdam. According to his contemporaries, he was possessed by the art of distillation and will be one of the founders of steam distillation. He boiled water in a restorer and let the vapors bubble through a barrel filled with wine. The vapors released from this were cooled back in a spiral hose, immersed in a cooling vessel. It was only 150 years later that this technique would be applied industrially by the Frenchman Edouard Adam and lay the basis for the invention of the heating column.

Industrial times

After the separation of Belgium from the rest of the Netherlands, it became the first country on the European mainland to see industrialization. Machines were no longer powered by oxen or water, but by a steam engine. In the larger distilleries steam boilers and steam engines were introduced quite early. Even more than the heating of the fittings and the drive of the machines, the introduction of the continuously operating heating column had a major impact. French inventors played a major role in this. In a period of 30 to 40 years, the transition was realized from the classic alembic to the continuously operating heating column. And the Belgians are there for something!

The principle of distillation with a traditional alembic or pot still is that two liquids are separated from each other by means of their difference in boiling temperature. The vapors during cooking are led through the gooseneck and converted back to a liquid in the condenser. Very primitive and that is why it has been practiced for so long. A heating column also does this principle, depending on the number of dishes or stages, several times in succession in one heating session and this can be accommodated in a constant system. The major advantage of the continuous heating column is that it can be fired more economically. The liquid still to be fired is already preheated while the distilled distillate is already condensing in it. A second advantage is that it can be fired more finely and higher. The example below is a visualization of a column together with a preheater. Today, this system often sits together in a single column.

A: fractioner - B: rectifier - 1: wash - 2: steam - 3: condensate out - 4: alcohol vapours - 5: less volatile components - 6: volatile components - 7: condenser

The major advantage of the continuous heating column is that it can be fired more economically. The liquid still to be fired is already preheated while the distilled distillate is already condensing in it. A second advantage is that it can be fired more finely and higher. An important breakthrough in this regard was the patent of the Frenchman J.P. Cellier-Blumenthal. In 1813, after several attempts by other inventors, he patented his own column. Pioneering in this were the perforated plates and the various trays that made up the column. This invention was extremely well suited for the distillation of wine and could be used in the large industrial sugar refineries, but not for distilleries that worked with a grain mash. When he presented his invention to large distilleries in the Netherlands, it was therefore not well received. There it was found that the heating column did have an advantage for heating phlegm, or alcohol vapour, but not for the grain mash, as the column often became clogged. This prompted Cellier-Blumenthal to improve his column and make it suitable for grain mash. After the modifications, his invention met with great success in testing and was widely copied by others. This in turn led to many lawsuits to protect his patent. Irritated by the many processes, Cellier-Blumenthal settled in Koekelberg near Brussels from 1820.

Sketch of La Colonne Belge by Cellier-Blumenthal (1816)

Due to the fact that he lived in Brussels and continued to improve his initial invention, the heating column was very successful in Belgium. His good friendship with King Leopold I, who himself owned a potato distillery and was interested in innovations in this industry, also stimulated its development in this region. During this period he collaborated with the Brussels coppersmiths Delattre, Dubois and Camal and they replaced the perforated plates with bubble caps so that thick grain batters would no longer clog the column. The very first grain distillery in the Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815 – 1830) to install a firing column was the Dooms distillery in Lessen (Lessines) in 1828. Extensive and detailed testing was done here in the then very progressive distillery of the brothers Jean-Baptiste and Louis Dooms. A second column was placed in 1829 at the alcohol processing company Van Volxem in Halle and a third in 1830 at Claes in Lembeek, at that time the largest distillery in the Netherlands. Given the progressive attitude of some Belgian distillers, the fact that the inventor was living in Brussels at the time and given the first successes with the new distillation column in Belgium, which was a groundbreaking revolution in the distilling world, this column was also called the Belgian column.

Two continious columns at the distillery of Louis Meeus in Wijnegem, Antwerp. The largest distillery Belgium, and probably Europe, has ever known.

Cellier-Blumenthal was not the only one to build heating columns in Belgium. Pierre Savalle, a French industrialist who spent much of his life in Belgium, had founded three sugar distilleries in Belgium and was friends with Cellier-Blumenthal. However, after a discussion between the two, Savalle started building heating columns himself. He did this in 1818 in a construction workshop in one of the three sugar factories and distilleries that he owned in Belgium. Later, his family constructed entire distilleries with columns all over Europe. After a steam explosion incident in which both Cellier and Savalle escaped death, Savalle also began to focus on steam control from which today's steam regulator emerged. Today the heating column or the continuous still or the column still is a household name all over the world. It was mainly French engineers who took the initiative to start a revolution and develop a new way, yet it seemed rather that they had to move abroad to give their inventions a chance to survive. Belgium was often the base for testing such developments. There they were open to innovation and industrial progress and they dared to take a conservative approach.

With the above in mind, we welcomed a continious column in 2021 at the Van der Schueren distillery for the first time, before that everything was done with pot still. As a Belgian distillery, we not only worship raw materials from our own region, but also old ways and methods of working that are specific to our region. The arrival of our column undoubtedly contributes to this.

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