Maceration and Distillation

The original old Egrot alambics at the historic Emile Pernot distillery in Pontarlier are in all respects identical to those used in the absinthe era. The larger alambic has a capacity of 900l, the smaller one holds 200 litres. Both are jacketed with wood, and topped by a traditionally shaped chapiteau, which leads via copper pipe up to a rectifying ball above the condenser.
The rectifying balls return some of the heavier vapours to the pot, while the balance condenses in the cooling coils submerged in water in the grey coloured tank below, before being collected in the horizontally mounted cylindrical distillate tanks at the bottom. It’s possible to conduct two distillations simultaneously with this apparatus.

The dual Egrot alambics

An overhead photo of the alambics. In the middle are the rectifying balls, with the twin condenser coils in their water tank visible below.

alambics with twin condenser

The dual Egrot alambics

Macerating the Herbs

A quantity of base spirit is added to the alambic pot, diluted with water to about 85%. The mixed crushed herbs are stirred in, and left to macerate overnight in the high proof alcohol. In the morning additional water (together with any tails or phlegms from previous distillations) is added, before the distillation run commences. It takes two to three hours to heat the alambic to the required temperature.

The manufacturer’s nameplates are recessed into the stills, allowing one to feel the temperature of the inner copper jacket.

In a separate room in the distillery are the alcohol tanks holding the 97.3% pure base spirit used for absinthe distillation. Generally in France beet alcohol is used, although some manufacturers (including, historically, Pernod Fils), prefer grape alcohol.

The rectifying balls are continually cooled with water, allowing the heavier vapours to condense and be redirected back to the pot. Everything else passes through the condenser coils below. In most cases the rectifying balls are only used for part of the run, and many distillers prefer to bypass them entirely.

The precious distillate is collected in calibrated 2 or 5 litre jugs from the copper tanks below the condenser. The clear distillate is carefully monitored by sight, smell and taste, as the end-run or tails must be collected separately. Tails may at first be lightly coloured, especially if pollen rich or finely powdered herbal material has been used, but will end up a milky white. Rich in anethole, they are added to future runs and re-distilled – nothing is ever wasted in a distillery, and every drop of alcohol has to be accounted for to the excise authority.

After the run is complete, the herbal charge must be removed and the distilling pot thoroughly cleaned. The perforated grille shown on the left helps stop the herbs from clogging the pipework, and also reduces eructions or ‘burps’ in the herb mass.