Thoughts on Alchemy

When I compare present day distillers with ancient alchemists I am not casting aspersions, but rather attempting to see the best and the brightest aspects of both groups and their endeavors. The distillers of Tennessee whiskey are, in my view, the descendants of the alchemists. Bear with me and I’ll try to clarify my thoughts.

Alchemy is actually the historical precursor to the entire field of chemistry. Alchemists attempted to purify, mature, and perfect certain materials.

A variety of ideas and skills fed into the origin of alchemy. Among those skills were smelting, assaying, alloying, gilding, amalgamating, sublimating, painting, lacquering and distilling!

Alchemy was the granddaddy of medicine, chemistry, and a lot of other modern disciplines, and alchemists were the granddaddies of latter-day distillers.  Without going into a history of alchemy, let us just realize that there was a lot more to it than pseudoscientists trying to transform base metals, such as lead, into gold. Although it’s true that aurification was among their endeavors, they gave us a legacy that draws a straight line to those engaged in making whiskey today.

Distillers in particular, as latter-day alchemists, turn grains into a kind of beer; turn the beer into a distillate and through aging; turn it into liquid gold of great flavor and depth. Or to put a finer point on it, they make some delicious, damned good, sippin’ whiskey. And arguably, from their aim to purify, mature and perfect; a line can be drawn to the Lincoln County Process, to barrel aging and, to delivering Tennessee whiskey as the most wonderful expression of these endeavors.

Curiously, many of these individuals who I’ve called ‘alchemists’ are in fact, chemists by training. I would argue that these distillers of Tennessee are deserving of being characterized as the finest successors of alchemists of yore.

“Human kind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain something new, something of equal value must be lost. That is Alchemy’s first law of equivalent exchange. In those days we really believed that to be the world’s one and only truth.”

     – Alphonse Elric in the TV series ‘Laws and Promises’

The ‘Angel’s Share, the amount of whiskey that evaporates during aging is clearly just such an exchange of values.

Some of the most famous scientists were, are you ready for it, also alchemists. Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton being among the most prominent.

“…it was a valuable and necessary phase in the development of modern chemistry. Among alchemy’s signature accomplishments: creating new alloys; manufacturing acids and pigments; inventing apparatus for distillation, the process used in making perfumes and whiskeys; conceiving of atoms centuries before modern atomic theory; and providing a template for the scientific method by running controlled experiments again and again.”

     – Jane Bosveld from her article ‘Isaac Newton, World’s Most Famous Alchemist’

So what’s the point? I’m not sure there is one beyond yet another historic legacy in this fascinating business of whiskey making.