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This article is about alchemical stills. For the guitar manufacturer, see Alembic Inc. For computer graphics, see Alembic (Computer Graphics).
Picture of an alembic from a medieval manuscript

An alembic (from Arabic الأنبيق (al-anbīq), from Greek ἄμβυξ (ambyx), possibly from Semitic[1]) is an alchemical still consisting of two vessels connected by a tube, used for distilling chemicals. Technically, the alembic is the lid with a tube attachment (the still-head), which is placed on top of a flask, the cucurbit, containing the material to be distilled, but the word is often used to refer to the entire distillation apparatus. If the lid and flask are in one piece, it may be called a retort. The liquid in the cucurbit flask is heated or boiled; the vapour rises into the alembic hood, where it cools by contact with the walls and condenses, running down the spout into a receiving flask.

A modern descendant of the alembic (used to produce distilled beverages) is the pot still.


Alembics from a 1606 alchemy book, showing the many sophisticated types.
Alembic metalwork in the staircase at the Chemical Faculty of Gdańsk University of Technology, 1904.

The word "alembic" is also used metaphorically for anything that refines or transmutes, as if by distillation (as in "the alembic of creative thought"). The word, like most alchemical terminology, comes from the Arabic: al-anbīq, meaning "still". The French spelling alambic is also commonly used, especially as the apparatus is often associated with cognac where it is known as alambic charentais (Charente alembic). In Shakespeare's plays, the older variant "limbeck" appears. An old French name for an alembic (more specifically, the cucurbit) was matras.[2]

The alembic symbol is Unicode U+2697 ALEMBIC ().


Cleopatra the Alchemist who was likely alive during the 3rd century, was an Egyptian alchemist, author, and philosopher. She is credited with the invention of the alembic.[3] Early use of alembics are to be found in the works of ancient Persians, such as Jabir al-Tusi (Geber). Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, who conducted the first documented scientific studies on distillation, used alembics in his scientific work.[4] This work was extended during the Middle Ages by Muslim alchemists like Avicenna and Al-Farabi.

Ambix, cucurbit and retort of Zosimos, reproduced in Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs by Marcelin Berthelot
Image of a glass alembic
More modern alembic used in chemical experiments
Large "charentais" type alembic for distilling spirits, manufactured by Chalvignac Prulho Distillation, France
Copper retort

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Forbes, Robert James (1970) A Short History of the Art of Distillation: from the beginnings up to the death of Cellier Blumenthal. Leyden: E. J. Brill ISBN 978-90-04-00617-1; p. 23
  2. ^ Tolhausen brothers and Gardissal, ed.s, Dictionnaire technologique français-anglais-allemand: … (Technical dictionary in French, English, and German: … ), Part I, (Paris, France: A. Morel et Cie., 1864), p. 100.
  3. ^ Editor: Linden, Stanton J. (2003) The alchemy reader: from Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. New York : Cambridge University Press. ISBNs: 0521792347, 9780521792349, 0521796628, 9780521796620; p.44
  4. ^ Forbes, Robert James (1970) A Short History of the Art of Distillation: from the beginnings up to the death of Cellier Blumenthal. Leyden: E. J. Brill ISBN 978-90-04-00617-1; pp. 20-23