Distillation (from the Latin distillare, to drop or trickle down) is a technique for purifying liquids by collecting vapours from the boiling liquid and then condensing them back to liquid form. It has for its object the separation or purification of substances by taking advantage of differences in volatility.
The apparatus consists of three parts: - the "retort" or "still", in which the substance is heated; the "condenser" in which the vapours are condensed; and the "receiver" in which the condensed vapours are collected. Generally the components of a mixture will be vaporized in the order of their boiling points.
Distillation appears to have been practiced at very remote times. The Alexandrians prepared oil of turpentine by distilling pine-resin; Zosimus of Panoplis, a voluminous writer of the 5th century AD speaks of the distillation of a "divine water" or " panacea".
The Arabians greatly improved the earlier apparatus, naming one form the alembic; they discovered many ethereal oils by distilling plants and plant juices; alcohol by the distilling of wine, and also distilled water. The alchemists gave great attention to the method, as is shown by the many discoveries made.
Probably the most widely known end products of the distillation process are the brandies. After two distillations the raw spirit is put into barrels to age. The brandy "breathes" through the wood and draws colour and flavour from it, but the brandy also suffers loss of volume by evaporation. The ageing process is required by French law to last at least five years. At the same time, spirits do not mature in glass.
All spirits, regardless of their eventual colour, come from the still as colorless as the primitive liquor that was distilled from wine and hailed by 12th century alchemists as aqua vitae (French: eau-de-vie) "water of life". This was described by the late 15th century Spanish philosopher Raymond Lully as "an element newly revealed to man but hid from antiquity because the human race was then too young to need this beverage destined to revive the energies of modern decrepitude". Different types of spirits may be made from fruits other than the grape.
In France, Alsace is famous for raspberry, pear and greengage white brandies, and for kirsh, which is distilled from cherries and cherry stones. Kirsh is also made in Germany, Switzerland and the United States. In the Balkans, the amber coloured plum slivovitz is traditional; while the Hungarians pride themselves on their apricot-flavoured Barack Palinka. Finally there is Calvados, the famous French apple brandy distilled from cider in pot stills – chiefly in Normandy – and aged for 4-20 years. The American version of this remarkable distillation is applejack, which has been known there since colonial times.
There is scarcely a region or an island in the world that has not developed its own type of distilled spirits: cloudy Greek ouzo; the various arracks and rakis of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, which are derived from dates, figs, palms or anything handy.
In South Africa in the 19th century Cape Colony it was a general practice to distill brandy from the dregs and husks that remained after grapes were pressed for wine. (Afrikaans: druiwedoppe – hence – 'n dop brandewyn - 'n dop drink). Burchell, in the 19th century, mentions brandy distilled in the Sneeuberg and Roggeveld areas from grapes and peaches.
The pioneers in the 19th century on their northward trek across the Gariep and Vaal, took their pot-stills along on their ox-wagons. Apart from its recreational use, these home distillates were also highly praised for their medicinal qualities.
The clear brandies distilled from grapes were generally known as Witblits in the Cape. Up north, many different fruits were fermented and distilled, and the product came to be known as Mampoer.
The drought-resistant, humble yellow peach, transported north, quickly naturalized in a variety of climatic zones and came to deserve a special mention in the history of Mampoer.
Although the Mampoer name has come to be closely associated with the Groot Marico, its origin lies further north, in the northern and eastern parts of the former Transvaal. Here Sekwati founded the Bapedi tribe in the early 19th century. In 1861 his son Sekhukuni took over the tribal leadership. An elder brother, Mampuru, had been groomed for chieftainship, and together with his followers, regarded Sekhukuni as a swindler. Sekhukuni, however, proved to be a capable leader, refusing to yield authority to the unceasing attempts of white settlers to subject him and his followers. Eventually the British got the upper hand in 1879 and Sekhukuni was imprisoned in Pretoria. He was released after the BoerBritish conflict in 1881, but soon afterwards, in August 1882, murdered by Mampuru.
Sought after by the authorities of the former Transvaal Republic, Mampuru placed himself under the protection of Niabela, a chief of the Ndzundza tribe of Transvaal Ndebele. In tribal politics it would have been impossible for Niabela to refuse Mampuru’s solicitations without losing authority. Thus he found himself in conflict with the white authorities and after a costly war was imprisoned along with Mampuru. The latter was hanged in public on 23 November 1883 outside Pretoria Central Prison.
The burgers who had taken part in the war had been promised land: 15,000 morgen of Ndzunza land was subdivided into plots of 8 morgen each. The people to whom their land was allotted, had no previous experience of farming. They were mostly "bywoners" or white squatters. Even experienced farmers would have found it difficult to make headway on these small tracts of land. Though there were more than 40 perennial streams in the area, people were quarreling about water rights. Though attempts at farming turned out less successfully, the Mapochslanders soon became known for their pot-stills and the peach-brandy they distilled. They called it Mampoer, thus immortalizing the unfortunate Bapedi chief.
J. Sanderson, visiting the Marico in 1851, mentions orchards of citrus trees, pomegranates, figs and grapes. Brandy, "a very coarse fiery spirit" was distilled from grapes, figs and yellow peaches, and named Cape Smoke.
In the north, taxation was already in existence in 1878. In time many regulations were introduced. A tradition of clandestine production developed parallel to the legislative route, as could be expected from frontiersmen with a fiercely independent mind-set. In any case,a pot-still used to be a component of most well run farmyards. As one old Marico farmer remarked: "three things are a pest on any farmyard: a blue gum tree, a bitch on heat and a mampoer-still".
A result of all the regulatory legislation, and inseparable from the mampoer culture, are the numerous tales surrounding encounters with the law and enriching an already ample story-telling tradition with mostly highly amusing and entertaining anecdotes.
Fruits used to distill Mampoer in the Marico include all the citrus varieties, among which lemons are said to reign supreme. But still owners will use peaches, apricots, pears, plums and figs. Among these there is considerable consensus that figs are the top of the range, followed by the authentic yellow peach.
Since the 1940’s however, the latter is no longer so abundant, or must be obtained from the highveld. The many varieties of wild birds for which the Marico is famous, also compete for available fruit. Wild fruits are sometimes favoured by distillers for their distinctive flavours, such as marula, milk-plum, karree-berry and kei-apple.
The first part of the actual process involves the fermentation of the fruit. This is the course by which sugar is converted into alcohol through the agency of micro-organisms. Carbon dioxide is released as a by-product. When all the sugar has been converted, a different process commences, whereby the alcohol is further transformed into vinegar. It is therefore essential to know when the alcohol-content in the fermentation casks or barrels is at its highest level. At this point the fermented liquid enters the still, which is now coupled to the condenser, a spiral copper pipe several meters in length, submerged in a container through which cold water circulates. All joints are sealed. A fire is then lit and the still warmed up. Controlling the temperature is of utmost importance. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water.
The object of the process is to separate the alcohol (and allied essential fragrances) from the bulk, which is mostly water and impurities. Inside the condenser, the alcohol vapours become a liquid once more and is recovered in a glass jar. Frequent testing will establish when the process has run its course.
The apparatus is then taken apart and cleaned thoroughly. Now the result of the first distillation is returned to the still and the process repeated. The mampoer so obtained can reach an alcohol percentage well into the 1980’s. Those in the know agree, however, that at around 64% the product retains most of the aromatic fragrances characteristic of the fruit used.
Broadly speaking, the above is a general account of the distilling process. Individual distillers have their own idiosyncrasies and refinements however, transforming the process from one of mere chemistry into one exploring the arcane dimensions of alchemy.
Authentic mampoer distilling is a protracted, labour-intensive process, allowing no mistakes. Only 6-10% of the fermented sap will end up as mampoer in a bottle. The distiller who leaves the "traditional" ways of his forebears and acquires a license to distill, will find the pinch of the taxman quite sharply.
Mampoer distilling can therefore hardly be regarded as a lucrative exercise. In fact, it is a labour of love, keeping old traditions alive and perhaps sustained by those more subtle, unmaterialistic rewards usually associated with alchemy.
Groot-Marico was made famous by the stories of Herman Charles Bosman who captured the spirit of the Afrikaans farmers of this region in his world-famous books such as Mafeking Road and A Sip of Jerepigo.Herman Charles Bosman