AskDefine | Define alembic

Dictionary Definition

alembic n : an obsolete kind of container used for distillation; two retorts connected by a tube

User Contributed Dictionary



From Old French (French alambic), from mediæval Latin alembicus, from Arabic ‘still’, from Greek αμβιξ ‘cup’, ‘cap of a still’.


IPA: /ə'lɛmbɪk/


  1. An early chemical apparatus, consisting of two retorts connected by a tube, used to purify substances by distillation
    • 1973: We of all magical precipitates out of Europe’s groaning, clouded alembic, we are the thinnest, the most dangerous, the handiest to secular uses — Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow


Extensive Definition

An alembic (from Arabic Al-inbiq الأنبيق) is an alchemical still consisting of two retorts connected by a tube. Technically, the alembic is only the upper part (the capital or still-head), while the lower part is the cucurbit, but the word was often used to refer to the entire distillation apparatus. The alembic was developed circa 800 AD by the Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan; its modern descendant (used to produce alcohol) is the pot still.
The word "alembic" has taken on a metaphorical meaning - anything that refines or transmutes, as if by distillation - as in "the alembic of creative thought."
The word, as most alchemical terminology, comes from the Arabic: al-inbiq, "still;" ultimately from the Greek ambix, "cup."
The French spelling alambic is also commonly used, especially as the apparatus is often associated with Cognac where it is known as alambic charentaise. Charente is the area where the grapes must be grown and the brandy itself produced in order to be rightfully called Cognac.
The alembic symbol is Unicode U+2697 ALEMBIC ().
alembic in German: Alambic
alembic in Spanish: Alambique
alembic in French: Alambic
alembic in Italian: Alambicco
alembic in Dutch: Alambiek
alembic in Polish: Alembik
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