Esteve Still

Esteve Still

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Description (Brief)
The Estève still was the brain child of A.M. Thomas, who received a patent for “a still called the Estève still, for continual distillation” in 1888. In essence, the contraption was a set-it and forget it type still, which could distill wine or cider continually over the course of 24 hours into delicious brandy and spirits, requiring the distiller to only occasionally check its small petroleum heat source.
Thomas licensed the patent solely to a manufacturer in Paris called F. Besnard. Besnard became interested in tools for viticulture starting around 1888 with the appearance of a mysterious illness that was destroying French vineyards. He created a line of sprayers to treat vines and later moved onto a wider range of agricultural tools, which as early as 1893 included the Estève still. He dubbed it “the family still,” designating that it’s use for the home, not the industrial distillery.
Advertising of the time charmingly boasts about the still’s benefits: (translated from French): “[The house of Besnard], it is known, distinguishes itself by the cachet of elegance, finish, and perfection of its tools. Everyone is familiar today with the Estève still; it’s a true jewel: elegance, cleanliness, ease of use, nothing is missing; many counterfeiters have tried to copy it but they are nothing but coarse imitations; imprecise, with inconvenient bulky fixtures… Many today are admirers of this how the device functions. It’s marvelous, in fact, to see cider transform itself into a pure tasting alcohol, of good quality, and without the help of hard work.”
While making your own alcohol has surely always been marvelous, home-distilled liquor would have been a particularly precious commodity around this time in France. During the latter half of the 19th century, the French government relied heavily on taxes from alcohol sales, burdening each purchase with taxes totaling more than three times the value of the alcohol itself. (France wasn’t alone. In the United States, taxes on alcohol and tobacco made up 90% of federal internal revenue between 1868 and 1913.)
Home-distilled liquor, however, was tax-exempt. Any liquor made at home from “the wines, ciders, pear ciders, pressed fruit or wine dregs, cherries and prunes of [one’s] own harvest” fell under this category. As long as nothing purchased from an outside supplier was added and the product was consumed at home, the booze remained tax-free.
The list of covered ingredients shows that these liquors weren’t just made for recreation, but were an important way to make use of surplus agricultural products from French farms. The Estève still, which was much simpler to use and clean than other stills on the market, likely was a welcome tool for French farmers, helping them squeeze every last drop of profit out of their homegrown harvest.
This is a brass continuous distillation apparatus with a brass tag reading “F. BESNARD CONSTRUCTEUR / 28, RUE GEOFFROY LASNIER, 28 / PARIS / ALAMBIC ESTEVE / No. 9591 B. B. BREVETE S.D.G.D.” This form, often termed an Esteve still, was based on a French patent issued to A. Thomas in 1888. Frederic Etienne Besnard (1839-1921), a businessman in Paris whose work was highly regarded throughout the French viticulture community, was the sole manufacturer.
Ref: P. Duplais, Traité de la Fabrication des Liqueurs (Paris, 1900), vol. 1, pp. 388-390.
“Les Instruments de Viticulture à l’Exposition Universelle de 1900,” Revue de Viticulture 14 (1900): 1-3.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Esteve Still
Date made
19th century
Besnard, Frederic Etienne
Associated Place
United States: New Jersey
cylinder: 17.8 cm x 7.6 cm; 7 in x 3 in
condenser: 25.3 cm x 12.7 cm; 9 15/16 in x 5 in
cover: 10 in; 25.4 cm
boiler: 12 cm x 21.5 cm; 4 3/4 in x 8 7/16 in
assembled: 78.5 cm x 28 cm x 22.8 cm; 30 7/8 in x 11 in x 9 in
holder: 18 cm x 2.5 cm; 7 1/16 in x in
overall; body: 21 3/4 in x 9 7/8 in x 9 in; 55.245 cm x 25.0825 cm x 22.86 cm
overall; bottom attachment: 11 1/2 in x 7 3/8 in x 2 in; 29.21 cm x 18.7325 cm x 5.08 cm
overall; top attachment: 10 3/4 in x 11 1/4 in x 5 1/8 in; 27.305 cm x 28.575 cm x 13.0175 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
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Medicine and Science: Chemistry
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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