Book Review: The Alchemist Cabinet: Vol. 1: Philosophy

Book Review: The Alchemist Cabinet: Vol. 1: Philosophy

In a modern landscape filled with a seemingly endless supply of large and craft distillers, the title of “master distiller” is a bit murky. We all know who has definitely earned the title of master distiller, but the bigger question is regarding those who claim the title with a questionable or unaccomplished resume. We don’t challenge whether or not someone is a distiller or even head distiller, but have they properly earned the title of “master”? Alan Bishop is one the most brilliant and innovative minds in modern spirits. Alan Bishop does not claim to be a master distiller. Alan Bishop does not even claim the title of distiller. Bishop prefers the title of “Head Alchemist.”

Alan Bishop’s expertise originates in illicit distilling in southern Indiana. Bishop made his transition into licit distilling by way of Copper & Kings in Louisville before taking the role for which you’re most likely familiar, Head Alchemist at Spirits of French Lick in southern Indiana. If French Lick sounds slightly familiar, it’s the hometown of basketball legend Larry Bird. While Bishop made an early name for himself at Spirits of French Lick, in April 2024, he announced his departure from French Lick as he moves to a bigger role in an upstart distillery in southern Indiana, Old Homestead Distilling.

The Alchemist Cabinet: Vol. 1: Philosophy was published in 2022 and serves as the distilling manifesto for Alan Bishop. Through his manifesto, Bishop details why he sees himself as an alchemist rather than a distiller. Modern distilling is all about the pursuit of tasty beverages. However, the origins of distilling had nothing to do with tasting or getting tipsy. The earliest distillers were alchemists, looking for ways in which to create gold. Alchemists came to realize that they could capture the spirit of a liquid which was incorporated into their spiritual rites and Gnostic religions. Early distillation was viewed as a spiritual and supernatural phenomenon. In modern times, Bishop distills to create beverage alcohol but fully seeks to honor the spiritual origins of distilling. Bishop seeks to capture the true essence or spirit of grains and fruits which he ferments.

The Alchemist Cabinet details Alan Bishop’s early origin as an illicit distiller, allegedly. Bishop is careful with his wording in that all of his experiences are theoretical. He notes many legal distillers first became interested in distilling by illegal means. To those with piqued interest, Bishop offers this sage advice: “Get in, get good, keep your mouth shut, get out, get legal.” In this discussion, Bishop shares his belief that home distilling is quite safe. It’s often stated that one of the main reasons that home distilling is illegal is due to safety concerns. Bishop strongly states that home distilling is and has always been illegal for the sake of the government collecting taxes on distilled spirits; not safety.

Whether a reader is interested in alchemy at home or in launching a legal distillery, Bishop provides excellent insight into key factors to consider. You’ll get a brief discussion on pH, bacteria, yeast, and still construction. Bishop provides fascinating details on the construction of a pot still, if a reader doesn’t have Vendome on speed dial. Interestingly, Bishop challenges the common notion that pot stills should be mostly copper. While copper is certainly needed in spots, Bishop asserts that stainless steel has its benefits over a still comprised of mostly copper.

Assuming a reader has their alleged still ready to fire, Bishop takes you through the production process of several spirits, giving heavy attention to brandy. Attention is given to the malting process, including the malting of corn. Bishop explains malted corn is rarely used in whiskey because corn malt barely contains enough enzymes to convert its own starches into fermentable sugars. An alchemist can certainly use malted corn in the mashbill, but the starch conversion enzymes for the other grains will need to come from elsewhere. Taking us deeper down the rabbit hole, Bishop also details the process of collecting and propagating your own yeast.

The Alchemist Cabinet takes us through the mystical origins of distilling and how to complete the magic on your own. Bishop walks the reader through the process of allegedly building a still and how to process your ingredients of choice. As Bishop allegedly began in the realm of illegal distilling, he includes recipes that often feature large amounts of sugar, along with grain and fruit. The style of spirits that Bishop details in the book is aligned with many spirits that have been made illicitly throughout American history. Perhaps the most famous example of distilling a wash of sugar is that of authentic “Templeton rye.” The Prohibition era Templeton rye was distilled from mostly sugar with some rye grain added for flavoring. Alan Bishop’s recipes are a tribute to the history of illicit distilling.

I recommend The Alchemist Cabinet. If you’re well-versed in the history and practice of distilled spirits, you’re still going to learn something new. Alan Bishop has the unique experience of being a highly acclaimed legal distiller while also allegedly fully understanding the world of illicit distilling. Gaining a better understanding and appreciation for illicit distilling will only add to your love of spirits.


The Alchemist Cabinet: Vol. 1: Philosophy




Jacob is a lover of books on American beverage alcohol history and runs Coming Whiskey on Instagram.

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