When did man first start distilling?
Certainly before the birth of Christ, although definite details are not available.
Originally, the alembic did not distil marc, nor was it used to make distillates for drinking. This apparatus was used to make medicinal preparations of essences and scented balsams, and in Alchemy.
The first rudimentary alembics were used above all in the hope of changing one substance into another. But even if such attempts at turning dull grey metals into glittering gold failed, the distillation method enjoyed its own development, thanks to such efforts.
We know that a rudimentary alembic dating from about the 2nd century BC was discovered in Mesopotamia. Others have been found in Shaikhan Deri in present-day Pakistan, and dating from the 2nd century BC.
An ancient text makes reference to a certain Cleopatra – not the infamous queen - an Egyptian alchemist in the 2nd century BC. In his work Chrysopeioa, on the art of turning metals into gold, he describes an alembic called Chrysopoeia used for making fragrant essences and perfumes. The apparatus described by Cleopatra was already used centuries before by the Cyrenaic, Sinesius (413-370 BC). In his letters, Sinesius speaks of the preparation of distilled water, which he improved with subsequent redistilling.
These remain the first and only records, even if other alembics may have been created previously.