The earliest history of liquor (distilled spirits) is shrouded in mystery. Considerable disagreement exists over who first developed distillation. The same is true about when and where it occurred.
It’s been suggested that distillation may have originated in Mesopotamia 2,000 years BC. The purpose would have been to produce perfumes and aromatics. However, this appears to be highly speculative.
Around 100 AD, the Greek philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias described in unclear terms how to distill fresh water from sea water. He may or may not have actually distilled water. However, distilling alcohol isn’t mentioned or even implied.
Some have suggested that distillation was developed in China.1 Others contend it was in Italy.2 But most authorities believe it was in Arabia. Two names are sometimes mentioned. One is the physician Rhazer (852-932?).3 Another is the alchemist Jabir in Hayyan around 800 A.D.4 It might be noted that alcohol (al kohl or alkuhl) is Arabic in name.5
It is probable that the distillation of alcohol didn’t occur until the Middle Ages. It may have been in the 13th century. No one really knows. It could have been one, more or even none of the above sources. It may well have been independently developed by different people in various parts of the world. It’s even been stated that this is “undoubtedly” the case.6
But does it really matter who was first? Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) was the first to clearly described the process which made possible the manufacture of distilled spirits.7
Arnaldus of Villanova (d. 1315), a professor of medicine, is credited with coining the term aqua vitae. ‘We call it [distilled spirit] aqua vitae [life water], and this name is remarkably suitable, since it is really a water of immortality. It prolongs life, clears away ill-humors, revives the heart, and maintains youth.’8
The fifteenth-century German physician, Hieronymus Brunschwig identified many benefits he believed liquor provides. He wrote that liquor:
Comforts the heart.
Heals all old and new sores on the head.
Gives a person good color.
Cures baldness by causing the hair to grow.
Kills body lice and fleas.
Cures all deafness.
Cures bad breath.
Heals mouth, tongue and lip cankers.
‘It causes the heavy tongue to become light and well-speaking.’
Cures short breath.
Causes good digestion.
Draws the wind out of the body.
Eases yellow jaundice, dropsy (edema), and gout.
Relieves breast pain from swelling.
Cures all bladder heals all diseases in the bladder.
Dissolves bladder stones.
Prevents food poisoning.
Cures malarial fevers.
Heals all shrunken sinews.
Cures the bites of a rabid dog.
Heals all stinking wounds.
Causes good memory.
Eases the diseases caused by cold.
Purifies ‘the five wits of melancholy and of all uncleanness.’9
Such a wonderful substance had to have a great future. The earliest history of liquor was full of possibilities. But it’s not always been welcomed with open arms. Let’s explore the fascinating story of distilled spirits.
Resources for the Earliest History of Liquor
Babor, T. Alcohol: Customs and Rituals. NY: Chelsea, 1986.
Cherrington, E., (ed.) Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem. Westerville, OH: Am Issue, 6 vols., 1925-1930.
Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking. NY: Drake, 1971,
Forbes, R. Short History of the Art of Distillation. Leiden: Brill, 1948. Excellent coverage of the earliest history of liquor distillation controversies.
Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. NY: Gotham, 2008
Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995, ch. 1.
Heath, D., (ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.
Lichine, A. Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits. NY: Knopf, 1974.
Lucia, S.P., (ed.) Alcohol and Civilization. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963.
Patrick, C. Alcohol, Culture, and Society. Durham: Duke U Press, 1952. Reprint by AMS, NY, 1970.
Endnotes for Earliest History of Liquor
1 Hyams, E. Dionysus: A Social History of the Wine Vine. NY: Macmillan, 1965, p. 226. Hyams, p. 226.
2 Braudel, F. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800. NY: Harper and Row, 1974, p. 170.
3 Waddell, J., and Haag, H. Alcohol in Moderation and Excess. Richmond, VA, 1940.
4 Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S., (ed.) Alcohol and Civilization. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963, p. 171.
5 Hyams, p. 198. Roueche, p. 151.
6 Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking. NY: Drake, 1971, p. 80.
7 Patrick, C. Alcohol, Culture, and Society. Durham: Duke U Press, 1952, p. 29.
8 Roueche, p. 172.
9 Roueche, pp. 172-173.