The earliest history of liquor (distilled spirits) is shrouded in mystery. Much disagreement exists over who first started distillation. The same is true about when and where it occurred.
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Origins: Earliest History of Liquor
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. But this appears to be highly speculative.
Around 100 AD, Greek philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias described how to distill fresh water from sea water. But he did so in unclear terms. He may or may not have actually distilled water. But 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 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. 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 of making 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. 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 saw many benefits. He wrote that liquor does the following.
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 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. Simply visit other web pages in this series.
Resources: Earliest History of Liquor
Fun is here…
- Babor, T. Alcohol: Customs and Rituals.
- Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking.
- Forbes, R. Short History of the Art of Distillation. Good coverage of the earliest history of liquor distillation controversies.
- Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol.
- Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse, ch. 1.
- Heath, D., (ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture.
- Lichine, A. Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits.
- Lucia, S. (ed.) Alcohol and Civilization.
- Patrick, C. Alcohol, Culture, and Society.
Endnotes for Earliest History of Liquor
1 Hyams, E. Dionysus: A Social History of the Wine Vine, p. 226. Hyams, p. 226.
2 Braudel, F. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, p. 170.
3 Waddell, J., and Haag, H. Alcohol in Moderation and Excess.
4 Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S., (ed.) Alcohol and Civilization, p. 171.
5 Hyams, p. 198. Roueche, p. 151.
6 Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking, p. 80.
7 Patrick, C. Alcohol, Culture, and Society, p. 29.
8 Roueche, p. 172.
9 _______, pp. 172-173.