Earliest History of Liquor: Distilled Spirits Timeline

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.

  This is Part of a Series

Liquor in the 20th Century.

Liquor in the 19th Century.

18th Century Liquor Developments.

Liquor in the 17th Century.

16th Century Liquor Developments.

Liquor in the 15th Century.

Earliest History of Liquor.

Origins: Earliest History of Liquor

It’s been suggested that distillation may have begun 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 Rhazer (852-932?).3 Another is Jabir in Hayyan around 800 A.D.4 Alcohol (al kohl or alkuhl) is Arabic in name.5

Middle Ages

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

earliest history of liquor
Albertus Magnus

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) coined 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

Benefits Claimed

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 lethargy.
Cures all deafness.
Reduces toothache.
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.
Improves appetite.
Eliminates belching.
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.
Provides courage.
Causes good memory.
Eases the diseases caused by cold.
Purifies “the five wits of melancholy and of all uncleanness.”9

Such a great 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.


Popular Readings

1  Hyams, E. Dionysus. A Social History of the Wine Vine, p. 226.

2  Braudel, F. 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.