Liquor in the 16th century: History of Distilled Spirits Timeline

The development of liquor in the 16th century was slow. The production and distribution of spirits spread very gradual. Spirit drinking was still largely for medicinal purposes throughout most of the sixteenth century.

  • It has been said of distilled alcohol that ‘the sixteenth century created it; the seventeenth century consolidated it; the eighteenth popularized it.’1  That’s an over-generalization. Yet it’s a useful way to think in general about spirits.
  • The original grain spirit, whiskey, appears to have first been distilled in Ireland. Its specific origins are unknown.2  But there is evidence that by the 16th century it was widely consumed in some parts of Scotland.3

Liquor in the 16th Century by Date


The Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh was granted a charter to sell whisky. That reflected its medicinal use.

King James IV of Scotland purchased large amounts of Scotch whisky from the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in the town of Dundee. That was one of the best known whisky producers of that time.

Cir. 1510
The liqueur Benedictine was first produced by Benedictine monks in France.4

The higher the proportion of spices and aromatics it contained, the higher the quality of distilled spirits was judged to be by the Irish.5

‘Although tequila and mescal are considered national beverages [of Mexico], they made their appearance only after the Conquest, when the Spaniards brought the knowledge of distillation processes they had learned from the Moors.’6

liquor in the 16th century

King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII of England abolished the monasteries. This shifted the distillation of whisky from the monks to members of the general population.

Cir. 1532-1539
Cachaça was first distilled in Brazil. It is made from fermented sugarcane juice, rather than molasses (as is rum). The exact date of its first production is unknown. It’s usually estimated to have been between 1532 and 1539. Cachaça  is  currently the third most-consumed distilled beverage in the world.7

The Irish Parliament required distillers to obtain a license.8

Distilling had become so common in Bordeaux that it was banned as a fire hazard.9

Lucius Bols established a distillery near Amsterdam. He appears to have been the first to produce gin commercially.10  61 It is the oldest distillery in the Netherlands and one of the oldest in the world.11


Resources on Liquor in the 16th Century

Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1985.

Cherrington, E., (Ed.) Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem. Westerville, OH: Am Issue, 5 vols., 1925-1930.

Forbes, R. Short History of the Art of Distillation. Leiden: Brill, 1970.

Ford, G. Wines, Brews, & Spirits.  Seattle: Ford Pub, 1996.

Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. NY: Gotham, 2008.

Heath, D., (Ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.

Samuelson, J. The History of Drink. London: Truber, 1878.

Sutherland, D. Raise Your Glasses. London: Macdonald, 1969.


1 Braudel, p. 170.

2  Magee, M. 1000 Years of Irish Whiskey. Dublin: O’Brien, 1980, p. 7.

3  Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S., (Ed). Alcohol and Civilization. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963. pp. 167-182. pp. 175-176.

4  Seward, D. Monks and Wine. London: Beazley, 1979, p. 152.

5  Morewood, S. Philosophical and Statistical History of  Inventions. Dublin: Curry and Carson, 1838, p. 618.

6  Rey, G. Mexico. In: Heath, p. 179.

7  Brazilian Cachaça. TED Case Study #721. What’s Cachaça? Beliza Pura website. History of Cachaça. ibev website.

8  Morewood, p. 619.

9  Younger, W. Gods, Men, and Wine. London: Michael Joseph, 1966, p. 326.

10  Watney, J. Mother’s Ruin. London: Owen, 1976, p. 10. Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking. NY: Drake, 1971, p. 98.

11  Lucas Bols  website.