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The History of Distillation

Alcoholic beverages have been around as long as we have been around to drink them.  Fermentation is all around us.  Leave out some grapes in a loosely covered clay jug and wine will just "happen", which is probably one of the reasons for it's associated with divinity.  Beer is easy to make too, though it requires some premeditation: the starches in the grains need to be converted into sugar first.  This is why some theories suggest that the pursuit of was one of the main reasons we, homo sapiens, shifted from a nomadic hunter-gatherer society to a sedentary agrarian-based one around 9000 BC.  We needed to grow enough grains to make beer and still have enough food to eat (makes sense to me).  Not only were beer and wine tasty and, you know, alcoholic, they were efficient sources of calories, and nutrients.  Plus alcohol's anti-bacterial qualities made it safer to drink than water back then.  So we’ve had a close relationship with making and drinking alcoholic beverages for a good long while.  But distillation and spirits were a big technological step forward.  It took us a long time to figure it out, and even longer to know what to do with it.


500 BC (ish) - 700 A.D. - Early Discovery

The history of anything booze-related is always going to be hazy.  When it comes to the origins of spirits and distillation, it’s a thick, dense fog.  It began with people figuring out the basic concept: when a fermented liquid was boiled, its vapors could be collected and re-condensed.  This resulting liquid was the concentrated essence or “spirit” of the previous one (more on the technical aspects on the Distillation page).  Exactly who did it first and when is unclear.  There is evidence pointing to the fertile crescent, India, and China going back as far as 5000 years.  But the earliest texts come largely from Greek philosophers and alchemists circa 500B.C. to 200 A.D. - Aristotle for one in 327 B.C.


Early distillation experiments were made using variations on what we know today as the pot still.  These could have been as simple as purifying seawater into drinking water, or extracting the essences of herbs and spices for medicinal use and perfumes.  The nascent production of spirits was perceived as mystical, some even genuinely believed that they held the key to immortality. Over the next 1500 years, the evolution of distillation is a game of historical telephone with tweaks and improvements to the still coming from several cultures and disciplines. 




As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages at the turn of the millennium, documents containing these new advancements made their way into Latin and knowledge spread, specifically to monasteries and monks (you can often count on monks making an appearance in these types of stories).  In 1100 there’s hard evidence of distillation in large quantities at the School of Salerno in south Italy, the world’s first medical school.  This helps to cement spirits’ being initially used as a medicine.  And why not?  They made you feel great, and in the morning when you felt worse - clearly because you hadn’t had any spirits during the night -  they made you feel better again. Naturally, self-medicating became increasingly common.  European thinkers made further progress on the still.  In the 13th century, Arnaud de Villanova coined the term “aqua vitae,” or water of life, which was widely adopted as eau de vie (France), akavit (Scandinavia) and uisge beatha (Scotland, which would eventually be pronounced “whiskey”).  


1300 - 1800: From Medicine to Recreational Beverage

By the 1300s spirits were everywhere from apothecaries to monasteries across Europe.  They were no longer a mysterious science experiment, they were a business.  As sea trade and colonization increased during the Renaissance and Age of Discovery, ingredients and ideas were circulated. The spirits that were being made in different parts of the world eventually crystalized into on their own distinct styles.


Wine in France, Spain, and Italy became brandy, and the spirit of the upper class.  Up north in England, the British Isles, and low countries where grapes did not fare as well, spirits were being made from their barley beer.  The was the foundation for genever - which would eventually become gin - and whiskey.  In Eastern Europe and Russia, they made their own grain spirit, which we know today as vodka.  Columbus brought sugar cane with him to the Caribbean in the late 1400s, inadvertently planting the seed for the rum industry.  Finally, Spanish conquistadors introduced the still to Mexico in the 1500s, or was it the Chinese, either way, the agaves that grew there were soon made into mezcal and tequila.


Of course, there was that little bump in the road known as prohibition (1920-1933), which was followed by World War II, throwing cocktail culture off track for a bit, or changing it anyway.  The spirits story of the second half of the 20th century was vodka.  Introduced to the American market in the 1930s, by the mid-70s vodka had surpassed gin and whiskey to become the #1 selling spirit in the country. 

The impact this had on cocktails is largely remembered as negative with overly sweet cocktails reliant on sour mix and an adolescent mindset carrying the day.  Then, beginning in the 1980s, the spirits industry underwent transformative consolidation.  Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, the larger brands bought the smaller ones to create an industry run by a handful of corporate giants.  For example, Diageo owns Hennessey, Tanqueray, Smirnoff, Johnny Walker, and Bulleit.  While Pernod Richard owns Jameson, Absolut, Beefeater, and Chivas Regal.  


However, at the turn of the 21st century, a resurgence in craft distilling and interest in well-made cocktails rode in to save the day.  In 2005 there were about 50 distilleries in the United States, as of 2023 there are over 2,000(!!!) and there is a cocktail bar for every modestly-sized metropolitan area in the US.  Cocktails are so back that nerds are even creating websites about them.  Who knows what the next 2500 years will bring.

A miniature depicting the Schola Medica Salernitana from a copy of Avicenna's Canons

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

700 - 1300: Resurrection and Refining of the Still

There are minimal records on distillation in practice during the first 500 years of the first millennium, but it picks up in the second half.  China was distilling commercially by the 600s.  However, in the West, the fall of the Roman Empire had plunged much of Europe into the Dark Ages. Most basic technology was gone.  That, and Europe was a wine drinking country, why mess with a good thing?  Distilled spirits did still exist but mainly in the shadows, used by heretical sects in religious ceremonies, giving them a sinister reputation.  


The Arabian peninsula had a major hand in legitimizing and advancing distillation technology during the Golden Age of Islam, beginning around 700 A.D.  Renewed interest in science and philosophy led to the ancient texts on distillation being translated into Arabic and several influential figures, such as the alchemist Geber (whose writings may actually be a collection of different people) and mathematician Avincenna, collectively improved to the still and the quality of its output. This was primarily for producing essential oils and medicine, not booze for consumption.

1800 - Today - The Column Still and Cocktails (and Prohibiton)

The spirits industry was revolutionized by the invention of the column still (1820s) thanks to a handful of contributors including Jean-Baptiste Cellier Blumenthal and Aeneas Coffey.  Suddenly you could make purer, cleaner-tasting spirits, at a much greater volume and a fraction of the cost. This all coincided with the rise of cocktail culture in the United States, creating the profession of the bartender.  This put the US in the driver’s seat of the spirit world and from here on our spirits and cocktails would be inextricably linked.  By the 1910s most classic cocktails we’re familiar with today had been created. 

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