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The Story of Distillation

Alcoholic beverages have been around as long as we have been around to drink them.  Leave out some grapes in a loosely covered clay jug and wine will just "happen", which is probably one of the reasons for its association 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 - which is why some theories suggest that one of the main reasons we, homo sapiens, shifted from a nomadic hunter-gatherer society to a sedentary agrarian-based one around 9000 BC was so we could grow grains to make beer and still have enough food to eat (makes sense to me).  Not only was beer and wine tasty and, you know, beer and wine, it was also a great way of getting calories, nutrients and safer to drink than water.  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 the vapors of certain liquids are re-condensed, the new liquid is the concentrated essence or “spirit” of the previous one. Exactly who did it first and when is unclear, with evidence spanning the fertile crescent, India and China, and some estimates 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.


These early experiments could have been as simple as purifying sea water into drinking water, or extracting essences for medicinal use and perfumes.  The productions 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 men of 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 helped cement spirits’ being 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 and 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, grapes did not fare as well, spirits were being made from their barley beer, 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.   While Spanish conquistadors introduced the still to Mexico in the 1500s, or was it the Chinese, either way the agaves that grew there soon were soon made into tequila and mezcal. 




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


In the 1980s companies begin to conglomerate with larger brands were buying up 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.   


Today however, craft distilling as well as cocktails are on the rise.  A decade ago there were about 50 distilleries in the United States, today there are over 750 and cocktail bars are sprouting up in every metropolitan areas (and nerds are creating websites about them). Sure, not that every craft spirit is great, and the majority the market is held by only a handful of companies, but times are certainly a-changing and the future looks bright.  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

While China was distilling commercially by the 600s, in the West fall of the Roman Empire had plunged much of Europe into the Dark Ages and most basic technology was gone.  This coupled with the fact that Europe was a wine drinking country, why mess with a good thing?  Distilled spirit did still exist but mainly in the shadows, used by heretical sects in religious ceremonies, giving them a sinister reputation.  


The Arabs 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 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 it’s output. This was still mainly for producing essential oils and medicine, not booze for consumption.

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

In 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, and putting the country in the driver’s seat of the spirit world.  By the 1910s most classic cocktails we’re familiar with today has been created. 

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