In Great Inventions through History, by Gerald Messadie, we are told that:
"The separation of a liquid by boiling is an extremely old process, although the date and place of its invention are not known. It was practised in very ancient times for the extraction of alcohol from the wort of fermented drinks, by placing a piece of material over the pot of boiling liquid which would then become impregnated with alcoholic vapours; the alcohol was recovered by torsion. (twisting the rag) This process seems to have been in use in the Near East and in Asia four to five millennia before Christ."
In 384 B.C. Aristotle was born. He wrote of distilling in his "Meteorology". The early primitive process was unchanged for centuries. In the Middle East the Persians Geber (8th cent.) and Rhazes (10thcent.) developed the art of distillation and used it to concentrate alcohol which was then taken as an anaesthetic. Distillation has long been used to separate liquids and a simple distillation will produce about a 40 proof alcohol. The distillation process was improved around 800 C.E. by Jabir ibn Hayyan, by the invention of the alembic.
The Arabs were the earliest of European distillers, beginning and spreading the art across the Mediterranean in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries:
"It should be noted at this juncture, however, that citrus liqueurs, which were common (oranges having worked their way from the Orient to Spain by the ninth century), were not made from the citrus juice, but from the oils and flavorings extracted from the rind of the fruit generally though percolation. Distillation or percolation are quite suited to extracting the flavors from harder and drier sources, such as many spices, or from skins of certain fruits."
(Hannum, Brandies and Liqueurs of the World , p 186. )
In the late 10th century in Spain the Arab surgeon Abulcasis described using distilled alcohol as a solvent for drugs.
In Europe, distillation was known by at least the eleventh
or twelfth century, according to Wines of the World
, by Simon.
The Norman English found distillation from grain firmly established in the form of a drink called uisge beatha when they invaded Ireland in the twelfth century. Ray, Cyril, The Complete Book of Spirits and Liqueurs. MacMillan Publishing Co, Inc., New York, N.Y., p. 11.
Among the earliest writings on the subject of flavored alcohols are those of the Catalan Arnold de Vila Nova, an alchemist in Spain and France who was born in 1240. He wrote, in The Boke of Wine , of the distillation of wine into aqua vitae and the subsequent flavoring of these spirits with various herbs and spices. He especially wrote of the restorative and life giving properties of these waters. It was the firm belief of Raymond Lully, a student of de Vila Nova's, that so vital and life restoring were these waters, their production was a divinely inspired gift from Heaven.
The following are from a translation from the food and cookery chapter of Le Ménagier de Paris (a medieval manuscript dated to circa 1393), edited by Jérome Pichon in 1846 for La Société Des Bibliophiles François. This was translated from the French edition of Jerome Pichon published in 1846, (c) Janet Hinson. Here we have the householder telling his wife how to avoid the expense of purchasing an alembic or the distilled product:
"TO MAKE ROSE WATER WITHOUT A LEAD ALEMBIC, take a barber's basin,
and fold a kerchief longwise across the opening like a drum, and then put your
roses on the kerchief, and over the roses set the bottom of another basin
containing hot ashes and live coals."
"TO MAKE ROSE WATER WITHOUT ALEMBIC OR FIRE, take two glass
bowls, and do as said earlier, and in place of ashes and coals, put it all out in the
sun: and the heat of the sun will make the rosewater form."
"TO MAKE DAMASK ROSEWATER, add mashed roses to the rose petals. Or
thus: pour the first distillation of rosewater into the second and the third and the
fourth; and thus, having gone through four times, it will be red."
In the 1300's, we have a bit more than medicinal use:
"By the fourteenth century ...... the drinking of these liqueurs had become popular in Italy and spread into France."
"Legal documents dating to 1411 mention the distillation of wine into brandy in the Armagnac region of France."
Hannum, Hurst, Brandies and Liqueurs of the World
. Doubleday & Company, Garden City, N.Y., p6.
Trade was well developed with Northern Europe: A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat says:
".....with the compromise of 1381, Genoa gradually had to abandon the Near East, and turned towards the Atlantic trade, passing through the straits of Gibraltar. Two great families of mahones, counting among their ranks many Genoese Doges, the Boccanegras and Zaccarias, provided vessels with Spanish Basque crews and plied between Flanders and England, in convoys of ten merchant vessels escorted by galleys carrying cargoes to the amount of 8000 tonnes burden in a single annual voyage. (In the middle of the fourteenth century England had no proper fleet or navy, and foreign merchants - Flemish, Iberian, and Italian - could take advantage of the fact that it had not yet fully understood that it was an island.)"This becomes noteworthy later, when we read about the arrack trade. This tidbit on trade in distilled spirits comes to us from The Liquor Problem in All Ages by Daniel Dorchester, 1884, Phillips and Hunt, New York:
"Arrack was first introduced into England from Genoa in 1430. The Genoese, following his" (Th. de la Saussure's) "suggestion, prepared it from grain, and sold it in bottles under the name of aqua vitae, or water of life. It was so called, because from it's stimulating effects it was supposed to increase life."
An English version of Arnold of Villanova's Boke on Wine was published in 1478 well after Catalan Arnold de Vila Nova's death.
"Legal documents dating to 1411 mention the distillation of
wine into brandy in the Armagnac region of France." says, Hannum, Hurst, Brandies
and Liqueurs of the World. Doubleday & Company, Garden City,
It was about this time that the first distilling of the Scottish versions of aqua vitae got started:
"The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurs as long ago as 1494, when an entry in the Exchequer Rolls listed 'Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae ' (water of life). This was sufficient to produce almost 1500 bottles. Thus, it is clear that distilling was already a well-established practice."
(And 1500 bottles is a bit many for 'purely medicinal use'.)
This quote is from The Original Scotch by Michael
Brander. In 1498 the Lord High Treasurer's Account includes the item 'To
the barbour that brocht aqua vitae to the King in Dundee'. In 1505
the Barber surgeons in Edinburgh were granted the right of making aqua
vitae, and in 1506 the Treasurer's Accounts in Inverness mention 'aqua
vite to the King'.
Das Buch zu Destilliern by Hieronymus Braunsweig was printed in 1519. This book, as its title explains, is a book on distillation. In addition to the text, there are pictures in the book which show the operations, including one of a still with 4 alembics (retorts), so that volume production can be undertaken..
In 1527 The vertuose boke of Dstyllacyon by Hieronymous Braunschweig was published in English, translated by L. Andrew. This was the first book on the subject in England, as even though the translation of Villanova preceded this, it was not strictly about just distillation, and it treated aqua vitae as a medicine.
"By the fourteenth century ...... the drinking of these liqueurs had become popular in Italy and spread into France. This popularity is often attributed to Catherine de Medici, who, along with her Court, brought the use of these liqueurs with her to France from her native Tuscany. There is, however, some evidence of an earlier diffusion of liqueurs, or an independent outgrowth of these drinks prior to their introduction by Catherine. There can be little doubt, however, that the Court of Catherine certainly increased the popularity and acceptance of these potables among the nobility of France. "
(Hannum, Hurst, Brandies and Liqueurs of the World. Doubleday &
Company, Garden City, N.Y., p146. )
From A newe Herball of Macer, Translated out of Laten in to Englysshe , 1543
"This is the makynge of Aqua vite perfectissima.
Take the rote of Sarfrage, & parcely, Ulyssaundre, fenel, Ty=
me, vsove(?), pynyryall (pennyroyal), Rosemary,
Lavender, Prymerose, Mynt Dr=gan, Sauge, Lalamynt, Quence, Byttayn
Saueyn, of ecke halfe a quartron, Salynga=le, blacke peper, whyte peper,
longe peper, Aloues, Nutmegges, of eche an ounce, Ca=nell, Maces, Quybybes,
of eche two ounces, Setwale, pelettre offpayne, tre of Uloes, of eche an ounce and an halfe, and Stampe thyne herbes, and powdre thy spyces, & put them to=gyther in the wyne, & let them stande al nyght and on the morowe dystyll them throughe a serpentory, this water hath many vertues, & it is better at the fyrst dystyllacion of the Ca=non, then at the thyrde dystyliacion of the Serpentorye."
(The number of recipes for making "Perfect" Aqua Vitae are legion. This is one of many.)
The quantity of Aqua vite produced in the 1500's was far too great for merely "medicinal use". The following is an excerpted item from The rates of the custome house: London, 1545 :
Aqua vite the barrell.......................................xx.p.
(Not only was it produced in barrels, quantity sufficient for much more
than medicine, but it was taxed on import, as well, indicating enough production
for taxable income.)
In "Food and Feast in Medieval England" by P. W. Hammond, 1993, Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, Phoenix Mill, Far Thrupp, Stroud, Goucestershire, England, he points out (of sweetened and fortified wines in 1554) that:
"Many of the recipes occur not in manuscripts of food recipes but in medicinal manuscripts, indicating that some of them contain aqua ardente (alcohol) distilled from wine. This probably reflects the fact that distillation was carried out by the apothecaries during most of the Middle Ages."
This should not be taken to indicate that it was "only for medicinal
purposes". Apothecaries, like the modern drugstore, carried far more than
medicine. They also carried an extensive line of sweet treats, not just
sugar syrup for medicine, and other products of a non-medical nature. Since
the first use of Aqua Vitae WAS medical, most production expertise
resided, naturally, with the Apothecary.
In 1555 the Scottish Parliament passed an Act forbidding export of victuals in time of famine, except:
'It sal be leifful to the inhabitants of the burrowis of Air, Irvin, Glasgow, Dumbertane and uthers our Soverane Ladys leigis dwelland at the west setis to have bakin breid, browin aill and aqua vite to the Ilis to bertour with uther merchandice'
("It shall be lawful to the inhabitants of the boroughs of Air, Irvin, Glasgow, Dunbertane and others (where) our Soveriegn Lady leiges dwell and at the west sites(or seats?) to have the baking of bread, brown ale and aquavitae to the Isles to barter with other merchandise")
So even though there was a famine, alcohol distillation was permitted
to barter for other items.
Was all the aqua vitae being produced by monks or drugstores? It seems that the first commercially viable distilleries got started in the 1500's. According to :Brandies and Liqueurs of the World :
"Between the fourteenth century and the early seventeenth century considerable production of these liqueurs was from the alchemists and the monastic orders. It would be a mistake, however, to claim that the total production of liqueurs was limited to these monasteries. By the middle to the end of the sixteenth century several distilleries had been formed which were producing commercial quantities of liqueurs. These included the Dutch distillery of Bols, founded in 1575 and Der Lachs, a German distillery which began producing Danzig Goldwasser in 1598. The first of the liqueurs produced by Bols was an anisette liqueur on which they began production shortly after the founding of the distillery. "
Paracelsus in "Archidoxis" in 1570 demonstrated freeze distillation of alcohol. His process essentially used freezing to remove the water and leave the alcohol of wine. Strangely, fractional distillation by freezing, easier technically than distillation by heating, was not mentioned, as far as I can determine, in Europe prior to this. This may simply be because freeze distillation is a process which removes only the water, and leaves everything else behind, but heat distillation removes only the alcohol, leaving behind everything else.
In Chroncles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1577, Raphael Holinshed mention types of aqua vitae found in Scotland, especially "Uisge Beatha", the forerunner of modern "Whiskey".
"Being moderately taken,
it slows the age,
it cuts phlegm,
it lightens the mind,
it quickens the spirit,
it cures the dropsy,
it heals the strangulation,
it pounces the stone,
its repels gravel,
it pulls away ventositie,
it keeps and preserves the head from whirling,
the eyes from dazzling,
the tongue from lisping,
the mouth from snuffling,
the teeth from chattering,
the throat from rattling,
the weasan from stiffing,
the stomach from womblying,
the heart from swelling,
the belly from wincing,
the guts from rumbling,
the hands from shivering,
the sinews from shrinking,
the veins from crumpling,
the bones from aching,
the marrow from soaking,
and truly it is a sovereign liquor
if it be orderly taken."
(I guess that means that some take it in a DISORDERLY fashion?)
The Liquor Problem in All Ages by Daniel Dorchester, 1884, Phillips and Hunt, New York says:
"The earliest recorded notice of their" (distilled spirits - commencement of the 16th century) "application to the purposes of ordinary life was in the case of the laborers in the Hungarian mines, as a preservative against the cold and dampness."
" ...in 1581, they were adopted as a cordial by the English soldiers assisting the Dutch in the Netherlands, who then first learned 'to drown themselves in immoderate drinking.' Tom Nash, in the reign of Elizabeth, wrote: 'Superfluity of drink is a sin that, ever since we mixed ourselves with the Low Countries, is counted honorable; but before we knew their lingering wars it was held in the highest degree of hatred.' ....... Those writers cannot mean that drunkeness was a new vice among Englishmen, but that it thenceforth became more common, and assumed a more terrible form."
The Irish are even worse.
From the same source(The Liquor Problem in All Ages by Daniel Dorchester):
"In 1584, Sir John Peronet addressed the mayor and corporation of Galway on the evils of intemperance, and recommended that a 'more straighter order be taken to bar the making of aqua vitae of corn in the Commonwealth,' saying, that 'aqua vitae that is sold in towns, ought rather to be called aqua mortis to poison the people, rather than to comfort them in any good sorte.' So pernicious were it's effects in Ireland, and so materially did it's distillation diminish the supply of corn, that it subsequently became a matter of legislation.
"The act was in this wise: ' Forasmuch as aqua vitae , a drink nothing profitable to be used, is now daily drunken and universally used throughout the realm of Ireland, and especially in the borders of the Irishy, and for the furniture of Irishmen, and thereby much corne, grain, and other things are consumed, spent, and wasted, to the great hinderance, cost, and damage of the poor inhabitants of this realm,' etc., it was enacted that, 'no one save gentlemen, freeholders of at least L20, and peers, for their own use, shall make aqua vitae, without license from the deputy.' "
(1584, daily drunken and universally used...)
Excerpt from The Russian People: Their Habits, Rites, Traditions,
Superstitions and Poetry, by M. Zabylinny, Moscow 1880.
Before 1600, the availability of potatos in Russia was limited. Therefore...
"Russian vodka was made from rye, wheat and barley. Vodka was generally referred to as wine and divided into types: normal vodka was called simple wine, the best of this type being called vino dobroye (good wine); still higher was vino boyarskoye (boyar's wine); finally, higher still was vino dvoynoe (double wine), which was extremely strong. Aside from these vodkas, there were vodkas made from sweet syrups, mainly for women. The head of the household infused vodka with various spices and fragrant grasses, also infusing it with cinnamon, St. John's Wort, bodyag , amber or saltpetre, as well as different fruits and rinds. Russians drank vodka not only with meals, but all day long.
"The sale of fortified wines and all alcoholic drinks was at first unrestricted,
but as it was found that excessive use caused poverty and the destruction
of countless families, this prompted the Grand Prince to limit its unrestricted
use. Grand Prince Ivan III completely forbade the preparation of strong drink.
During the time that the ambassador of Baron Gerbenshtein was in Moscow (at
the start of the 16th century), the people were allowed to consume strong
drink only on certain holidays. Tsar Ivan IV built a kabak in Moscow for his
oprichiny [palace guard] on the Balchug [an island in the Moscow river], and
allowed them to drink as much as they wanted. Yet he did not like drunkards;
he only allowed them to imbibe in kabaks and only during Holy Week, on Christmas
and on Dmitry's Saturday. At all other times one would be put in prison for
"Tsar Fyodor ordered the destruction of kabaks, but Boris Godunov, thinking more about state revenues than about public morals, ordered them to be built again and allowed all strong drink to be sold and taken away. At the beginning of the 17th century there were kabaks in every city and village, and they were called kruzhechnye dvori, from the word kruzhka--the mug which was used to measure wine [dvor means "courtyard"]."
From Gerard's Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597):
"Of the liquor which is destilled out of the Wine, commonly called Water of Life.
"I There is drawne out of Wine a liquor, which the Latines commonly call Aqua vita, or water of life , and also Aqua ardens, or burning water, which as distilled waters are drawne out of herbes and other things, is after the same manner distilled out of strong wine, that is to say, by certaine instruments made for this purpose, which are commonly called Lembickes.
"K This kinde of liquor is in colour and substaunce like unto waters distilled out of herbes, and also resembleth cleere simple water in colour, but in facultie it farre differeth.
"L It beareth the surname of life, bicause that it serveth to preserve and prolong the life of man.
It is called Ardens, burning, for that it is easily turned into a burning flame: for seeing it is not any other thing then the thinnest and strongest part of the wine, it being put into the flame of fire, is quicklie burned.
This liquor is very hot...to write of every mixture, of each infusion, of the sundry colours, and every other circumstance that the vulgar people do give unto this water, and their divers use, I should spend much time but to small purpose."
Note that the "vulgar people" engage in "divers use" in many a "mixture",
"infusion", many "colours" and other circumstances, such that he should
"spend much time" to describe all the varied uses which the common people
put it to!
Having been around for far longer than many suppose, and in far greater quantity than most know, distilled alcohol has obviously been used not merely for health reasons. Where the writings seem to say that medicine is all it's for, the quantity used, transported and taxed indicates recreational use was far from unknown. The increasing urgency of warnings to use it with moderation in the manuals also show that quite the opposite was all too common.
The following two recipes were also found in Delightes for Ladies in the section titled Secrets of Distillation.
How to make true spirit of wine
Take the finest paper you can get, or else
some Virgin parchment, straine it very right &
stiffe over the glasse bodie, wherein you put
your sack, malmsie or muskadine, oile the
paper or virgin parchment with a pensill
moistned in the oyle of Ben, and distil it in
the Balneo with a gentle fire, and by this
meanes you shall purchase onely the true
spirit of wine. You shall not have above two
or three ounces at the most out of a gallon of
wine, which ascendeth in the forme of a
cloude, without any dewe or veines in the
helme, lute all the joints well in this dis-
tillation. This spirit will vanish in the
ayre, if the glass stand open.
How to make the ordinarie spirit of wine, that is solde for five shillings, & a noble, a pinte
Put sacke, malmsie, or muskadine into a glasse
body, leaving one third or more of your glasse
empty, set it in balneo, or in a pan of ashes,
keeping a soft and gentle fire, draw no longer
then till all or most part will burne away,
which you may prove now and then, by setting a
spoonefull thereof on fire with a paper as it
droppeth from the nose or pipe of the helme,
and if your spirit thus drawn have any phlegme
therin, the rectifie or redistil that spirit
againe in a lesser body, or in a bolt receiver
insted of another body, luting a small head on
the top of the steele thereof, and so you
shall have a verie strong spirit, or else for
more expedition, distill five or sixe gallons
of wine by a Lymbecke; and that spirit, which
ascendeth afterward, redistill in a glasse as
Recipe from Maison Rustique
Take equal parts of cloves, ginger, and
fowers of rosemary, infuse them in very good
wine the space of eight days: distil the
whole. This water comforteth the stomacke,
assuageth the pains and wringings of the
belly, killeth worms, and maketh fat folk to
becom leane, or maketh fat the leane, if they
drink it mixt with sugar.
The following four recipes were taken from Delights
for Ladies. The first is an extract from which cordials and
liqueurs could be made. The second and third recipes are liqueurs distilled
from various herbs and spices steeped in wine in a similar fashion to the
recipe from Maison Rustique above. The last recipe in this section is a sweet
cordial, made from the liqueur in the third recipe, further infused with
other spices and sweetened with sugar.
Spirits of Spices
Distill with a gentle heat either in balneo,
or ashes, the strong and sweet water, where-
with you have drawen oile of cloves, mace,
nutmegs, Iuniper, Rosemarie, &c. after it hath
stood one moneth close stopt, and so you shall
purchase a delicate Spirit of each of the said
Spirit of wine tasting of what vegetable you please
Macerate Rosemarie, Sage, sweet Fennel seeds,
Marjerom, Lemmon or Orenge pils, &c. in spir-
its of wine a daie or two, and then distill it
over againe, unless you had rather have it in
his proper colour: for so you shall have it
upon the first infusion without any farther
distillation: and some young Alchymists doe
hold these for the true spirits of vegetables.
D. Steevens Aqua composita
Take a gallo of Gascoign wine, of ginger,
galingale, cinamon, nutmegs & graines, Annis
seeds, Fennel seeds, and carroway seeds, of
each a dram; of Sage, mints, red Roses, thyme,
Pellitory, Rosemary, wild thyme, camomil,
lavender, of each a handfull, bray the spices
small, and bruise the herbs, letting them
macerate 12 houres, stirring it now & then,
then distill by a limbecke of pewter keeping
the first cleare water that cometh, by it
selfe, and so likewise the second. You shall
draw much about a pinte of the better fort
from everie gallon of wine.
Take of muske sixe graines, of Cinamon and
ginger of each one ounce, white sugar cany one
pound, powder the sugar, and bruse the spices
grossely, binde them up in a cleane linnen
cloth, and put them to infuse in a gallon of
Aqua composita in a glasse close stopped
twenty foure houres, shaking them togither
divers times, then put thereto of turnsole one
dram, suffer it to stand one houre, and then
shake altogether, then if the colour like you
after it is settled, poure the cleerest forth
into another glasse: but if you will have it
deeper coloured, suffer it to worke longer
upon the turnsole.
The Encyclopaedia Brittannica lists in its article
on 'Alcoholic Beverages' the following dates and places of origin of several
distilled alcoholic beverages.
500 AD............. Honey .................................Mead ..................................Distilled Mead......................Brittain
1100 AD............Oats/Barley..........................Beer......................................Usqubaugh......................... Ireland
1200 AD........... Grape................................. Wine ....................................Aqua Vini............................Spain
1300 AD........... Grape................................. Wine.....................................Cognac............................... France
1500 AD........... Barley................................. Beer.....................................Whisky/Aqua Vitae..............Scotland