Alcohol first appeared in Europe in the mid 12th century among alchemists, who were more interested in medical "elixirs" (ie. entertainment purposes) than making gold from lead. It first appears under the name aqua ardens (burning water) in the Compendium Salerni from the medical school at Salerno. The recipe was written in code, suggesting it was kept a secret. Taddeo Alderotti in his Consilia medicinalis referred to the "serpente" which is believed to have been the coiled tube of a still.
Paracelsus gave alcohol its modern name, taking it from the Arabic word which means "finely divided", in reference to what is done to wine. His test was to burn a spoonful without leaving any residue. Other ways of testing were to burn a cloth soaked in it without actually harming the cloth. In both cases, to achieve this effect the alcohol had to have been at least 95 percent.
Claims on the origins of specific beverages are controversial, often invoking national pride, but they are plausible after the 12th century when Irish whiskey, German Hausbrand and German brandy can all be safely said to have arrived. These beverages would have had much lower alcohol content than the alchemists' pure distillations (around 40 percent by volume), and were likely first thought of as medicinal elixirs.
Consumption of distilled beverages rose dramatically in Europe in and after the mid 14th century, when distilled liquors were commonly used as remedies for the Black Death. Around 1400 it was discovered how to distill spirits from wheat, barley, and rye beers; even sawdust was used to make alcohol, a much cheaper option than grapes.
Thus began the "national" drinks of Europe: jenever (Belgium and the Netherlands), gin (England), schnapps (Germany), aquavit (Scandinavia), vodka (Russia and Poland), rakia (the Balkans). The actual names only emerged in the 16th century but the drinks were well known prior to that date.
The actual process of distillation itself has not changed since the 8th century. There have, however, been many changes in both the methods by which organic material is prepared for the still and in the ways the distilled beverage is finished and marketed.
Knowledge of the principles of sanitation and access to standardized yeast strains have improved the quality of the base ingredient; larger, more efficient stills produce more product per square foot and reduce waste; ingredients such as corn, rice, and potatoes have been called into service as inexpensive replacements for traditional grains and fruit. Chemists have discovered the scientific principles behind aging, and have devised ways in which aging can be accelerated without introducing harsh flavors.
Modern filters have allowed distillers to remove unwanted residue and produce smoother finished products. Most of all, marketing has developed a worldwide market for distilled beverages among populations which in earlier times did not drink spirits