Distillation history

A distilled beverage is a liquid preparation meant for consumption containing ethyl alcohol purified by distillation from a fermented substance such as fruit, vegetables, or grain. The word spirits generally refers to distilled beverages low in sugars and containing at least 35% alcohol by volume. Gin, vodka, rum, whiskey, cognac, and tequila are types of spirits. Beverages high in both alcohol and sugar content such as Grand Marnier, Frangelico and schnapps are generally referred to as liqueurs. The term liquor may mean spirits, spirits and liqueurs, or all alcoholic beverages, including wine, sake, beer, and mead.

Beer and wine were historically limited to a maximum alcohol content of about 15 percent by volume, beyond which yeast is adversely affected and cannot ferment. Alcohol levels higher than 15 percent have historically been obtained in a number of ways.


Wine heated in an animal bladder draws out water and leaves alcohol behind (the bladder has a natural property which removes water), but there is no evidence this method was used before modern times.

The first evidence of true distillation comes from Babylonia and dates from the fourth millennium BC. Specially shaped clay pots were used to extract small amounts of distilled alcohol through natural cooling for use in perfumes, however it is unlikely this device ever played a meaningful role in the history of the development of the still. By the 3rd century AD there is evidence that alchemists in Alexandria, Egypt, used distillation to produce alcohol for sublimation and for coloring metal.

Central Asia and the Middle East

Freeze distillation or the "Mongolian still", is known to have been in use in Central Asia as early as the 7th century AD. This method involves freezing the alcoholic beverage and removing water crystals. The freezing method had limitations in geography and implementation and thus did not have widespread use, but remained in limited use, for example the American colonial period applejack was made from cider using this method.

The development of the still with cooled collector — necessary for the efficient distillation of spirits without freezing — was an invention of Arab and Persian alchemists in the 8th or 9th centuries. In particular, Geber (Jabir Ibn Hayyan, 721–815) invented the alembic still; he observed that heated wine from this still released a flammable vapor, which he described as "of little use, but of great importance to science". Not much later Al-Razi (864–930) described the distillation of alcohol and its use in medicine. By that time, distilled spirits had become fairly popular beverages: the poet Abu Nuwas (d. 813) describes a wine that "has the color of rain-water but is as hot inside the ribs as a burning firebrand". The terms "alembic" and "alcohol", and possibly the metaphors "spirit" and aqua vitæ ("life-water") for the distilled product, can be traced to Middle Eastern alchemy.

Names like "life water" have continued to be the inspiration for the names of several types of beverages, like Gaelic whisky, French eaux-de-vie and possibly vodka. Also, the Scandinavian akvavit spirit gets its name from the Latin phrase aqua vitae.


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.

Modern distillation

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