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Encyclopedia > Liquor
Spirits redirects here. For other uses of the word, see spirit.

A distilled beverage, also called spirits, is a preparation for consumption containing ethyl alcohol purified by distillation, or other method, from a substance such as wine, grain or wood. It is any alcohol mixture 15 percent or higher. The term is usually restricted to alcoholic beverages.



Beer and wine are limited to a maximum 15 percent alcohol, beyond that yeast is adversely affected and can not ferment. Higher levels of alcohol 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. Another method, called freeze distillation, involves freezing the alcoholic beverage and removing water crystals, a method which has been known to have been in use in central Asia, known as the "Mongolian still", as early as the 7th century (Needham, 1980). In Europe and North America, this method was used to make applejack from cider. However the freezing method had limitations in geography and implementation and thus did not have widespread use. This leaves the method of distillation from which most of the history of distilled beverages is drawn from.

Distillation history


In a basic form the technique of distillation goes back to Babylonia in the fourth millennium BC when specially shaped clay plots, it is thought, were used to extract some small amounts of distiled alcohol through natural cooling, for the manufacture of perfumes. It is unlikely this device ever played a meaningful role in the history of the development of the still. Distillation seems to have been known by alchemists in Alexandria (such as Mary the Jewess), around the 3rd century AD, who used alcohol only for the coloring of metal and sublimation and was not widely known.


The development of the still with cooled collector — necessary for the distillation of spirits — was an invention of Islamic alchemists in the 8th or 9th centuries. In particular, Geber (Jabir Ibn Hayyan, 721815) invented the alembic still, from which he observed heated wine released a flammable vapor, which he described as "of little use, but of great importance to science". Not much later Al-Razi (864930) described the distillation of alcohol and its use in medicine. By that time, distilled spirits were not just chemical products, but 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 acqua vitŠ ("life-water") for the distilled product, can be traced to Islamic alchemy.


Alcohol appears first in Europe in the mid 12th century among alchemists, who were more interested in medical "elixirs" 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 refers 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 alcoholic 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, around 40 percent, and had "universal" medicinal elixir application. After the mid 14th century, when distilled liquors were commonly applied as remedies for the Black Death, consumption of liquor rose dramatically in Europe. Around 1400 it was discovered how to distill spirits from beer and grain spirits (corn, barley, rye) and even sawdust was used to make alcohol, a much cheaper option than grapes. Thus began the "national" drinks of Europe: genever (Holland), gin (England), schnapps (Germany), aquavit (Scandinavia), vodka (Russia). The actual names only emerged in the 16th century but the drinks were well known .


  • Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, V, pt.4 (1980).
  • Robert Forbes, Short History of the Art of Distillation, 1948.
  • Robert Multhauf, The Origins of Chemistry, 1966.

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