The origin of alcoholic spirits

Middle-eastern alchemy

Before we had gin, vodka, brandy, rum and other popular spirits, we had one clear, volatile substance that was created via the art of distillation. 

What is distillation? 

Distillation is a process that's used to separate one liquid from another through evaporation. The distilled liquid will be a much purer form of the original liquid. Often it's used to separate alcohol from other substances.

When did distillation first occur? 

We think distillation was happening in ancient China, and we know that the ancient Greeks were dabbling in it. But it came into its own in the laboratories of Middle Eastern alchemists in the first couple of centuries AD. The inventor of distillation is thought to have been Maria the Jewess, who is credited as being the first true alchemist of the western world. At the time, distillation was seen as a holy grail of human endeavour. The Emerald Tablet - one of the key texts on alchemy -  described distilled substances with a kind of awe: “It rises from Earth to Heaven and descends again to Earth, thereby combining within Itself the powers of both the Above and the Below." It’s interesting that the inventor of distillation was a woman, given gin’s later association with original sin, temptation, and the dangerous combination of femininity and liquour.

Middle-Eastern alchemy

Maria the Jewess

Maria the Jewess

Maria the Jewess invented - or at least brought to public attention - the alembic, a distillation device which is still used in chemistry today. Later, the alembic was improved by the Persian philosopher and mathematician Jabir or ‘Geber’. This guy was the original mad scientist. His use of jargon was so complex that the term ‘gibberish’ may have come from his name. He invented fire-resistant paper, ink that could be read at night, anti-rust paint and water-resistant textile coating. And he distilled everything.

One of these substances was wine, and from it he got a fascinating, volatile liquid - a grape spirit - which his successor Rhazes named Al’khol.

The word ‘spirit’ probably comes from the latin ‘spiritus’, meaning breathe, due to its vapours. But it’s serendipitous that that this new substance was heavily associated with the essence of life, the human spirit. Its psychoactive properties, its ability to seemingly revive those who consumed it, and its absolute chemical purity gave it a magical potency that made it seem more a product of the dark arts than of simple chemistry. Its vapours came rising from a bottle to satisfy human desires, just like the genies that originated from Persia around the same time. The genie’s Arabic name, in another stroke of irony, is Jinn.

Distillation in Britain

Over in Britain, spirit drinking started really taking off in the seventeenth century. in the early to mid 1600s, British stately homes started installing distilling apparatus in their kitchens. Kind of like sixteenth-century micro-distilleries. 

People started to realise that you could produce spirit from just about everything - grain, potatoes, fruit. It only took 1500 years for this Middle Eastern wisdom to make it to the British mainstream, but we got there in the end. The resulting spirit was known as ‘Aqua Vita’ and ‘strong hot waters’. The language around spirits was still positive, mystical and alluring. The water of life, strong and hot, brought alchemy to the common man.

Sarah Donnelly