Whether as wine, beer, or spirits, alcohol has had a constant and often controversial role in social life. In his innovative book on the attitudes toward and consumption of alcohol, Rod Phillips surveys a 9,000-year cultural and economic history, uncovering the tensions between alcoholic drinks as healthy staples of daily diets and as objects of social, political, and religious anxiety.
In the following excerpt from Alcohol: A History (pp. 111-114), Phillips explores the early development of distilled spirits, “the water of life.”
The first unambiguous references to distilled alcohol as a beverage date from the thirteenth century. In Spain, a Catalan scholar of Muslim science, Ramon Lull, admired the smell and flavor of his distilled spirit and presciently suggested that it might be an excellent stimulant for soldiers before they went into battle. His colleague Arnaldus de Villa Nova, from Valencia, promoted distilled alcohol as having rejuvenating effects—this two centuries before his fellow countryman Ponce de Leon looked for rejuvenating waters (the Fountain of Youth) in the New World. One of Arnaldus’s scientific preoccupations was identifying ways to maintain or regain youthfulness. His various recommendations included drinking a concoction of saffron, aloes, and viper juice; being cheerful and moderate; and avoiding sex and strenuous exercise. Perhaps it is not surprising that he would think that, in distilled spirits, he had found yet another effective substance. Alcohol, he enthused, “has the power to heal all infirmity and diseases, both of inflammation and debility; it turns an old man into a youth.” Later in the thirteenth century, in Italy, a number of scholars recommended distilled alcohol—which was by then becoming known as aqua vitae, or “the water of life”—for its supposed medicinal values, whether it was consumed or applied to wounds.
Yet before distilling alcohol could gain acceptance and respectability, it became a casualty of the reaction against alchemy. In the fourteenth century, alchemy was declared to be contrary to nature and akin to magic, and it was condemned by church and secular authorities alike. Pope John XXII declared aspects of alchemical theory to be heretical in the early 1320s, and in 1326 the inquisitor general of Aragon, in Spain, started a campaign to suppress it. It was forbidden in England, Venice, and elsewhere, and in 1380, Charles V of France made the ownership of distilling apparatus, which was widely associated with alchemy, a capital crime.
This was not a climate that encouraged the production of distilled alcohol. But some scientists and scholars persisted, and there are occasional but sparse records of spirits production throughout the 1400s, when the pressure against alchemists was gradually relaxed. Michele Savonarola, court physician in Ferrara, published a book on distilling, De Aqua Ardente (On Burning Water, a reference to the fire used to heat the base liquid), in which he stressed the therapeutic effects of spirits and their efficacy in dealing with the plague, which continued to affect many parts of Europe. On the other hand, Leonardo da Vinci designed an improved alembic for distilling alcohol from ale or wine, but only for use as a solvent or as an incendiary for military purposes; he warned against drinking distilled spirits.
By the end of the fifteenth century, distilling alcohol for medical purposes was largely differentiated from alchemy, even though both used the same apparatus. Distilling alcohol had been appropriated by physicians and apothecaries who, in many countries, were given rights to distill, prescribe, and sell spirits. Sometimes the distillate was used in its pure form; at other times it was distilled with flowers, plants, herbs, and spices, each form being prescribed for particular ailments. In 1498, the high treasurer of Scotland recorded a payment of 9 shillings to a “barbar” (barber-surgeon) “that brocht aqua vitae to the King in Dundee by the King’s command.” It was also made in religious houses, where monks and nuns sometimes made medicinal “waters.” In one of the earliest references to distilling in Scotland—a 1494 order for “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae”—the producer was a member of a religious order.
The health value attributed to spirits was signaled by their generic name, aqua vitae—ironic, because the process of distilling separated the alcohol from the water in the base liquid. The name was replicated in other languages, such as the French eau-de-vie, Scandinavian aquavit, and Gaelic uisge beatha or usquebaugh, which in the 1700s became “usky,” “uiskie,” and “whiskie.” Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Alcohol: A History, by Rod Phillips’ »