Excerpt: Alcohol: A History, by Rod Phillips

Alcohol: A History, by Rod PhillipsWhether 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4]

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.”[5] 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.[6]

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.” (The word “brandy,” meaning “burnt wine,” was coined in the seventeenth century, from the Dutch brandewijn.) One of the earliest printed books on aqua vitae, in this case brandy, was published in Germany in 1476 and recommended a half-spoonful every morning to prevent conditions as varied as arthritis and bad breath. Other physicians wrote of the beneficial effects of brandy for physical ailments (it cured headaches, heart disease, gout, and deafness); as an aid to appearance (it improved the bust and stopped hair graying); and as therapy for emotional and other problems (it banished melancholy and forgetfulness).[7] The inclusion of conditions commonly associated with aging (such as deafness, forgetfulness, and graying) reflects the claims that drinking brandy prolonged youth and thus life itself.

The essential property that was attributed to brandy and other spirits was heat. Aqua vitae was also known as “burning water” (aqua ardens) and “hot water,” after the process used to heat and vaporize alcohol-bearing liquids, and distillers themselves were often called “water-burners.” No doubt because of the burning sensation of concentrated alcohol in the mouth and throat, distilled spirits were believed to embody the heat of the fire that was required to make them. As heat-giving beverages, spirits played an important medical role because of the dominant medical model of the time, which understood health as a balance of the properties that coexisted within the human body: heat and cold, dryness and moistness. Aqua vitae could be used to counteract excessive cold, and it was thus ideal for old people whose bodies were cooling—but not necessarily for old widows, whose bodies were believed to be so dry that they might combust if brought into contact with such a fiery beverage. Nor was brandy advised for young people: they were considered to be naturally warm and could overheat if they consumed “hot waters.” Overall, though, the health benefits of brandy, the first distilled spirit to enter the medical arsenal, seemed incontestable. Doctors readily prescribed it, and their patients happily took their medicine. Brandy became popular as a general tonic, and some wealthier people adopted the habit of starting the day with the burst of warmth and energy that distilled alcohol provides, a tradition that continues in some parts of Europe to this day.

In 1545, the German physician Walter Ryff provided a comprehensive explanation of the medicinal value of brandy, which, he wrote, was not to be drunk as a beverage but as a “powerful medication.” Ryff first described all the therapeutic properties of wine—especially “thick, red wine,” which increases the blood supply—and then argued that because brandy is the essence of wine, it has even more medicinal properties. “Aqua vitae,” he wrote, “is especially useful in treating a cold, moist head and brain. . . . It drives out the threat of apoplexy, minor and major strokes, paralysis, dropsy, epilepsy, shaking and trembling limbs, and if the limbs have fallen asleep and become numb and without feeling because of cold, it is rubbed externally on the skin or drunk in an appropriately suitable amount.”[8]

But brandy and other spirits also presented problems because of their high alcohol content. Alcohol levels could not be measured at this time, but even though spirits often contained various additives and were frequently drunk diluted and adulterated, it is quite probable that many had an alcohol content well above the 40 percent that is commonly the maximum allowable strength today. Simply by virtue of being distilled from wine, brandy had far more alcohol by volume than wine. This alone does not mean that spirits were (or are) more likely to produce intoxication, which is a function of the volume of the beverage consumed, not only of its inherent alcohol level. It is possible that when spirits first entered the market, consumers drank them with almost the same gusto as they downed wine and beer, with regrettable consequences, but it is more likely they were consumed in small measures.

If the excessive consumption of fermented beverages such as beer and wine aroused concern and had historically been subjected to regulations and penalties, we can easily understand why the even greater potential of distilled alcohol to cause intoxication, personal risk, and social disruption justified even more rigorous restrictions on its production and consumption. Because alcohol had not been identified as the agent common to spirits, beer, and wine, spirits were initially treated as a distinct class of beverage, and they became the first of many substances to be highly regulated. By the early 1700s, in a reprise of the attempts to suppress alchemy, there were calls for distilled spirits to be banned entirely. The water-burners who provided Europeans with brandy (and later with gin, vodka, and rum) had ignited a debate on alcohol, health, and social order that would simmer at varying levels of intensity for centuries.


From Alcohol: A History, by Rod Phillips. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]William T. Harper, Origins and Rise of the British Distillery (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1999), 11.
  2. [2]Allison P. Coudert, “The Sulzbach Jubilee: Old Age in Early Modern Europe and America,” in Old Age in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Interdisciplinary Approaches, ed. Albrecht Classen (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005), 534.
  3. [3]Quoted in Harper, British Distillery, 11.
  4. [4]Ibid., 13–17.
  5. [5]C. Anne Wilson, Water of Life: A History of Wine-Distilling and Spirits, 500 BC–AD 2000 (Totnes, U.K.: Prospect Books, 2006), 149–50.
  6. [6]The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, ed. George Burnett (Edinburgh: H.M. General Register House, 1883), 10:487.
  7. [7]B. Ann Tlusty, “Water of Life, Water of Death: The Controversy over Brandy and Gin in Early Modern Augsburg,” Central European History 31, no. 1–2 (1999): 8–11.
  8. [8]Walter Ryff, The New Large Book of Distilling (1545), quoted in Public Drinking in the Early Modern World: Voices from the Tavern, 1500–1800, ed. Thomas E. Brennan (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011), 2:423.