After having enjoyed a production boom in the Renaissance period due to the rise of urban brewing and the use of hops, by the seventeenth century beer met with new challenges. Rising incomes meant that more people could buy beer, but some chose to buy wine, which enjoyed greater prestige but had traditionally been too expensive for many consumers, at least in the north. Rising commerce in wine made the drink more available, and the greater use of bottles and the development of the corkscrew around 1700 made it easier to get, keep and drink wine. However, the introduction of entirely new drinks posed a challenge to both wine and beer, first with the tropical non-alcoholic beverages cacao, coffee and tea and then with the near-simultaneous rise of distilled alcoholic beverages.- - - - - - - - -
The production of distilled gin, first in the form of genever or Geneva gin with its distinctive juniper flavoring, rose rapidly in the seventeenth century in Holland and England. With much stronger drinks followed more serious social problems related to the excessive drinking of alcohol. The sometimes unattractive spectacle of public drunkenness, which was and is more common among northern Europeans than among southern Europeans, increased greatly. The changes were expressed graphically in the English painter William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) prints of Gin Lane (1751) as a place of debauchery and the destruction of the family and public order compared to Beer Street, where all is peaceful and people appear healthy.
Through natural processes of fermentation the maximum alcohol content of a wine rarely exceeds 15%. To create beverages with 20% or more you need the aid of distillation. Distillation is a method for increasing the alcohol content of a liquid already containing ethyl alcohol by utilizing the different boiling points of water (100 °C) and alcohol (78 °C). The distillation process separates the alcohol from other parts of the solution by heating the liquid to 78° Celsius, a temperature sufficient to boil alcohol but not water. The resulting steam (vaporized alcohol) is collected and condensed, returning it to liquid form — but a liquid with a much higher proportion of alcohol than before. The resultant distillate is matured, often for years, before it is sold. Distilled spirits include aquavit, brandy, gin, rum, vodka and whiskey.
Some crude form of distillation was employed in the Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean in the production of perfumes. In 2007 a team of archaeologists in Cyprus discovered one of the world’s oldest perfume “factories.” Dozens of distilling stills, mixing bowls, funnels and bottles were found preserved at the site, dating from about 1850 BC. Cyprus in ancient Greece had the mythological status as the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and the Greek equivalent of the Roman Venus. An early and crude form of distillation did exist in China and Egypt and was practiced by Greek alchemists in Alexandria. Nevertheless, I have found no convincing references to the existence of anything resembling beverages such as whiskey or brandy in either ancient Europe or Asia. Hugh Johnson, normally a well-informed man, is quite explicit in stating that distilled beverages were not known by Roman times:
“It was the mark of fine wine with the Romans, as it is with us, that it improved with age. Horace, in one poem contemplating his end, seems more concerned about parting from his cellar of wonderful old wine than from his wife. Very sweet wines will usually keep well without turning to vinegar, but the Romans had no means of increasing their alcoholic strength to preserve them. No yeast will continue to ferment when the alcohol level reaches fifteen or sixteen per cent of the wine. Distillation was unknown. This, then, was the strongest drink they knew.”
Distillation of nearly pure alcohol (ethanol) appears to have been a development of medieval times. Ironically, it is possible that alchemists in the Islamic-ruled Middle East contributed to its development. Middle Easterners in the Early Middle Ages employed a method that could produce a distilled beverage from wine. Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber in Latin) around AD 800 developed new methods in alchemy and made experiments with heating wine, which were followed up by al-Razi (Rhazes) and other scholars whose work was later known in Europe.
In the Cambridge World History of Food, James Comer writes about distilled beverages. Several European alchemists, searching for the “elixir of life,” experimented with distillation. They believed that they had extracted the “essence” or “spirit” of wine and that repeated distillations resulted in aqua vitae — Latin for “water of life.” This substance was initially primarily used as a medicine. According to Comer, “both the Irish and the Scots claim to have produced liquor from grain (in contrast to brandy from wine) since the beginning of the last millennium; the Scots called it uisge beatha (pronounced wisky-baw) and the Irish called it uisce beatha. Both meant ‘water of life,’ and the English term ‘whiskey’ derived from them.”
The first real brandy that was not thought of as medicine is said to have been distilled around 1300 by Arnaldus de Villa Nova (ca. 1235-1311), a Catalan alchemist presumably familiar from Spain with writings in Arabic about distillation, who became professor at the medical school of Montpellier in France. During the fifteenth century, better methods for cooling the still’s head developed. This led to increased production of distilled beverages, which spread rapidly across Europe. France became an important center of the brandy industry. Vodka originated in Russia in the fourteenth century, its name deriving from Russian voda (“water”).
The first definitive proof we have of whiskey making comes from the fifteenth century in both Ireland and Scotland, although there are persistent yet still-unproven claims that production in this area dates further back in time. Whiskey is always aged in wooden containers, usually of white oak. In addition to Irish and Scotch whiskey, the United States and Canada are now large producers and consumers of whiskey. Whisky or whiskey (both spellings are used) is a distilled liquor made from cereal grains and could be called a distilled beer, whereas brandies such as cognac are made from grapes and could thus be labeled distilled wines. Cognac is named for the town of Cognac north of Bordeaux, France, one of three officially demarcated brandy regions in Europe; the others are the towns of Armagnac in France and Jerez in Spain.
A constant theme in the discussion of brandy was fire, because beverages are “burnt” or distilled over the flame of a still, because distilled alcohol is capable of combustion, and because of the “burning” sensation experienced by those who drink it. Comer again: “First called ‘brandy wine’ (from the Dutch brandewijn), brandy means ‘to burn’ or ‘burnt’ in Dutch as well as in other languages, such as the German Brand and the Middle English ‘brand.’ Brandy is more expensive to make than grain spirits because it must be distilled from fruit and, in the case of cognac, from wine (Ray 1974). As noted, brandy first emerged as medicine in the eleventh century and only later became popular as a beverage.”
According to James Comer, in the sixteenth century the prominent Swiss alchemist and physician Paracelsus “had employed the Arabic term alcool vini to describe spirits. But it was not until 1730, when the Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave used the word alcohol to mean distilled spirits, that it became commonly understood that ale, wine and distilled beverages all owed their mood-altering capabilities to this chemical.”
Read the rest at Atlas Shrugs. Parts 1 and 2 can be read here and here.