Distilled Beverages

James Comer. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Alcoholic beverages have been a part of human culture since at least the Neolithic period. Yet until recently, beverages made from fruits, grains, or honey were considered to be what historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1992) has called “organic,” meaning that the amount of sugar in the ingredients produced the amount of alcohol in the drinks. Examples of such beverages are beer and wine. Beginning in the period from about A.D. 800 to 1300, however, people in China and the West learned to distill alcoholic liquids. This chapter traces the history of distilled alcohol and discusses the nature of several kinds of liquor.

Distillation and Alcoholic Beverages

Distillation is a method for increasing the alcohol content (and, thus, the potency) of a liquid already containing alcohol—the existing alcohol content usually the result of the fermentation of vegetable sugars. The distillation process separates the alcohol from other parts of the solution by the heating of the liquid to 173° Fahrenheit, 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. Repeating the process increases the liquor’s potency yet further. Because distilled alcohol contains bad-tasting and dangerous chemicals called fusel oils (actually forms of alcohol) and congeners, both by-products of the distilling process, it is often aged in a procedure, originating in the eighteenth century, that rids the beverage of these chemicals. As the liquid ages, its container (preferably made of wood) colors and flavors it to produce a smoother and better-tasting product (Ray 1974).

A constant theme in discussions of distilled liquor is that of fire, which has three different metaphoric meanings. First, beverages are “burnt,” or distilled, over the flame of a still. Second, although it is a drinkable liquid, distilled alcohol is capable of combustion. The third meaning is an apt description of the sensation experienced by consumers of distilled spirits.”Firewater,” aguardente, aguardiente (meaning rough or burning water), and ardent (burning) spirits are all terms referring to such a sensation (Needham 1984).

Stills are the traditional equipment needed to distill alcohol. There are many different types. The earliest known is the ambix (plural ambices) used by Greek alchemists. Ambices were ceramic or metal pots with heads shaped so that liquid would condense inside the head and drain out through a collecting tube. Later, during the Middle Ages, Muslim alchemists, who also employed the ambix, added the Arabic article al- to its name, hence the term “alembic” for a still (Forbes 1948). When larger amounts of alcohol began to be distilled in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the ambix was improved, giving rise to several types of stills.

A common one, the pot still, dates from the sixteenth century. The fermented beverage is boiled in a large pot having a curved top that allows the steam to pass to a coiled cooling pipe called the “worm,” in which the vaporized alcohol condenses into a liquid. The distillate then flows from the worm into a receiving vessel. Pot stills, like those used in the sixteenth century, were later carried to the Americas and to other European colonies and remain in use in traditional distilleries. In Europe and the United States, pot stills are employed for the production of such beverages as French brandy, Italian grappa, and Scotch whiskey (Maresca 1992). The liquids produced by a pot still at the beginning (termed “foreshots” by American distillers) and end (“aftershots”) of a particular distillation are undrinkable or, at least, foul tasting because of the fusel oils that they contain and are consequently either redistilled or discarded. The liquid produced in the middle of the distillation process is the valuable fraction, and proper separation of the liquor from the by-products requires both experience and skill.

The early nineteenth century saw the invention, by Aeneas Coffey, of a still that permitted more or less continuous distillation (Forbes 1948).This device consisted of two hollow metal columns through which vaporized alcohol rose to condense on metal plates. One column served for distillation and the other for rectification—a process of adjusting the potency of an alcoholic beverage, often by redistillation. But because distillation was continuous, the Coffey still did not permit the separation of the bad-tasting beginning and end by-products from the vital middle of the run. All of it tasted the same, being of uniform but lesser quality. Today, such mechanical stills can process thousands of gallons of liquid at a time, but pot stills are said by many to produce better-quality beverages.

Redistillation is sometimes called “rectification,” but this is an ambiguous term, which, legally, can also mean blending one distilled beverage, or “spirit,” with other spirits or flavorings. In many cases, tasteless neutral spirit becomes an esteemed beverage with a little help from the rectifying process; examples include some Scandinavian akvavits and Polish vodkas (Grossman 1989). Spirits are also blended with water to make them drinkable.

Alcohol and Distillation—5500 B.C. to A.D. 1500

Alcoholic beverages were made as long ago as the sixth millennium B.C., as has been documented by the discovery of wine remains in a container at Çatal Hüyük, an archaeological site on the Konya Plain in Turkey (Mellaart 1967). It is probable, however, that wine was produced from dates and figs even earlier (Tannahill 1988). Beer (or, more properly, ale) was in use in ancient Sumer by at least 2500 B.C. and at about that time, or soon afterward, in Egypt (Lichine 1981).

As populations became more crowded, with consequent pollution of water supplies, nearly everyone drank ale or wine.The Romans scorned the ale of the Germanic tribes but made wine a regular part of their own daily regime (Pliny 1940). As a rule, it was mixed with hot water, spices, and perhaps honey (Lichine 1981). People who drank undiluted wine were thought to be depressed or alcoholic (or both), which suggests that the Romans probably would not have been interested in diverting their distillation techniques from alchemy to the production of beverages stronger than wine, even had they thought of it (Tannahill 1988).

Nonetheless, some investigators have sought the origins of distilled beverages in ancient Rome. Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) mentioned a “wine” that had to be diluted several times before it could (or should) be drunk (Pliny 1940). But this reference is to a wine kept in ceramic vessels and allowed to evaporate over many years, until the result was a thick sludge (Lichine 1981). Pliny also wrote of Falernian wine that could be ignited, that would keep for a decade, and that was strong in flavor. But at that time, wine was often boiled down into a kind of jelly to season foods and make drinks, and it was already known that the vapor from hot wine could be ignited. Thus, in the absence of archaeological evidence of “worm” coils or other kinds of still-head cooling devices, it appears that the manufacture of distilled spirits, at least on any large scale, remained in the future (Needham 1984).

The Greek alchemists, whose stills are portrayed in drawings from the Hellenistic period, may have preceded the Romans in producing small amounts of alcohol. Alchemy, which originated in Egypt and Persia and was then practiced by the Greeks and the Arabs, was a quasi-magical process by which the alchemist sought the “essence” of matter to perfect it in accordance with mystical laws (Needham 1984). Arab alchemists produced a cosmetic eye makeup, the name of which—kohl or kuhl—conveyed the notion of something fine and subtle emerging from a process of distillation, and it was from al-kohl (or alkuhl), and various subsequent renderings like the Portuguese álcool, that the English word “alcohol” was derived (Forbes 1948).

Moreover, despite the Islamic prohibition against alcohol consumption, the Arabs are credited, at least in legend, with the spread of liquor to Europe. One well-known account, set in the early fifth century, tells the story of an Irish monk—who later became Saint Patrick—spreading the gospel in the Near East. There, he learned about stills and, on his return to Ireland, brought one with him (McGuire 1993). A more modern version of the tale has the Crusaders learning about alcohol and distillation from the Arabs and bringing home to Europe both taste and technique. Whether there is truth in either story, the historical record of these centuries does not indicate any widespread use of distilled spirits that would also have triggered their widespread misuse—a misuse that certainly would have rated mention in the literature (Schivelbusch 1992).

Distillation, then, continued to remain the property of the alchemists, who in the Middle Ages were distilling water hundreds of times over, reducing it to a residue of mineral salts that was said to be its “essence” (Forbes 1948). About A.D. 800, the Arab scholar Jabir ibn Hayyan invented a much-improved still, and during the centuries from 800 to 1000, Arab alchemists are said to have distilled wine, with its resulting “essence” employed in still further alchemical experimentation (Toussaint-Samat 1987).This may have been the first time that brandy was made. But with alcohol consumption forbidden by the Islamic religion, there was little incentive to distill such beverages in any quantity (Forbes 1948).

Meanwhile, in China, rice wine—chiu (actually an ale)—had long been produced and was as popular there as were grape wines in the West; Chinese ales made from millet also had been brewed for some time (Simoons 1991). However, the fermentation procedure used to make rice wine generally resulted in a stronger beverage than Western ales and beers (Chang 1977).

Like Greece and the Arab world, China also had its alchemists, but Chinese stills were different from those used in the West, having a tube on the side to drain the distillate and allow more of it to be produced. Although the date when this type of still originated is unknown (Needham 1984), fourth-century documents mention a “wine” from the “western regions” that kept for a long time and was extremely strong. This beverage might have been produced by Chinese stills; however, noted sinologist Joseph Needham (1984) has suggested that it came not from Chinese stills but from remote regions of central Asia, where a technique of concentrating alcohol by freezing it had been invented. Although Needham believes that such a technique was a precursor to distillation, he acknowledges that the evidence is confusing and that the references that describe this particular beverage are ambiguous. Moreover, one authority has suggested that, given the paucity of references to distilled spirits in Chinese history (until relatively recently), even if liquor were known, its use could hardly have been common (Simoons 1991).

By the fourteenth century, however, this may no longer have been the case. The Ying-shih ssu-chi, a medical work dated to 1368, draws attention to the dangers of overindulgence in distilled alcoholic beverages, and Li Shih Chen (writing in the sixteenth century) stated that liquor had reached China only with the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Chang 1977). Chen mentioned such beverages as “fire wine” and “burnt wine,” equating the latter with arrack or distilled palm wine. It is interesting to note that this chronology of alcohol use in China parallels that of brandy, and perhaps even whiskey, in Europe (Simoons 1991).

From about 1000 to 1500, alchemists in Europe repeatedly distilled wine (adding salts to absorb the water portion of the liquid) to produce a distillate that would burn. That the eleventh-century Italian alchemist and scholar Michael Salernus had successfully produced alcohol, for example, is indicated by the following statement:”A mixture of pure and very strong wine with three parts salt distilled in the usual vessel, produces a liquid which will flame up when set on fire but which leaves other substances unburnt” (McCusker 1989: 85). (In Salernus’s original manuscript, the words underlined here are written in cipher to prevent others from learning his procedures and formulas.)

Salernus was not alone in reporting such results, and collectively, the alchemists believed that they had extracted the “essence” or “spirit” of wine and that repeated distillations resulted in aqua vitae—the “water of life”—which, in this case, was a kind of brandy that until about 1400 was used mostly as a medicine (Braudel 1973). Because the processes of aging and the separation of the different fractions of the distillate were unknown, this liquor would have been harsh, and even harsher if bad wine had been used for the distillation.

Albertus Magnus was another distiller and alchemist who wrote about the virtues of this substance. Its potency seemed to recommend it as a treatment for a variety of illnesses. Indeed, the distillate was acclaimed as the “quintessence,” a union of all the elements, even the key to everlasting life (Schivel-busch 1992).

The first real brandy that was not thought of as medicine is said to have been distilled in 1300 by Arnaldus de Villa Nova, a professor at the medical school of Montpelier. He said: “We call it aqua vitae, and this name is really suitable, since it is really a water of immortality” (Christian 1990: 25). On the other hand, 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 precise dates when Irish and Scotch whiskeys originated may never be known. But we do know that, in the aftermath of Henry II’s invasion of Ireland (A.D. 1171), Irish “wine” was taxed. The reference to “wine” could mean honey mead, or ale, but it might also mean whiskey. Indeed, the Old Bushmills brand claims its origin from this date, suggesting that even if the St. Patrick tale is a bit fanciful, whiskey from the Emerald Isle may well have predated brandy in Europe, at least for recreational purposes (McGuire 1993). Certainly the archaeological discovery of a worm cooler and alembic pots in Ulster suggests that at least some distillation had taken place in Ireland by the late Middle Ages (McGuire 1993). However, the size of the vessels indicates domestic distillation on a small scale (E. C. 1859).

In the fifteenth century, better methods of cooling a still’s head were developed, and these allowed increased production of distilled beverages (Forbes 1948). The technology spread quickly across Europe, and practically every country developed its own national distilled spirit. Those countries also soon developed laws to tax, restrict, and sometimes even ban such spirits, because by the sixteenth century, drunkenness had become a serious social problem. People who had previously drunk beer as if it were water were discovering that they could not drink liquor as if it were beer (Schivelbusch 1992).

Centuries earlier, Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus) had employed the Arabic term alcool vini to describe spirits. But it was not until 1730, when the Dutch physician Herman Boerhave 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 (Forbes 1948).Yet because “aqua vitae” and other such appellations continued to be used, it is difficult to discover exactly what kinds of spirits were actually being produced. Indeed, even Scotch whiskey was called aqua vitae (Jackson 1988).

From this point forward, however, the historical picture is sufficiently clear to permit treatment of the individual liquors, and we will attempt to do this in some semblance of chronological order. But before we begin, a word or two is needed about the strength, or “proof,” of an alcoholic beverage. The term proof originated in connection with the early use of gunpowder in war: “Proof,” or good, armor was that which proved resistant to a gunshot. The word entered alcohol terminology as a means of identifying the quality of rum and brandy. “Proof” beverages were of the approved strength—half spirit and half water (McCusker 1989).Their purity could be measured by weighing or by setting the spirit alight. Later, the term came to mean twice the percentage of alcohol in the drink. In the twentieth century, neutral spirit leaving the mechanical still is 180 proof, or 90 percent alcohol (Grossman 1989).

Distilled Spirits in the West Brandy

First called “brandy wine” (from the Dutch bran-dewijn), 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 a medicine in the eleventh century and only later became popular as a beverage. In Nuremberg, it had apparently become a bit too popular by 1450; in that year, a law was passed to ban the drinking of aquavit, which we are told was brandy wine (Forbes 1948). Because in northern Europe beers and ales had long been made by women, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries many distilleries were located in private homes. Nonetheless, by 1500, brandy production was subject to taxation in many principalities (Braudel 1973).

Gradually, the French wine country became the center of the brandy industry. Louis XII granted the first license to manufacture brandy in 1514, and the product was employed (among other uses) to fortify wines, which strengthened them at the same time that it stopped fermentation (Braudel 1973). A less expensive brandy for the poor was made from leftover grape skins and seeds. It was and is called grappa in Italy, marc in France, aguardente in Portugal, and aguardiente in Spain (Maresca 1992).

A countermovement that pushed up the price was the aging of brandy, a procedure begun about the middle of the eighteenth century (Ray 1974). This process made for a decidedly smoother drink and certainly helped to promote what has been termed the “cult” of brandy, just as the aging of Scotch and Irish whiskeys in oak barrels established a whiskey “cult” (Morrice 1983). Then, as now, the most famous brandies came from the Charente region of France and were named for the town of Cognac. Twice distilled in pot stills from the white wines of the Charente, cognac is blended according to certain formulas and aged for a minimum of three years in oaken barrels. The drink can continue to improve through aging for as many as 50 more years, but that is the effective limit of the process; thus, the legend of fine brandy surviving from the time of Napoleon is a myth. Experts agree that even if such brandy existed, it would be undrinkable (Ray 1974).

Cognac leaves the still at 140 proof, but its potency is reduced by aging because alcohol evaporates through the porous material of the cask, whereas water does not. In addition, sufficient water is added so that cognac is shipped at 80 to 86 proof. The age and quality of a cognac are indicated by a confusing array of letters, stars, and symbols on the label. Armagnac, a well-known brandy from another region of France although much like cognac, is said to retain the flavor of the wine to a greater degree, and its method of distillation is different (Ray 1974).

By the late nineteenth century, the brandy industry was in near ruin because of a vine blight caused by the American vine louse, Phylloxera, that destroyed virtually all the vines in Europe (Lichine 1981).A visitor to the Continent at the end of the nineteenth century reported that the “brandy” available was not brandy at all, but rather an ersatz mixture concocted with grain spirits and plums (Spencer 1899). However, the European wine industry, along with the manufacture of brandy, was saved by the introduction of resistant rootstocks of muscadine and scuppernong grapes, native to North America, onto which the famous vines of Europe were grafted (Lichine 1981).

The term, brandy, refers not only to drinks made from grapes and wine but also to a wide variety of beverages made from other fruits and even from honey. Some are true brandies, made entirely from fruit, but many are grain spirits that are merely flavored with fruit. One fruit brandy is kirsch (Kirschwasser), a fiery cherry brandy of Switzerland. Poire brandy is made from pears, and framboise from raspberries. Hungary produces Barack Palinka, perhaps the most famous of apricot brandies. Another important beverage is slivovitz, the plum brandy of the Balkans, sold at 70 and 87 proof. Most of these brandies are bottled as uncolored spirits to preserve the fruit bouquet. In addition, there are countless brandies made from apples in Europe and wherever else apples are grown. Examples are calvados, made in Normandy from hard cider, and applejack, made largely in North America. Calvados is aged, whereas applejack frequently is not, and historically, applejack has been made by freezing as well as by distillation (Grossman 1977; Lichine 1981).

In the Americas, the agave plant contains a juice that is fermented into pulque, a beverage that dates from the Aztec period. The brandy mescal that is distilled from pulque comes in many varieties, with the most famous being tequila (Grimes 1988). In Peru, grape wine has been produced since 1566, with pisco the local brandy. Both Mexico and Chile also produce brandy made from grape wines (Lichine 1981).

Moving northward, in colonial New England and in Canada, hard cider was first processed into applejack by freezing, a technique reported much earlier in central Asia (Dabney 1974). In the Appalachian Mountains, whole valleys were planted with fruit trees to make apple and other brandies until the early twentieth century (Marcus and Burner 1992). Although there are references to “British brandy” in seventeenth-century texts, these actually deal with an early grain spirit related to gin; Britain produces virtually no wine or brandy. However, a few British distillers have made brandy from mead, the honey-based wine of the ancient Britons. This beverage, called “honey brandy,” has never been common because mead itself is costly, and distilling it yields a very expensive liquor (Gayre 1948).

Spirits from Grain and Cane

The kinds of grain used to make spirits have usually been determined by custom (although sometimes by law, as in the case of licensed distillers) and, perhaps most importantly, by what is available. As a rule, lower-cost and lower-status grains have been employed: To make spirits from wheat would have been a waste of bread grain, and in the sixteenth century, several German states banned the manufacture of grain spirits so as better to control the price of bread (Forbes 1948). Rye has commonly been used in areas with colder climates, such as Canada. In the United States, the abundance of maize has made it the grain of choice (Inglett and Munck 1980), and barley constituted the base of the first whiskeys made in Ireland and Scotland. Many of these grains were ingredients for beers long before whiskeys were made (Jackson 1988).

Irish and Scotch whiskeys. To produce either Irish or Scotch whiskey, soaked barley is permitted to sprout and become malt, as in making beer. However, the mash for whiskey does not include hops. The Scotch malt has traditionally been dried over peat fires that imparted a smoky flavor, whereas Irish malt was dried in ovens. After the grain is made into a mash and allowed to ferment, it is distilled in a pot still –twice to make Scotch and three times to make Irish whiskey (Jackson 1988). The spirits are then permitted to age in oaken casks (from which they acquire their color); then blending takes place. This is a procedure that employs whiskeys that have been aged for different periods of time and that are often made from different ingredients (Morrice 1983). In the case of Scotch, for example, the unblended or “pure” malt can be blended with whiskeys made from other grains, such as oat, rye, and maize.

Modern Scotch seems to date from about the middle of the eighteenth century, its production spurred by a 1745 increase in the tax on ale. Private distillation was banned in the nineteenth century (Morrice 1983). However, the distillation of whiskey was an important source of income for the Highlanders, who raised grain but encountered much difficulty in getting it to market over the rough mountain roads. Consequently, the ban gave rise to a thriving illegal industry that, in distilling the grain, put it into a much more compact (and valuable) form. Doubtless the industry became more profitable after the Phylloxera blight that devastated European wine grapes from the 1860s on, made brandy virtually unaffordable, and as a result, increased demand for other alcoholic beverages.

Pot stills were hidden away in the Scottish Highlands and in Ireland, where clans made illegal whiskey, as their kinsmen in America were soon to do as well. The government struck back with raids on the illegal stills; in 1834, there were 692 seizures in Scotland and 8,192 in Ireland. But in 1884 there were only 22 seizures in Scotland, and in Ireland they had fallen off to 829. Clearly, the government was winning the war. Perhaps the greater amount of government activity in Ireland had to do with the fact that in the 1880s, there were only 28 legal distilleries, in contrast to 129 in Scotland (Barnard 1969). Government licensing was profitable: In the 1880s, the government of the United Kingdom derived 40 percent of its revenue from alcohol (Christian 1990).

Scotch whiskey continues to enjoy a certain mystique. But its manufacture has changed considerably, with coal employed to dry the malt instead of peat. The grain spirit most used to blend Scotch is now made from American maize, and Scotland imports all of its maize and much of its barley (Morrice 1983). Somehow, too, much of the romance has disappeared.

Gin. Gin, on the other hand, never had all that much romance attached to it, especially after William Hogarth depicted the excessive drinking of Londoners in his 1751 engraving, “Gin Lane” (Schivelbusch 1992). Less than a century before, the consumption of spirits had been uncommon in England (Austin 1985); most people drank ale or beer, and the wealthy, although inclined to a little French brandy, mostly prized imported wines, especially those that were fortified, such as port and Madeira from Portugal and its islands and sherry from Spain (Lichine 1981). Indeed, the dramas and diaries of the Restoration period indicate that these wines were preferred by many over even the “great growths” of France.

The individual said to have pushed Britain onto the path toward “Gin Lane” is William of Orange, Stadtholder of Holland, who ascended the English throne in 1689 as joint sovereign with Mary II. William’s homeland made gin, and to encourage its importation into England, he discouraged the sale of French brandy and taxed English beer and cider (Watney 1976). The liquor he sponsored with such determination was then called genever or jenever, the Dutch name for juniper, a medicinal plant whose berries were used to flavor gin, which was itself a distillation of hopped barley mash (Butler 1926). Also named “Hollands gin” by the English, the drink became so popular in the Netherlands that it replaced beer as the beverage of the military (Austin 1985). In fact, by 1787, there were more than 200 distilleries making gin in the Dutch Republic, and only 57 breweries (Schama 1977).

Many of the gin distilleries had doubtless come into existence to supply the English market that William had engineered. In 1700, some half-million gallons were exported to England (George 1965). But it did not take the English long to begin making their own gin, which, they found, was a good way to use up surplus grain. After all, gin could be made from practically any grain, or even from molasses; its distinctiveness lay in the juniper flavoring (Watney 1976). In 1714, 2 million gallons were produced, and by 1737, English distillers were making 5.4 million gallons annually—nearly a gallon for every man, woman, and child in the population (George 1965).

As early as 1725, London alone held 6,187 gin shops, where people unaccustomed to strong spirits were working hard to overcome this handicap (Monckton 1966). It was called a “gin epidemic”: Tavern keepers offered to make one “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence, and straw for nothing” (Schivel-busch 1992: 156), meaning that drunkards were thrown into cellars strewn with straw to sleep off their intoxication. In London during a week in 1750, some 56,000 bushels of wheat were used to produce gin, not quite as many as the 72,000 bushels devoted to breadmaking, but close (Monckton 1966).

At this time, however, gin consumption was about to decline. The Gin Act, passed by Parliament in 1736, prohibited the public sale of gin in London and raised taxes on spirits (George 1965). At first, this statute had little effect on gin consumption: Bootleggers, some employing subterfuges such as the labeling of gin as medicine, helped perpetuate the “epidemic” (Watney 1976). Then in 1751, Parliament slapped a very high tax on gin and tightened restrictions on its sale. This effort, coupled with a sudden rise in grain prices, pushed the price of gin beyond the reach of the poor, who switched back to ale and beer, or to coffee and tea, beverages that were becoming increasingly popular (Mintz 1985). By 1782, annual gin production had fallen to 4 million gallons, and a century after that, Britons were consuming annually only about 1.25 gallons per capita of all spirits combined, although per capita beer and ale consumption was 34 gallons (Johnston 1977).

The Beefeaters distillery was established in 1822, and during the nineteenth century, gin was flavored with angelica, cassia, cardamom, coriander, and ginger, as well as juniper berries (Lichine 1981).The martini cocktail is said to have been invented in 1863 by San Francisco bartender Jerry Thomas (who is also credited with inventing the Tom and Jerry). He allegedly named the drink after the town of Martinez upon learning that this was the destination of a departing guest. However, the use of gin in martinis and “gibsons” (the latter garnished with a pearl onion instead of an olive) has chiefly been a twentieth-century phenomenon. In addition, gin is used in many mixed drinks because of its somewhat neutral taste (Lanza 1995). Modern gin is made in industrial stills and is between 80 and 97 proof (Grossman 1977).The most common type of gin is “London dry” made in both Great Britain and the United States. English gins are 94 proof; American versions are between 80 and 94 proof. Dutch gin survives today as a strongly flavored beverage distilled at a lower proof and drunk neat because of its taste (Grossman 1989).

Vodka. Vodka’s distillation apparently dates from the sixteenth century, as the Russians followed the example of others in northern Europe and distilled rye—their most abundant grain—into vodka, using the pot still (Pokhlebkin 1992).As with other liquors, the distillation of vodka produced much leftover mash that could be fed to livestock, making it possible to maintain more animals over harsh winters (Christian 1990). Later, in the nineteenth century, potatoes were employed for distillation, but the thick potato mash required special stills. It has been mostly in the twentieth century that maize and wheat have found their way into Russian and Polish stills.

Vodka is thought of by some as a relative of gin, and many of its uses are the same. On the other hand, the Russians and the Poles point out that vodka “is the only beverage that goes with herring, a fish that makes beer taste insipid and wine metallic” (Tous-saint-Samat 1987). Vodka means “little water,” and the drink has been valued for its colorlessness and purity. It was also much valued by the Russian government for producing revenues (Christian 1990). Prior to the creation of vodka, the bulk of the country’s alcohol production was in the form of beers and meads made locally by the peasantry and, thus, not taxable. But vodka was taxable and, in 1861, provided 45 percent of the revenue of the Russian state. Throughout the nineteenth century, more than 70 percent of expenditures for the Russian army were paid for by vodka taxes (Christian 1990). At the turn of the twentieth century, Russia established its Kristall vodka monopoly (under the control of the ministry of finance), which produced Stolichnaya vodka and some 70 other brands of liquor (Lichine 1981).The monopoly was suspended from 1914 to 1921, as the various Russian governments during World War I, the Bolshevik revolution, and the Russian civil war attempted prohibition (Pokhlebkin 1992), and was finally abandoned following another wave of government-encouraged temperance begun in the 1980s. Vodka is normally between 80 and 100 proof (Grossman 1977).

Grain spirits similar to gin and vodka are common across northern Europe. One example is Scandinavia’s akvavit (Lichine 1981)—a name that is variously spelled. This liquor is distilled from a grain or potato base as a neutral spirit, then redistilled with flavoring. Like gin, akvavit is not aged (Grossman 1977). German and Scandinavian schnapps are usually made from fruit or herbs; Dutch genever is flavored with sweet-smelling herbs and is also called schnapps in Europe (Lichine 1981).

Rum. In North America, grain and cane spirits were favored over ale, beer, and wine from the beginning of European settlement (Rorabaugh 1979). English ale would not ferment properly in America’s climate; cold winters froze it and hot summers caused the top-fermenting yeast to spoil. (Modern American beer is made with German lager yeasts brought by immigrants in the 1840s. These live at the bottom of the vat and can thus withstand extremes of temperature.) Nor did European wine grapes do well on the Eastern seaboard. Some distillation of grain spirits took place and, though never completely abandoned, was put aside as it became evident that the most expedient course was to ship grain to the sugar islands of the West Indies and to make into rum the molasses sent northward in return.

Rum became the favorite American alcoholic beverage until the Revolution. It is produced by distilling the fermented alcohol made from sugarcane juice (sometimes called “dunder” or “burned ale”).The best rums are distilled twice and, in some cases, aged. Rum was made in Barbados in the 1630s and received its name in 1651, when traveler Thomas Ligon remarked that the island’s inhabitants were fond of “Rumbullion alias Kill Devil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish and terrible liquor” (Ritchie 1981: 116). Both “rumbullion” and “rumbustion,” two early dialect names, may have referred to the violence that the drink was said to engender. Rum was shipped to England in the 1660s, but a taste for it there was slow to develop. In 1698, the English imported only 207 gallons. By contrast, the West India colonists drank so much of it that a visitor said they had “bodies like Egyptian Mummies” (McCusker 1989). Slaves often drank a colorless raw alcohol made from sugarcane juice, called clairin in Haiti, aguardiente in Mexico, and cachaça in Brazil (Lichine 1981). Distilled only once, and devoid of the flavoring and aging that makes a good rum, these harsher beverages actually were rums, although not called by that name; the term “raw rum,” however, is sometimes used to refer to clairin.

The demand for rum was great in Africa, where it was traded for slaves to be carried to the West Indies to make more sugar. Much rum was also issued to the slaves of the Caribbean, where it subsequently was incorporated into Afro-Caribbean religious and magical rituals (Lichine 1981).The spirit also became part of the medical lore of the region for a few brief decades spanning the end of the seventeenth century and the first half or so of the eighteenth century, when slaves, soldiers, and sailors, who could afford (or were given) only the cheapest rum, came down with the “dry bellyache.” The almost unbearable cramps characteristic of this disease were, in fact, symptoms of lead poisoning—the lead having entered the rum from lead fittings in the stills (Handler et al. 1987). Although diminished in frequency, the dry bellyache persisted as late as the Victorian period (Spencer 1899).

Demand for rum in the North American colonies was intense, requiring distilleries in the sugar islands and in New England, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and the Canadian Maritime Provinces to satisfy it (McCusker 1989). William Penn’s thirsty colonists drank rum, and by the 1720s, Marylanders were managing a per capita consumption of at least 2 gallons annually. Rum was relatively cheap: In 1738, rum from any of Boston’s 8 distilleries (they numbered 63 by 1750) cost 2 shillings a gallon. In Georgia, a day’s wages could keep a laborer drunk for a week. By 1770, the 118 recorded colonial distilleries were producing an annual total of 4,807,000 gallons of rum, an average of 41,000 gallons each (McCusker 1989).

The West Indies sugar industry inexorably became the foundation of British mercantilism that in 1733 led to the passage of the Molasses Act by Parliament. This law heavily taxed molasses and rum shipped to North America from the non-British Caribbean. It drove up the price of inexpensive molasses from French St. Domingue which caused a substantial increase in rum prices. As a consequence the Molasses Act began decades of rum and molasses smuggling that ended only with the American Revolution. In addition to rum being their favorite drink, much of the prosperity of the North American colonists depended on the molasses trade (McCusker 1989).

In 1759, British grain crops failed, leading to an increase in grain prices throughout the following decade, with the result that the English (especially those of the upper classes) began to develop a late appreciation for rum. Indeed, by 1775, England was importing 2 million gallons of rum each year. Much of this was used to make rum punch, although many thought this drink was inferior to Madeira punch, made from the fortified wine of Madeira (Tannahill 1988).

Rum became even more profitable for British planters after the Molasses Act. In 1798 in Jamaica, for example, planters who made £3,000 net profit from sugar could count on an additional £1,300 from rum (Deerr 1950). By this time, the French had been all but removed from the sugar and rum production of the West Indies because of the revolution of St. Domingue and the emergence of an independent Haiti. Yet Britain was about to be more or less eliminated as a major sugar producer as well. In 1807, the British abolished the slave trade and, in 1833, slavery itself. At this point, Brazil and Cuba became the world’s most important sources of sugar, with Cuba outdistancing Brazil as the nineteenth century progressed. The Bacardi Rum Company, founded in Cuba in 1862, became the producer, in the twentieth century, of the most popular brand of rum in the world.

Cuban rum tends to be light, as compared with the darker rums from Jamaica and Barbados, the latter often double distilled and aged (Deerr 1950). Haitian rum is midway between these extremes. There is also arak rum from Java, made from sugarcane juice fermented with rice and yeast (Grossman 1977). The yeast strains used to ferment sugarcane juice are said to be responsible for the variations in flavor among different kinds of rum (Lichine 1981). However, as sugarcane always ferments within a short time after being cut, it seems clear that wild yeast is adequate to the task of fermenting the cane juice.

Rum has a strong association with the sea and sailors. Those of the United States, Canada, and Britain were huge consumers of rum, and “grog” rations in the latter two navies continued into the 1970s. The term “grog” comes, allegedly, from the eighteenth-century British Admiral Edward Vernon, who wore a grogham (heavy wool) cloak, and to reduce drunkenness among his crews, ordered their rum diluted with water, resulting in the famous rum-based drink named after his outer garment (Tannahill 1988).

Bourbon and other New World whiskeys. Although rum was the drink of colonial Americans, independence from Great Britain severed much of the sugar connection, forcing a greater reliance on local resources. The result was a change to corn whiskey or “bourbon” (as it came to be called), made originally in Bourbon County, Kentucky. By 1800, Americans were drinking some 3.5 gallons of liquor—mostly whiskeys—per capita each year, which seems to represent a substantial increase in consumption over that of rum in previous decades.

Not that Americans had ever relied solely on rum. Grain whiskeys made from rye and corn had been produced on the eastern seaboard practically from the beginning of the colonies, and whiskey was also imported. In fact, each family that arrived with the Winthrop fleet of 1629 was required to carry aqua vitae to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, presumably as a medicine (Cressy 1995).

During the eighteenth century, Scottish and Irish settlers brought with them the techniques of whiskey making. Many settled in the southern colonies as farmers, and following the American Revolution, distillation was one way in which farmers might add to their yearly income. Although such activities were pursued virtually everywhere in the new United States, a special enthusiasm for operating stills developed in the back country of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, where (as in Scotland and Ireland) rugged terrain hindered the transportation of grain to market. Although an acre of land might produce 40 to 60 bushels of corn, a horse could carry only four bushels at one time. The same horse, however, could carry 16 gallons of whiskey, which was the equivalent of 24 bushels of grain. Clearly, for the mountain people, distillation represented the most efficient method of preparing corn for sale. In the 1830s, consumption of distilled spirits in America reached a peak of more than 5 gallons per capita annually (Rorabaugh 1979); by this time, whiskey made from corn accounted for most of that amount (Dabney 1974).

Private distillation, though illegal, continued even after roads were constructed through the mountain areas, partly because of tradition, partly because of remoteness (stills were easy to conceal), but mostly because it was increasingly profitable, as taxes on liquor continued to be raised. Thus, although illegal whiskey has been made as far afield as Alaska (where it was called “hooch” after the Hoochinoo, a tribe that made a distilled drink), 60 percent of all arrests for the offense have been made in the mountains of the South (Carr 1972).

Corn, however, was no longer always the primary ingredient in illicit distillation. Sugar was sometimes used to speed up fermentation, resulting in a kind of rum that was, nevertheless, still called whiskey. Sugar whiskey was notorious for the hangovers and headaches it produced. In addition, illegal whiskey was sometimes adulterated with everything from manure to lye (to speed fermentation). It was often distilled in soldered tanks that put lead salts into the liquid, and it was condensed in old automobile radiators. Clearly, illegal whiskey could be dangerous: It killed some people, blinded more, and helped destroy the brains, livers, and stomachs of many others (Dabney 1974).

Today, Kentucky is the center of whiskey production in the United States, although some is made in Tennessee and Virginia (Jackson 1988). Starchy varieties of corn are best for whiskey making. They are wet or dry milled, then fermented before distillation. The two major yeasting processes are sweet and sour mash. Sweet mash whiskey comes from new yeast, whereas yeast from a previous fermentation constitutes one-fourth of the yeast added to grain to produce sour mash whiskey. Sour mash is easier to make, and sweet mash tends to go bad (Grossman 1977). In the United States, a significant portion of the corn crop goes into brewing and distillation (Inglett and Munck 1980). Obviously, bourbon remains an American favorite. It is made from at least 51 percent corn mash distilled at 160 proof, diluted to 80 to 100 proof, and matured for no less than three years (Lichine 1981).

Canada, which produced its share of rum in the Maritime Provinces, turned to whiskey made from rye, now mostly called Canadian whiskey (Jackson 1988; Morrison and Moreira 1988). Straight whiskeys are the products of distillation with nothing added, whereas blended whiskeys are mixtures of whiskey from different distilleries or different years. These two kinds, straight and blended combined, make up about half of the American whiskey market. The remainder is “light” whiskey, which is less flavorful, always blended, and reduced in proof. Like Canadian whiskey, it is often made from rye.

Liqueurs. Liqueurs are grain or cane spirits that have been flavored, are usually sweet, and are normally enjoyed after dinner. Their origin lies in the early years of alcohol distillation, when sugar and flavorings were employed to mask the bad taste of raw alcohol, and until the sixteenth century or so, they were mostly regarded as medicines. Early in that century, however, this began to change. In 1532, Michael Savonarola, a Florentine physician, authored The Art of Making Waters, a book of recipes and instructions for producing liqueurs. By the following century, Italy had a flourishing liqueur industry (Austin 1985).

Many of the old liqueur recipes, with “secret” mixtures of flavorings, originated in monasteries. The most famous liqueurs made from such recipes are Chartreuse (from the Chartreuse monastery at Paris) and Benedictine (Grossman 1977). Perhaps the most notorious liqueur is no longer made. This was absinthe, flavored with hallucinogenic wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) that caused a variety of physical and mental symptoms, and even death (Conrad 1988). It was produced by Henri-Louis Pernod (Lanier 1995). France finally outlawed absinthe in 1915, and now it is illegal virtually everywhere (Lichine 1981). Liqueurs are flavored with ingredients as mundane as coffee (Kahlua, made in Mexico) and as exotic as the rare green oranges of the Caribbean (Curaçao, from the island of that name). Other famous coffee liqueurs are Tia Maria from Jamaica and Pasha from Turkey (Grossman 1977).

Distilled Spirits in the East

Spirits are not as popular in the East as in the West, despite remarkable historical exceptions, such as the hard-drinking Mongols, who have even been credited with the discovery of distillation. The lukewarm eastern attitude toward liquor has existed in part because of the popularity of tea, in part because opium, betel nut, and other stimulants have historically substituted for strong drink, and in part because of a widespread devotion to beer. Another reason may be that the livers of Asian peoples tend to be low in aldehyde dehydrogenase isozyme (ALDHI), which helps to metabolize alcohol. This condition can cause the face to flush with the ingestion of even very moderate amounts of alcohol—a telltale signal among many who live by Confucian rules of conduct that frown on intoxication. In nineteenth-century imperial China, when strong drink was served, a gentleman not wishing to offend his host might pay someone else to drink it for him (Chang 1977).

Nonetheless, several grain alcohols are produced in the East. In China, mao tai—a whiskey made from millet and wheat—is the best known, and has been known to the world since it was served to U.S. President Richard Nixon during his 1972 visit there (Simoons 1991). San-shao, meaning “three times burnt,” is another Chinese liquor. It is made from sorghum and distilled three times, but is not to be confused with shao-chiu, which is distilled from grain ale (Simoons 1991). In Japan, the latter is called shochu and competes with local whiskey that is modeled on Scotch (Jackson 1988).

In Mongolia and Siberia, the drink best known from lore and literature is kumyss (or kumiss), an alcoholic beverage (fermented and sometimes distilled) made from mare’s milk. In about the seventh century, the Mongols introduced it in China, where it was popular for a time. Later, however, it acquired a reputation as a drink of barbarians and was so regarded after the Mongols conquered China in the thirteenth century (Chang 1977). A high level of lactose intolerance among the Chinese may also help to explain the disdain for kumyss, as well as for other milk products.The distilled form of the drink is sometimes called arak, a common Asian name for all kinds of liquor (Lichine 1981).

In Southeast Asia, “toddy,” distilled palm wine made from fermented sap, appears in many varieties that may actually be thought of as brandies. Historically, toddies have been made in primitive stills, although a few are commercially produced (Lichine 1981). However, toddy, and other distilled beverages that exist in Oceania, are poorly documented. The latter have resulted from the distillation by Europeans of local alcoholic beverages; one example is the okelahao of Hawaii. This drink, made from ti roots fermented in the bilge of a canoe and distilled in a ship’s cookpot, has yet to find a market outside the islands (Grossman 1977).

Distilled Spirits and Human Health

Chemically, any distilled beverage consists largely of ethyl alcohol. Other components include esters, fusel oils (isobutyl and amyl alcohols) and, of course, the ingredients added to flavor and color the beverage. Unflavored grain spirit is merely alcohol and water. It is the impurities and additives that largely contribute to hangovers (Dabney 1974). As mentioned, early distilled alcohol was used only as a medicine because distillers did not yet know how to separate the unpleasant beginning and end fractions of the distilled liquid from the middle, and because aging, which mellows the product, was unknown. The effect of the early medicinal wine brandies must have been strong indeed.

Nutritionally, distilled beverages are high in calories but contain little in the way of other nutrients. Because each gram of 86 proof alcohol imparts 7 calories, the average drink bristles with 106 calories, in addition to any calories in the mix (Robertson et al. 1986). Some researchers, however, contend that the calories in alcohol have, in the past, served as an important source of energy for the poor (Braudel 1973). One study suggests that in France during the 1780s, 10 percent of an individual’s caloric intake was supplied by alcohol (Austin 1985). The same was probably the case for slaves in the Caribbean: Jamaican rum yields twice the calories of a similar measure of molasses. A counter-argument, of course, is that alcohol was allowed to replace more nutritional foods. John McCusker (1989) has noted that alcohol calories are more quickly absorbed than those from other sources; he credits the ability of early Americans to consume such large amounts of rum and whiskey to this propensity.

Yet, a large amount of any kind of alcohol can be nutritionally disastrous because it destroys vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins. Indeed, about the only remaining cases of frankly nutritional diseases (such as pellagra) found in the developed world are among alcoholics. In addition, although it appears that moderate alcohol consumption can help prevent heart disease, large amounts can help cause it. Alcohol is also suspected of being a factor in the etiology of some cancers and is known to be a culprit in causing much liver damage, including cirrhosis.

Another unfavorable aspect of distilled spirits is the social and physical harm they have historically brought to peoples unaccustomed to them (Mancall 1995). In America, Asia, Africa, and Australia, rum and whiskey became instrumental, in the hands first of European traders and then of European imperialists, in destroying aboriginal life (Miller 1985). It is significant that in Mexico and Peru, where some alcoholic beverages existed at the time of European contact, the aboriginal peoples and their traditions have fared much better than those in places like Australia, where alcohol had been unknown.

Clearly, distilled spirits have had a tremendous impact on human history and health. In a relatively few centuries, their manufacture has moved from the quasi-magical procedure of the alchemists to a global industry that undergirds the economies of entire regions. But from the “gin epidemic” of England to the endemic drunkenness of the Australian aborigines, spirits have also caused such misery that practically every society in the world has laws and customs to regulate their consumption, and many states have tried to outlaw them. That such attempts have been largely unsuccessful demonstrates the existence of a worldwide, collective opinion about the pleasures and profits provided by alcohol, which outweighs the harm it continues to cause.