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Alcohol History to America

Cabinet des Médailles [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As far as we know, beer was first made in 8000 BCE, wine in 6000 BCE, and spirits for consumption in 1192. However, they are believed to have been consumed many years before. Medicinal alcohol distillation was first discovered in 900 CE, and the first known word for a consumable distilled spirit was “aqua vitae” (AH-qua VEE-tee or sometimes pronounced VEE-ti), which translates from Latin to “water of life.” Arnaud de Ville-Neuve coined the word in 1310 after he distilled wine with an alembic still. The French translation is eau-de-vie (o-duh-VEE).

According to esteemed alcohol and cocktail historians Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown, thirty-three-year-old French explorer and missionary William de Rubruquis, aka William of Rubruck (1220–1293), was the first to mention a spirit called arrack (uh-RACK). In 1292, Marco Polo (1254-1324) commented about arrack in his travel memoir Il Millione, and it is recorded that Genoese merchants brought arrack to Russia a century before. Arrack is distilled from molasses and water using dried cakes of red rice and botanicals containing yeast and other fungi spores that trigger the fermentation process. It was produced on the island of Java, Batavia, and the technique can be traced back thousands of years to China—and even predates the birth of distillation. The island underwent many name changes throughout history, but today is named Jakarta (or Djakarta) and is located in Indonesia. Slowly, through the years, the distilled spirits vodka, gin, whisk(e)y, rum, tequila, and liqueurs each made a commercial appearance.

The Top Things to Know about Alcohol

The first alcohol known to humankind is beer, then wine, and then spirits.


There are several types of alcohol, but ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is the only potable one.


Distilled spirits were first used as medicine. The first distilling efforts were for oils and perfumes.


Vodka, gin, and rum can be produced anywhere in the world. However, tequila must be produced in Mexico, Scotch whisky in Scotland, Irish whiskey in Ireland, Canadian whisky in Canada, Bourbon in America (and so on with the whiskeys), pisco in Peru and Chile, and cachaça in Brazil.


One twelve-ounce beer has as much alcohol as a five-ounce glass of wine and one-and-a-half ounces of a spirit.


Grain makes whisky and beer; fruit makes wine and brandy; grapes grown in the Cognac region of France make Cognac; grapes grown in the Champagne region of France make Champagne; honey makes mead; sugarcane makes rum; agave makes tequila; Brazilian sugarcane makes cachaça; the discarded leftovers from Chilean and Peruvian winemaking makes pisco; and anything can make vodka.


When you take a drink of alcohol, it passes through the walls of your stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. Your blood then takes the alcohol to your brain, and then the liver filters out the alcohol from your blood.


The discovery of distillation provided convenience, portability, and preservation. No longer did one need to worry about spoilage (like with beer and wine), and traveling with a bottle of brandy—or port, sherry, and Madeira—was much easier than lugging a barrel of it.


Most spirits range around 80 proof (40 percent). The highest legal limit for spirit proof is 190 (95 percent), but who would want to drink that is up for debate.


The most popular alcoholic cocktails in the world today include Martini, Margarita, Mojito, Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Daiquiri, Bloody Mary, Mint Julep, Piña Colada, Cosmopolitan, Whiskey Sour, Sazerac, Tom Collins, Caipirinha, and Negroni.

Alcohol Timeline to America

Public Domain painting of Marco Polo and his travels.[CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikimedia Commons]


Ancient Beer Recipe tablet by BabelStone [CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons]

Ancient oil and perfume still. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


Ancient Wine Making tablet By Editor at Large [CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikimedia Commons]


Public Domain painting of Marco Polo and his travels.


Ancient oil and perfume still. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


At age thirty-nine, Persian alchemist and chemist Al Jabir (Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan) invented the al-ambiq still as part of his laboratory equipment.



Muslim Arab philosopher, physician, and polymath Al-Kindi (801–873) distills a digestible elixir from an alembic still.



Persian polymath, philosopher, and physician Al-Razi (854–925) discovered many compounds and chemicals in his medicinal experimentations, including alcohol.



The Moors (the name given to a large population of Arabs, Berber North Africans, and Muslim Europeans) introduced alembic distillation methods in France and Spain.



Englishman and Arabic translator Robert of Chester translates the written works of distillation from Al-Jabir, Al-Kindi, and Al-Razi from Arab to Latin.


Genoese merchants brought an India spirit called arrack to Russia.



German friar and Catholic bishop Albertus Magnus (also known as Saint Albert the Great) documents his experiments in making aqua vitae.



King Louis IX of France sent William de Rubruquis to convert the Tartars to Christianity. He becomes the first European traveler to mention koumis (distilled female horse milk) and arrack during his journey.



German poet Jacob van Maerlant published twenty books in his lifetime, and Der Naturen Bloeme mentions juniper-based tonics and medicines.



English philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon translated Al-Razi’s distillation process into Latin.



While traveling home from Beijing to Italy, Venetian merchant Marco Polo discovers a spirit indigenous to Samara in Indonesia called “arrack,” made with sugar palm juice. He records the spirit in the second volume of The Travels of Marco Polo (II Milione in Italian).



Philosopher and writer Ramon Llull explains the secrets of distillation to Britain’s King Edward II.



Physician Arnaud de Ville-Neuve distills wine with an alembic still and coins the term “aqua vitae.”



In 2008, The Red Book of Ossory (published in 1320) became the first book to be digitalized at the RCB Library in Dublin, Ireland—aqua vitae is documented in the book.



A grain-based aqua vitae produced throughout Poland is mentioned in Poland’s Sandomierz Court Registry. 



Armagnac goes into full-scale production in France.



Armagnac is registered as a commercial product in Saint-Sever, France.



Genoese merchants pass through Russia and give Vasily Vasiliyevich, the Grand Prince of Moscow (Vasily II the Blind), a bottle of their arrack. It’s believed that monasteries are ordered to produce a grain-based version called bread wine within a few years.



Austrian-born and Viennese-trained physician Michael Puff von Schrick wrote A Very Useful Book on Distillations, which describes eighty-two herbal liquors. In 1466, it is printed and published. Even though Schrick died in 1473, the book went through thirty-eight editions from 1476–1601.



Arnaud de Ville-Neuve’s Liber de Vinis (“Book of Wines”) is translated into English, printed, and published. The book contains recipes for making therapeutic wine using herbs, spices, metal compounds, syrups, and flavored spirits.



A German physician in Nuremberg writes about kirshwasser, a cherry eau-de-vie made from Black Forest morello cherries: “Because everyone at present has got into the habit of drinking aqua vitae, it is necessary to remember the quantity that one can permit oneself to drink and learn to drink it according to one’s capacities, if one wishes to behave like a gentleman.”



The first recorded mention of Scotch whisky is from a June 1 entry in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland (accounting records). The entry says, “To Friar John Cor, by order of the King James IV, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt.” Four years later, the Lord High Treasurer’s account recorded payment: “To the barbour that brought aqua vitae to the King in Dundee.”



German surgeon and alchemist Hieronymous Brunschwig publishes Liber de arte distillandi: Das buch der rechten kunst zu distillieren (“The Book of the Art of Distillation”) in Strasbourg. This groundbreaking book inspires numerous Holland distilling houses to begin producing brandewijn (burnt wine) from malted grain.



Others had tried, including Christopher Columbus, but Pedro de Atienza was the first to import sugarcane seedlings to Hispaniola successfully. He harvests his first crop four years later.



Scotland’s King James IV granted the Guild of Surgeons and Barbers a monopoly to produce aqua vitae.



Bénédictine monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli creates a herbal eau-de-vie at the Abbey of Fecamp. DOM Bénédictine is still sold today and used in popular cocktails such as the Singapore Sling, Vieux Carré, and Bobby Burns.



One year before he died, King Louis XII of France licensed vinegar producers to distill eau-de-vie.



In Santiago de Tequila, Mexico, Spanish settlers constructed alquitaras (stills) and distill pulque—a local fermented beverage made from the agave plant. They call the result mexcalli (mezcal).



Martim Afonso de Sousa and four partners set up three confectioneries. They make a sugarcane wine into aguardiente de caña (sugarcane eau-de-vie)—later known as cachaça.


Fourteen-year-old Italian Caterina de’ Medici marries fourteen-year-old Henry, the second son of King Francis I of France. She brings bottles of Tuscany Liquore Mediceo, Fraticello, and Elixir Stomatico di Lunga Vita, made by monks in the mountains surrounding Florence.



Polish pharmacist Stefan Falimirz publishes the lavishly illustrated book of medical treatments O Ziolach / O Mocy Ich (“On Herbs and Their Potency”), which is one of the first to document the word “vodka” and details the preparation of over seventy vodka-based medicines.



King Francis I of France granted wholesale grocers a license to produce eau-de-vie.



Spanish settlers in Peru began to harvest and export wine, and the non-suitable harvests were given to farmers who make what we know today as pisco.



In the book Constelijck Distilleer Boek, Philippus Hermanni refers to a juniper-infused eau-de-vie.



Lucas Bulsius moves to Amsterdam and sets up his distillery. He changes his family name to Bols and begins making jenever. Twenty-five years later, Bols became a preferred supplier to the Seventeen Gentlemen, the inner circle of the powerful Dutch East India Company. He gets first rights on cargo of herbs and spices, giving him an advantage.



Spanish settlers began distilling aguardiente de caña (rum) from molasses.



The Pilgrims brought brandy and gin with them to America on the Mayflower. In 1657, they began to import molasses from the Caribbean to open the first American distillery in Boston. In addition, by 1664, they built a second rum distillery in New York City. 



Fun Alcohol Facts

Slang terms for distilled alcohol include “aqua vitae,” “ardent spirits,” “belt,” “booze,” “firewater,” “giggle juice,” “grog,” “hard stuff,” “hooch” (refers to it being homemade), “John Barleycorn,” “liquid courage,” “moonshine” (made by the light of the moon), “nightcap,” “sauce,” “snort,” “swill,” “swish,” “tipple,” “toddy,” and tot.


In the United Kingdom, it is legal for children to drink at home with their parents from age six and up. They can be in a pub if accompanied by a parent and, at age sixteen, drink beer or wine in a pub with their parents.


Dr. David Kimball, the lead historian at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, found a 1787 farewell party bar tab at the City Tavern for George Washington in 1985. The bar tab showed that fifty-five attendees drank sixty bottles of claret, fifty-four bottles of Madeira, eight bottles of whiskey, twenty-two bottles of porter, eight bottles of hard cider, twelve bottles of beer, and seven bowls of alcoholic punch.


According to Wikipedia, the country that drinks the most alcohol globally is the Republic of Belarus, bordered by Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, and Lithuania. The country that drinks the most spirits is Haiti.


The youngest drinking age in the world is sixteen, and the oldest is twenty-five. There are twenty-three countries whose drinking age is sixteen years old (a couple include Cuba and Switzerland), and there are seven states in India where the drinking age is twenty-five. Alcohol is illegal in thirteen countries.


The alcohol-drinking habits of vervet monkeys were studied on St. Kitts island (the monkeys stole drinks from sunbathing tourists). They learned that the monkeys’ drinking behaviors were similar to humans’: teetotalers, social drinkers (the majority, who only drink with other monkeys), regular drinkers, and binge drinkers that will drink themselves into a coma or death.


Whiteclay, Nebraska, has a population of fourteen. They also have four liquor stores, and their yearly beer sales are $3 million (the county next to them is dry).


All Playboy bunnies working at Playboy Clubs were required to know 143 brands of liquor.


Make DIY ice packs with plain vodka, gin, rum, tequila, or whiskey. Pour 1 cup of water and 1 cup of spirit into a freezer plastic bag, squeeze out the air, and seal. Seal that bag into another bag, then place it in the freezer. Since the spirit will not freeze solid, it will create a flexible, slushy consistency.


Finding the proof of a spirit dates back to the 1500s. They discovered that if you soak a pellet of gunpowder in the spirit, the gunpowder could still burn; the spirits were rated above proof. In the 1800s, the gunpowder test was replaced by a specific gravity test.


A woman hard at work distilling.  Wellcome Images Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

King Louis IX of France / Public Domain [CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikimedia Commons]


Distilling arrack in a Tatar yurt.University of Toronto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


King Louis IX of France / Public Domain [CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikimedia Commons]


The Grand Prince of Moscow Vasily Vasiliyevich/Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


MOs810  / Stefan Falimirz - "O ziołach imocy ich" - first polish Herbarium, 1534 /from Wikimedia Commons]

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