Distillation of spirits has a rich and illustrious history. It traces back to the ancient Greeks, who attributed divine power to the flammable and intoxicating liquids produced through early experiments in distilling wine. These early spirits were integrated into religious ceremonies dedicated to the worship of Bacchus.
Some scholars have traced the earliest recorded recipe for wine distillation to Anaxilaos of Thessaly, who was expelled from Rome in 28 BC for practicing magic.
In this process, sea foam (salt) is heated with new wine in an earthenware jar. Once it reaches boiling point, a bright lamp is used to ignite the flammable vapor, which then spontaneously ignites.
“Boiling” is the Greek term for distillation, and salt was a common ingredient in medieval distillation recipes because it raised the boiling point of wine by several degrees.
The philosopher-chemist of Alexandria, Egypt began distilling around the 2nd century BC. By the 1st century AD, they were using three or four different stills. One of these stills, invented by their leader Maria, featured three bronze outlet pipes. However, their goal was not to distill spirits but to obtain substances such as sulfur, mercury, and arsenic in order to alter the external composition of base metals and dye them golden. This practice was part of a ritual aimed at “healing and releasing all suffering of the soul.”
The concept behind distillation itself is based on the fact that different substances vaporize at different temperatures. The Greeks had discovered this long before the complex stills of the Egyptian philosopher-chemists. For example, ancient Greek sailors would evaporate potable water from seawater. They also learned that when wine is boiled in an open container, the hot alcohol vaporizes first. The challenge was to capture this elusive substance. The Greeks discovered that if wine is slowly heated in a container with a small opening covered by a bowl, the alcohol will condense in the bowl as steam, just as the lid collects water droplets through condensation. Adding downward-sloping pipes to the apparatus helped cool and condense the steam, collecting it in a convenient receiving container.
During this time, distillation was not pursued for the purpose of drinking enjoyment, but rather as part of the mysterious religious practices of the era. Since the 5th century BC, Dionysus, the god of wine, had been worshipped through elaborate ceremonies in Delphi and other northern Greek cities.
In the 6th century, the Persians practiced distillation at the medical school in Jundi Shapur, where it was used to create herbal tinctures. The Arabs employed large complex stills to produce rose water and other herbal compounds. In the 9th and 10th centuries, they conducted innovative alchemical experiments, creating solvents for base metals and attempting to discover “elixirs.” They were clearly successful in distilling spirits, as the poet Abu Nouise described a wine that “has the color of rain, but burns like a torch inside the ribs.”
In the 12th century, Cathar missionaries from the Balkans introduced Anaxilaus’s distilled spirits recipe and the practice of fire baptism to Western Europe. Eventually, the church overcame its opposition to distilled spirits and, in the early 14th century, allowed monasteries to install stills for producing “water of life” or “aqua vitae.” The infirmary and herb garden surrounding these monasteries provided medicines and formulas for special healing mixtures, which are the ancestors of modern liqueurs such as Benedictine and Chartreuse.
As early as 1378, Italy had discovered a distiller that provided water of life directly to the public. The royal family began employing distillers among their staff. In the 15th century, German authorities began to take notice of the drawbacks of widespread consumption of spirits. People with no medical experience began setting up stills in their homes and selling their products in front of their houses during holidays.
In 1494, the Scottish Finance Roll mentioned the provision of eight barrels of malt to monks for making water of life. The use of grains to distill spirits became popular in Northern Europe. There is a distinction between simple water of life and potions made through redistillation of botanicals, as is often done in England and monasteries. The Gaelic translation of “water of life” – “uisquebaugh” – became popular among Gaelic speakers and was considered a warming therapy in humid and cold climates.
In 1477, the first printed book on the production of distilled water for treating various diseases appeared in Germany. It recommended consuming a spoonful of water of life every morning to prevent illness. It was said that if given to a dying person, they would speak before passing away. The illustrations in the book depicted a woman operating a distiller over a charcoal fire, surrounded by herbs. This confirmed the role of knowledgeable women who provided folk remedies to those who couldn’t afford medical treatment. Around this time, distilled spirits also began appearing in recipes as a means of enhancing the presentation of food. For example, ignited spirits could be shot from the mouth of a roasted peacock and then sewn back into its skin and feathers.
Commercial distillation in industrial stills became common in the 17th century, leading to battles over licensing and taxation. As the abuse of spirits (often of questionable quality) became widespread, the consumption of distilled spirits gradually lost its connection to spiritual symbols and medical treatment, instead becoming a public health issue. Nevertheless, the reverence for the beautiful art of distillation stands as a testament to its ancient origins and mysterious power.
Today, small craft distilleries are thriving in the United States, offering an alternative to large commercial breweries that dominated the market in the 19th and 20th centuries. The use of local raw materials and the revival of traditional techniques set microdistilleries apart. However, the quality of the spirits still depends on the distiller’s skill and ability to produce pure and enjoyable drinks. We are proud to be part of the craft distillation movement and carry on the long tradition of creating the “water of life.”