Why is Alcohol Called Spirits?
Bridget Reed @ 2022-02-15 06:36:16 -0800
Liquor is often referred to as a “spirit” but have you ever wondered why? The origin of the word “spirit” is only one piece of the interesting history of alcohol, but it asks that we enter a different time: one where magic, belief, and religion were setting the groundwork for chemistry, science, and medicine.
The term “spirit” dates back to 14th-century alchemists, although the usage of alcohol was around for centuries by this point. The process of making liquor was more complicated than other fermented beverages, and at this time it was used for medicinal or religious purposes.
Before anyone figured out how to distill liquor, beer and wine were typically made as beverages with very low alcoholic content compared to what we make today. And it was used as an everyday beverage, serving to purify drinking water by preventing bacterial growth.
The Origin of the Word “Spirit”
The origins of the word “spirit” are Latin. “Spiritus” means breath, and refers to both respiration and the wind. It’s also related to the Latin word “spirare” which means “to breathe.” Eventually, the word would come to refer to a person’s character or disposition. Then, in the Middle Ages, the word started being used to describe both the supernatural and the divine.
No one knows for sure who first started attributing the word to liquor, but most historians agree that the connection was drawn by alchemists recognizing the magical nature of the distillation process.
Liquor is distilled by heating a base alcohol liquid, (say, fermented wine). This extracts the alcohol from the liquid in the form of vapor, and it can then be cooled down and returned to liquid form. So distillation is actually the process of capturing the essence–or spirit–of the liquid, which at the time was the most valuable part: the alcohol.
But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest record of the word “spirit” actually meant “a liquid” which doesn’t exactly narrow it down to liquor. It isn’t until the 16th century that we find records of the word being meant to describe “an intoxicating alcoholic drink.”
But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t used before the 16th century. As we’ll see, alcohol is older than civilization. We see hints of the many different alcohol usages: in the residue of clay pots, in old recipes and writings of famous philosophers, and ancient equipment.
A Brief History of Alcohol
Truth be told, we don’t know when we first started making alcohol. We were likely making it long before we documented anything. But it is generally agreed upon by historians that fermentation and alcohol are so pervasive in the history of man that they most likely originated in several different places around the world, completely independent of each other.
This is easy to believe when you consider that fermentation happens naturally when the skin of a fruit is split open. The sugar in the fruit attracts natural yeast in the environment around it, which eats the sugar and converts it into alcohol. The earliest evidence of alcohol doesn’t begin with liquor. It all starts with wine.
The earliest known evidence of alcohol dates back to 7000 BC in China. Clay pots with the residue of fermented rice, millet, and honey were found here, strongly suggesting that the people were making wine. Grapevines grew wild at the time and 1,000 years later, the first cultivated vines appeared in Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey.
Greeks and Romans loved their grape wine. They lived in the right climate for grapes to grow successfully. Mesopotamians, who didn’t have a great climate for grape-growing, discovered a way to ferment alcohol that worked better for them. They put grains into hot water which fermented into alcohol, and this is what we know today as beer.
Around this time, the alcoholic content for wine was under 13%, not very different from what we know today. But beer was much lower at about 1%. It wasn’t until much later that new technology allowed for more control over the fermentation process and therefore higher levels of alcohol. But this lightly alcoholic beer still served a very important purpose: it was added to drinking water to kill harmful bacteria. This made it a life-sustaining preservative.
Beer and wine became an important trade and Egyptians and Middle Easterners began exporting them to India.
Distillation changed the game for alcohol forever.
Early evidence of distillation is found in India, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Liquor was distilled for medicinal and religious purposes, to make balms and perfumes.
Philosopher-chemists in Alexandria were working to perfect the distillation process as early as the 2nd century BC and by the 1st century AD, they had developed several methods for doing it.
But Greeks had practiced distillation for centuries before Egyptians began developing the method. Ancient Greek sailors brilliantly evaporated, from seawater, water that was safe to drink. They called distillation “boiling” and learned that if they added salt to wine, they could raise the boiling point of wine and get alcohol in the form of vapor.
The earliest distillation recipe comes from Anaxilaus of Thessaly. He was a controversial person who was eventually run out of Rome for practicing magic. At this point, spirits were used for festivals and religious ceremonies.
The benefit of distilled liquor was that it was able to achieve a much higher alcoholic content than fermented wine or beer. And unlike beer and wine, it didn’t spoil easily in transit. It soon became a major trade.
In 1650 the Caribbean brought rum to North America, and it became wildly popular on the east coast of America. Europeans brought brandy and gin to Africa and spirits became an important currency in the world. Spirits were taken on board ships to keep the water from spoiling, allowing sailors to safely drink water the entire trip.
Eventually, philosophers started noticing that spirits had a dark side to them and started warning people to be careful with their usage. Plato famously recommended moderation and believed that no one under the age of 18 should drink wine and Aristotle was known for publicly criticizing drunkenness.
With the Middle Ages came technological advancements that allowed for the distillation process to be developed and perfected. The invention of stills allowed distillers to yield an even higher alcoholic percentage. Ethanol was discovered to be the chemical to blame (or thank, depending on who you are) for making people drunk.
Spirits Are a Tale as Old as Time
Liquor has never gone out of style, and in the 20th century became an even more important trade. In fact, spirits are currently enjoying a golden age in the United States with the popularity of micro-distilleries. Piggybacking off of micro-breweries, micro-distilleries are boutique distilleries offering a local take on spirits. They appeal to lovers of spirits and lovers of shopping locally. They also support small businesses and allow consumers to buy products that are made with better quality ingredients.
It’s safe to say that our love of spirits isn’t going anywhere. Looking back on the many ways we’ve used liquor to promote wellness, to mark festivals and religious ceremonies, and eventually, just to relax and have a little fun, the fact remains that intoxicating beverages bring us together.
They make us feel “spirited.” Used responsibly, they can be a source of inspiration, which is likely a benefit that has been enjoyed since the beginning of time. After all, religion, philosophy, and alchemy set the stage for chemistry and science as we know it today. And all across the world spirits are still used to celebrate and enjoy social time.
If you want to try something new in the world of alcohol, our natural wines are organic certified and vegan, as well as zero sugar.