The Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West: the Business of Distilling

This article concludes my research on the origin of alcoholic distillation in the West.

Before closing, I would like to briefly sum up the outcomes of the research.

As far as we know, the origin of  alcoholic distillation in the West  can be found in Salerno (Italy)  around 1150. There we can trace the earliest instructions for the distilling of alcohol from wine, that they called water of life or also burning water.

In the next century, water of life spread among a relatively wide public, who used it as a drug. Towards 1280, the decisive technical innovations had been achieved, in particular the introduction  of ‘canale serpentinum’ , the coil, and of water cooling. The quantities produced and consummated were already significant.

Later, commercial production of water of life on a large scale happened first in Northern Italy maybe at the beginning of the 1300s.

During the 1300s, the production and consumption of water of life reached Germany, France and other places, and it is in that century that the change from drinking water of life as a remedy, to drinking it for pleasure, took place.       

What is now left to shed light on is the last step on the road of water of life: when its production as a drink enjoyed for pleasure  became a veritable business of distilling.

We will find out with the decisive help of a virtually forgotten book: the Libreto de Aqua Ardente”, which means “Booklet of Burning Water”, written by the famed physician Michele Savonarola (grandfather of the more famous and ill-fated Friar Girolamo) in Ferrara, Italy between 1444 and 1450.     

                                                                                                                                                                                                       As far as I know, it is the first treatise entirely dedicated to water of life, even though he called it burning water. Few decades later, however, partly thanks to the invention of the printing press, works dedicated to water of life and to alcoholic distillation sprang up everywhere, especially in Italy and in Germany, and its production and consumption spread throughout Europe.

Savonarola describes a pot still, sealed with lute and a coil to cool the vapors with plenty of water: “For this reason, those who produce burning water in large quantity seek places with running water”. He even warns against the use of lead because it is harmful to health.

He goes on to deal with different types of wine suitable for making water of life, among which a local wine called  marçemino. In order to produce good water of life, he writes, we need new wines, good and strong, therefore expensive. On the contrary, he laments that, unfortunately, all too often, in order to make more profit, many wine producers distil poor wines, wines gone bad or watered down, and consequently produce low quality burning water, heedless of the damage it will cause to the health of the consumers. Savonarola then goes on to describe the technical complexity necessary to make good water of life and concludes sadly “This should be the complex  operation to produce burning water. And yet, think and reflect on how the water which is sold in the square to poor, miserable people is made instead.”

Savonarola writes that, among the many virtues of water of life, the following too can be found: “It restores wine gone bad and makes it get back to its original taste and color”; in this way, he adds, many deceitful wine sellers have enriched themselves.

Sometimes, some people drink too much of it. Savonarola recommends moderation, but it is not clear what the right quantityis, possibly one “onza” a day, whereas the poor – he writes – often get drunk, and are sick. Moreover, many mix it with wine and drink it regularly. In any case, excessive consumption does great damage not only to the body, but to the mind too, to the point that it may drive men to madness.

It is my intention to get back to this crucial book in the future. Even from these few quotes, though, it seems clear that Savonarola’s Libreto clearly describes a large scale production and widespread consumption not for reasons of health, but for pleasure, as early as the first half of the 1400s. There were already different levels of quality and also unfair commercial practices and adulteration. A production which was not any more in the hands of physicians and apothecaries, but of real entrepreneurs  – a veritable BUSINESS OF DISTILLING.

Let us leave Italy now. While in Germany and elsewhere the distillation of grain increased, in France, perhaps as early as the 1400s, but for sure a little later, the distillation of wine and the commercial production of brandy became widespread.

According to Professor Smith in his seminal “Caribbean Rum”,in France, in 1514 Louis XII permitted the vinegar manufacturers’ guild do distill spirits and, in 1537, Francis I encouraged the same among French wholesale grocers. By the mid-sixteenth century, French distillers organized themselves into a separate guild, and distilled wine (brandy) soon became a beverage of more general use.” While “The commercial expansion of distilling began in England a century later when Charles I granted the Worshipful Company of Distillers a distilling monopoly for a 21-mile radius around London and Westminster.”

Moreover, in 1533, liquori made by Florentine pastry cooks were served at the wedding of  Caterina de’ Medici to the future king  Henry II, after which the habit of drinking “liqueurs” grew rapidly in Paris and then in the whole of France.

Discovering that a real business of distilling already existed in Europe, in particular in France, before America was discovered made me reconsider my favorite subject, the origins of rum.

A new, intriguing question came to my mind. Let us think carefully, given that:

1. The abundance of wine, the fact that it deteriorated easily and the existence of poor quality wine put at the disposal of French distillers a plentiful, low-cost raw material far earlier than the colonization of America and the mass production of sugar and its by-productstook place.. Therefore, the development of commercial distilling didn’t need to wait for sugar, as many scholars claim. Quite the opposite, I would say that it was precisely the technical progress made and the consumer habits developed in Europe (plus the need of escapismof the settlers) that led to the invention, production and mass consumption of the new spirit, rum.

2. We know that the first clear evidence of rum production in the West can be found in Brazil at the beginning of  the 1600s. However, it is common knowledge in the rum world that the cradle of rum was the English colony of Barbados towards 1650. There, it is claimed, rum grew upand started its successful march to conquer the world.

3. During the first half of the 1600s, the French colonized the Antilles at the same time as the English.

4. The French had been fermenting wine for millennia, and distilling it for a couple of centuries, before the distillation of grain became common in England. Moreover, like all Mediterranean countries, they knew sugarcane well and, although it is an almost forgotten story, they tried to colonize Brazil since the beginning of  the 1500s.

Having said that, the question that came to my mind is very simple:

Did the French settlers in the Antilles really have to wait for the English settlers in Barbados before they tried their hand at fermenting and distilling the by-products of sugarcane?

I have tried to give an answer to this question through a new search. See you again in the next issue.

Marco Pierini

PS: At the very beginning of this research, in the first article published in February, I wrote: I think that in the West, commercial production of alcohol on a large scale was, almost certainly, an Italian invention and  it happened as early as the 1300s. I wrote “almost certainly” for a reason. At the time I based my conviction mainly on the seminal book by R.JForbes  “Short History of the Art of Distillation”. Forbes often quotes as fundamental sources texts  that I am not able to read directly either because they are written in languages I cannot read, like German, or because often they are extremely difficult to find. So, I had to trust Forbes and  few other authors, without being able to verify the texts directly. Then, throughout my studies I discovered the works of the Franciscan alchemists, of Alderotti, Savonarola and many others, written mostly in Italian, Latin and French, and relatively easy to get hold of. Works, therefore, which I have read and verified with my own eyes. Therefore, now I can remove that  “almost certainly”.

PS: I published this article a few months ago on the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

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