The very word alcohol derives from the Arabic alkoél (where al– is the article), but it had a different meaning. In Arabic it indicated the extremely fine, impalpable powder of antimony that, mixed with water, had been used since ancient times in the Orient, especially by women, to paint their eyebrows, eyelashes and the edge of the eyelids black. The name and the thing itself entered the West thanks to the translation into Latin of Arabic books. In Spagna, dove la presenza e l’influenza araba è stata forte, sia il nome che la cosa sono state comunemente usate fino al XVI secolo, ed il verbo, alcoholar, ormai in disuso, significa ancora “colorarsi gli occhi di nero”.

“Alcohol was called by Arabic chemists such as Ibn Badis (11th century) خمر     مصعّد (distilled wine).  The current word for distilled wine in Arab Lands is `araq عرق which means sweat. The droplets of ascending wine vapours that condense on the sides of the cucurbit are similar to the drops of sweat.” (Ahmad Y. al-Hassan) And I suppose that from `araq come also raki, arrack etc.

So, where does our use of the word alcohol come from? As far as I know, it comes from the famous physician, alchemist and astrologer Teophrastus Paracelsus (1493-1541). Paracelsus used this word to indicate the spirit of wine, which he called alcohol vini, wine alcohol, since it was the quintessence, the noblest and most essential part of wine. This new name gradually passed on to chemists and physicians, who ended up omitting vini and thus the word alcohol remained.

But what exactly was the role of the Arabs in the origin of Spirits? Let’s see.

First of all, “If we speak of Arabs in this chapter, we include all those that belong to the civilization of Islam, which means Syrians, Persians, Copts, Berbers and others too. As early as one century after the death of Muhammed (632 A.D.) a large world empire has arisen from a local Arabian movement, and its center is transferred to Syria, and later Mesopotamia. The Islam knocks at the doors of Byzantium and menaces Italy and France.” (Forbes)

The Arabs read and translated the works of the Greek and Hellenistic culture, annotated them and preserved them, kept them alive within their culture. Those first centuries are the Golden Age of Arab civilization. From Spain to Central Asia peoples and states shared the same (high) culture, with many thriving academies and centers of studies supported by enlightened monarchs. One of the reasons of this success was the Arabs’ religious tolerance. Even before the arrival of the Arabs the old Academy of Athens founded by Plato had been closed (529 A.D.) and many Greek heathens had moved to the hospitable cities of Iran. Later the Byzantine Empire was deeply divided by theological disputes and many suffered bloody persecutions, so many a group of “heretics” settled in the Arabian Empire. For instance, the Nestorians settled mostly in Persia, now Iran, and in present-day Iraq.  Many Jewish scientific centers were situated in the Arabian Empire too.

In chemical technology too we owe much to the Arabs.  For instance, glass and pottery industries made it possible to make better vessels and containers for distillation technique and thus also made new experiments possible to chemists. Pharmacy and other branches of medicine could flourish. Often the Arabian chemists were also inclined to consider distillation an important process for agricultural industry. In their hands the distillation of rose-water, vinegar, rose-oil and other perfumes and essential oils grew to become a true industry and rose-water was sent all over the world. Clearly, the perfume and cosmetics industry was a flourishing one, reflecting a better quality of life. It is important to remember that the cultural renaissance of the West in the early centuries after the year one thousand AD owes much to the Latin translation of Arabic texts and of Greek texts previously translated into Arabic.

But let’s get to alcoholic distillation. Forbes is clear: “It will facilitate our discussion of these works if we state beforehand that no proof was ever found that the Arabs knew alcohol or any mineral acid in the period before they were discovered in Italy …” Later, writing about the great Arab alchemists till 1200, he states “All these authors describe the same apparatus, which was incapable of distilling low-boiling substances. As none of them ever mentions alcohol it is practically certain that this substance was unknown to the Arab world” till the XIV century when the introduction of the new Western type of distilling apparatus enabled chemists to recover low boiling distillates.

Contemporary Arab authors claim the opposite, though.

According to Ahmad Y. al-Hassan in his online article Alcohol and the Distillation of Wine in Arabic Sources From the Eighth Century Onwards “The distillation of wine and the properties of alcohol were known to Islamic chemists from the eighth century. The prohibition of wine in Islam did not mean that wine was not produced or consumed or that Arab alchemists did not subject it to their distillation processes. Jabir ibn Hayyan described a cooling technique which can be applied to the distillation of alcohol. Some historians of chemistry and technology assumed that Arab chemists did not know the distillation of wine because these historians were not aware of the existence of Arabic texts to this effect. …   the art of distillation of spirits is credited to the Arabs especially the Arabs of al-Andalus.”

Arabic manuscript showing the distillation process in a treatise of chemistry. © The British Library, London.

Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald R. Hill in “ISLAMIC TECHNOLOGY An illustrated history” quote directly a passage by Al-Jabir [known in Latin Europe as Geber] “And fire burns on the mouth of the bottles [due to] … boiled wine and salt, and similar things with nice characteristics which are thought to be of little use, these are of great significance in these sciences “

And later in their book, they write “The Muslims are credited with the development of the distillation apparatus classically known in chemistry as the retort, but also called the ‘pelican’ or ‘cucurbit’ because of its bird-like or gourd-like shape. In this case the still-head ceased to be a separate entity and better cooling resulting in the collection of an increased amount of distillate came about of itself if the side-tube were made long enough.”

About cooling, the authors admit that early “Arabic manuscripts do not show any water-cooling sleeve round the side-tube. Nevertheless, it seems to have been appreciated that cooling the tube would improve condensation of the vapors, and sponges, cloth or rags periodically moistened with cold water were placed round the top of the still. On present evidence it is usually suggested that the use of cooling water was a later development that occurred in the West. At the same time, a word of caution is needed because though the distillation of alcohol requires external cooling of the retort or of the side-tube, our present knowledge of Arabic technical and chemical manuscripts is still in its preliminary stages, and it is too early to come to definite conclusions about water-cooling in Muslim alchemy”

Let us think carefully about this. First of all, su questo argomento devo avvalermi di fonti secondarie, come Forbes e gli altri sopracitati, dato che non conosco l’arabo. Premesso questo, we must never forget how difficult and laborious it was in the past to solve technical and scientific problems that appear quite straightforward to us, like the cooling of the still with water. Arabic chemistry and alchemy developed greatly over the centuries, while Western Europe was shrouded in its dark centuries. It is therefore reasonable to think that some Arab scientists managed to overcome the technical problems of the cooling process and to produce alcohol before it made its appearance in the West. But there is no evidence that it ever became a common technique, let alone a commercial production and consumption of Spirits.

The relation of Islam with alcohol has always been difficult. We know that the Quranic prohibition of consuming alcoholic beverages did not prevent many a group among the male elites of the Golden Age of Arab civilization from drinking wine.  But surely this prohibition did not promote the creation of a social environment suited to the passage of alcohol – if they discovered it – from a scientist’s laboratory to a commercial distillery and then to the tables of a tavern. The very fact that today researchers have to look for evidence and corroboration of Arab alcoholic distillation in ancient, cryptic manuscripts half-forgotten in some ancient library, suggests that commercial production never developed. Otherwise, why didn’t it continue until today and even the memory has been lost?

To sum up, further studies may bring changes, but for now I feel I can safely say that the Arabs developed alchemy, chemistry and distillation and probably distilled alcohol too. But the production of alcohol, if even achieved, remained a limited experience, which never became commercial production and consumption of Spirits.


Some authors maintain that the ancient Egyptians already distilled alcohol, others credit the Sumerians with being the first, others still the Celts; there are even those who attribute the invention of alcoholic distillation to this or that barbarian population of the steppes. Recent archaeological excavations in Cyprus would seem to prove the use of distillation, probably to make perfumes, around 2000 BC. The number of contrasting theories itself makes such an early date doubtful; what’s more, no one is able to produce reliable evidence, and, regrettably, it has to be said that some historians still mix up fermented beverages and distilled beverages.

It is important to remember that distilling alcohol is difficult, it requires firstly a complex mental process and then a suitable technology. Or, in the words of Forbes, “One forgets too often that at the back of a simple distilling apparatus there are a mass of experiences and experiments and that it represents the combination of several principles of natural science with the ability to make the proper apparatus to execute the operation”.

There is yet another consideration. If, in the long, ancient history of the Mediterranean, before the Classic Age, someone succeeded in distilling alcohol on a regular basis and in drinking it as a beverage, how come that this precious knowledge got lost?

Because one thing is certain, the Greeks and the Romans of the Classic Age did not drink Spirits. They drank wine, a lot of it, and sometimes they drank beer too. They knew and used, both as a beverage and as medicine, many other fermented beverages made from palm trees, fruit, honey etc. but not strong, distilled spirit drinks. In the famous Symposia of Classic Greece, they drank wine, usually diluted with water in wonderful Attic kraters to diminish its strength. The Romans drank even undiluted wine, they knew several types and were able to distinguish between strong and less strong wines. We also know that they warmed the wine to make it thicker, and that some wines were treated in various ways so as to use them as a medicinal drug; but Spirits made by alcoholic distillation through evaporation and subsequent cooling of the vapors are never mentioned anywhere.

Distillation as such, though, was not unknown. Aristotle and others wrote reflections on the evaporation and subsequent condensation of water. It was also known that the salt water of the sea changed into the freshwater of rain and rivers; the fact that evaporation by the heat of the sun drives the water cycle, and that the water which evaporates falls back as precipitation was also known. To the great Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides, who lived around 70 A.D., is attributed the famous sentence “Distillation is like imitating the sun that vaporizes the water and returns it as rain.”

Moreover, craftsmen probably used crude forms of distillation to make perfumes, dyes and in metal work, while sublimation was used for the manufacture of mercury. But, it would seem, nothing more. And most importantly, I’ll say it again, Spirit Drinks did not exist. Modern archeology was born some centuries ago digging Greek and Roman sites. Well, in the great mass of archeological finds nothing has ever been found, as far as I know, which proves the existence of distilling apparatus to manufacture the alcohol to produce spirit drinks.  Moreover, the written sources of the time which have come down to us, including treatises on agriculture, never speak about strong, distilled, Spirit Drinks. Obviously, I haven’t been able to verify all the sources, a job that goes beyond my capabilities, but in all the secondary literature I have had the opportunity to read not once are Spirits mentioned.

With only one exception, perhaps. The great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who died in the famous eruption of the Vesuvius of 79 AD (the very eruption that destroyed Pompeii) describes a strange “coelesti aqua” that is, more or less, “heavenly water”. According to him, it was used for preserving grapes and it warmed the stomach pleasantly. It might have been alcohol, but we cannot be sure.

Things began to change later. According to Forbes “We must adopt the general opinion that distillation was first discovered by the Alexandrian Chemists in the first century A.D. until we have further proof.” Alexandria of Egypt had been for centuries the cultural center of the Hellenistic World and around its famous Library philosophers and scientists from all countries studied and experimented in all fields of learning. And, among other things, they invented chemistry. “The Hellenistic era was one of those lucky periods in which craftsmanship and science met and stimulated each other. The young chemistry had the typical rationalistic traits of the older Greek science.” (Forbes) Zosimos, Maria the Jewess, Hipatia, Synesios are only some of the protagonists of a fascinating adventure of human intelligence.

In the texts which have come down to us we find, for the first time, the drawing of a real distilling apparatus: “This is already far advanced in the writings of Maria the Jewess who is generally considered to have invented it. It already consists of the three necessary elements, the cucurbit and alembic, a tube for transporting the distillate and vapours and the receiving flask” (Forbes) Actually, the traditional name for Pot Still, Alembic, came from the Greek word ἄμβιξ, that is ambix, meaning “cup, pot”. Only much later did the Arabs appropriate the word, to which they added the definite article in the Arabic language “al”, that is, “the”. And through the Arabs the word entered the languages of Latin Western Europe.

Back to Alexandria, a source of 200 BC says that “sailors at sea boil sea water and suspend large sponges from the mouth of a bronze vessel to imbibe what is evaporated. In drawing this off the sponges, they find it to be sweet water” (Forbes); this might be the description of how they distilled sea water. But did they actually manufacture alcohol? Forbes maintains they did not. According to him, the problem was cooling: “The use of distillation apparatus with very insufficient cooling, so that only liquids with boiling points higher than that of water could be recovered somewhat efficiently.” Other authors claim the opposite. I am not in a position to express an informed opinion.  Off the top of my head, it seems strange to me that centuries of studies and experimentation did not succeed in distilling alcohol. But the lack of conclusive evidence and of a successive development makes me think that, even if some single experiences did take place, they remained isolated and alcohol remained at best a strange and rare liquid, used only for scientific and alchemic purposes.

To conclude, there is no doubt that the foundations of the history of alcoholic distillation in the West were laid in Alexandria, but it is not from there that the path towards commercial production of Spirits started.

In 639 the Arabs invaded Egypt. With astonishing speed, the Byzantine forces were routed and had withdrawn from Egypt by 642. In 645 an attempt by a Byzantine fleet and army to reconquer Alexandria was quickly defeated. Since then, Alexandria has remained unshakably in their hands and Egypt became one of the centers of Arabic and Islamic culture, up to the present. Arabic and Islamic culture soon deeply absorbed Alexandrine and Greek learning, which at the time had almost completely disappeared in Latin Western Europe. Among the legacy of the Alexandrines, the Arab scientists and alchemists learned also distillation techniques, they improved them and made large use of them.

As we will see in the next article.


“Distillation is an art and even an ancient one. It is strange to find that the history of this oldest and still most important method of producing chemically pure substances has never been written. … a proper history of the art from its origin up to the present time was lacking.”

With these words R. J. Forbes begins his “Short History of the Art of Distillation”, written in Amsterdam in 1944 and published in 1948. A valuable book, available today only thanks to the American Distilling Institute that has republished it.  The subject of Forbes’ book is distillation in general (perfumes, metals, dyes etc.), not only alcoholic distillation, which is what interests us. In any case, Forbes is necessarily our starting point. It is an interesting, learned book, brimming with information, but not easy to read. Besides, it is inevitably dated, since the sources available at the time were scanty. In particular, hardly any of the many Arabic works on the subject were accessible. Yet, this is the only organic text on the history of distillation the general public has at their disposal, which means that if you visit and digit “history of distillation”, only this book will come up wuth this or similar title.

This does not mean that no new texts have been written on the subject since 1944. The world is full of Universities and research bodies and probably there are many other studies and academic papers on alcoholic distillation. But, even it they exist, they have remained largely confined to comparatively limited circles (scientific journals, academic conferences and such like) without reaching the large public of aficionados. Then, naturally, there are plenty of texts written to enhance the marketing of this or that company, this or that product. They are easy to find, but usually rough-and-ready and unreliable. Anyway, as far as I know, no one else, after Forbes, has published an organic history of alcoholic distillation.

Well, so this is our starting point, the awareness that about this theme – the Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West – very little is known and we are, so to speak, sailing in the open sea. We have to search ourselves for little-known sources and documents and reflect on the historical context, in the hope of reaching valuable conclusions. With little help from secondary literature. It is laborious and errors cannot be ruled out, but it is also thrilling, true historical research.

But before continuing, it is a good idea to clarify the purpose and the scope of this Quest.

Since I began my studies into the origins of rum, I have learned that at the beginning, maybe in the XI century, alcohol was produced by distilling wine, which makes sense, as wine was by far the most popular alcoholic drink. Distillation was a complex procedure, difficult and costly, done by pharmacists and alchemists. After great effort, toil and expenditure, they managed to obtain small quantities of a strange, colorless, burning liquid that today we call alcohol, but to which they gave the Medieval Latin name “Aqua”, that is “water”. Later, fascinated by this prodigious liquid, someone called it “Aqua Vitae”, “Water of life”, and the name stuck.

For a long time, alcohol was used only as a medicinal drug, or in scientific and alchemic experiments. According to many scholars the shift of alcohol from a drug to a common beverage for pleasure consumption occurred only in the first half of the XVII century. When, in 2017, I wrote my first book “American Rum” I put the date backward to XVI century Holland.

But historic research is a work in progress and now 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 XIV century, as I wrote in my second book “French Rum” published in 2020.

For the sake of clarity, we are looking for the origins of commercial production of alcohol on a large scale in the West.  That is, we are not looking for attempts which were not followed through, or experiments, even intriguing ones, which remained isolated. Therefore, we are not interested here in the discoveries of some individual apothecary, doctor, alchemist, monk, craftsman etc. which died with them or with their close disciples, without yielding long-lasting fruit. We want to find out when, where and how selling and consuming Spirit Drinks became an ordinary thing.

We want to discover the moment, the place and perhaps even the people that gifted to us the decisive passage of alcohol from an apothecary’s laboratory to the tables of a tavern, paving the way which leads to us.


I wrote “almost certainly” for a reason. We shall return to it at the end.