On the Quest again: Vinum Adustum

“Historia Naturalis Brasiliae” devotes a whole chapter, written by Willem Piso, to sugar. Hardly surprising, since the Dutch had gone to Brazil mainly to take hold of its precious sugar. But, like many of his contemporaries, Piso is also struck by the complexity and sheer spectacle of sugar making. At the time in Europe there were hardly any big factories. Manufacturing took place in many small workshops where often a singlemasterworked leisurely, assisted by few apprentices. In sugar factories, on the other hand, during the harvest, “night and day tongues of fire rise up, terrible in their blaze”, around which scores of black, half-naked, sweating  men bustle in a frenzied way. The sugarcane is unloaded from the carts, cleaned, cut and squeezed. And the juice gathered is boiled in the cauldrons. All in quick, rigorous  succession and hurriedly, breathlessly … a hellish scene, a veritable Tropical Babylon, as a contemporary wrote.

Piso had to understand what he saw, then he had to explain it to his European readers. And explain it in Latin. But the ancient Romans, whose language he wrote in, did not use sugarcane, sugar factories, sugar, stills, distillation or spirits. It was therefore necessary tointroduce new words into Latin, such as caldo for the juice of the cane. Or bend old words, born in an entirely different context, to make them express a new meaning; so, vinum, wine, becomes a general term for every fermented beverage.

After describing how sugarcane was squeezed  and the caldo collected, Piso writes: “Thence, mixing some water with it, they make also a wine, popularly called Garapo: local people ask for it greedily and on it, if it is aged, they get drunk.” So far, nothing new: we already knew that a fermented beverage obtained from sugarcane, here called Garapo, had been widely drunk in Brazil, for more than a century, by  slaves,  natives and poor white people. What additional information Piso gives us is that, sometimes, it was deliberately aged. But why? Did its quality improve through ageing? I don’t understand, I would entreat all of you to enlighten me.

He then goes on:

“So, from this first liquid [that is, the caldo], sugary wine, vinum adustum, acetum,  cooked  honey and sugar itself can be prepared.”

Let us give a good look at this list. Sugary wine isGarapo. Acetum is raw juice mixed with water, after a few days it went sour and was used in medicine. Cooked sugar is molasses. And sugar is sugar.

So, what is vinum adustum? The literal translation is “burnt wine”. Evidently, another beverage, besides Garapo, was obtained from sugarcane. A beverage which was made by burning the Garapo itself. And maybe this is what Piso refers to when he writes “and on it, if it is aged, they get drunk.”

But in the Piso’s Netherlands a burnt wine was already widespread. It was made by burning, that is, distilling the wine made from grape juice and it was extremely strong. It was called gebrande wijn, which means, more or less, burnt wine. Better known as Brandy.

Piso must bend his Latin to describe something which in Latin did not exist and which is similar to Brandy. He is telling us that the fermented cane juice was then burnt, that is, distilled in a still, as they did for Brandy, resulting in a strong new beverage.

He does not have a specific name for it yet and, basing himself on the production process, calls it vinum adustum, burnt wine. But now we can call it by its real name: Rum.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on August 2015 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit www.gotrum.com

On the Quest again: Historia Naturalis Brasiliae

In 1638, Georg Marcgraf and Willem Piso arrived in Pernambuco to join the brilliant entourage  of the new Governor, Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen. In spite of their youth, both were alredy renowned  naturalists. The older of the two, Marcgraf, was born in 1610 in Liebstadt, present day Germany. In his university years, he had studied mathematics, medicine, botany and first of all astronomy. The Count built for him a real observatory and for his astronomical observations,  he was later called the First Astronomer of the Americas. The younger Willem Piso was born in Leiden, Holland, in 1611. He had studied medicine in France, then had returned to Holland and entered  the circle of the great geographer and humanist Johannes de Laet. Today he is considered one of the founders of tropical medicine.

During their stay in Brazil, they participated in many long  excursions to collect samples from near and far. Sometimes they were escorted by Dutch military officers , sometimes they joined the Brazilian and Tapuyas military raids against enemy Indian groups. They discovered animals and plants,  drew maps, made extensive observations of nature and also of the men inhabiting it. They also made  use of   the scientific institutions that the Count had built in Recife: a zoo, a botanical garden and a museum. The huge amount of information they gathered enabled them to write the first systematic  study on American nature.

But Marcgraf  wrote his notes in a personal, secret language that others could understand only with great difficulty. Probably, he meant to translate his notes when he got back to Holland, but died in 1643, in Angola while he was drawing a map of the Dutch settlements there. Piso, on the other hand, returned safely to Holland and continued to practice and study medicine.  Marcgraf’s notes were translated , ordered, united to  Piso’s ones,  and published in Latin by Johannes de Laet in Amsterdam in 1648 under the title of  “Historia Naturalis Brasiliae”,   “Natural History of Brazil”.

Latin was the common language of cultivated people of the age, the Republic of Letters, and the book had a big and lasting  success, possibly because, from the very beginning, the authors emphasized their own direct experience in Brazil and their great efforts on the field, unlike  the many armchair natural historians who never visited the New World and wrote their books at home in Europe, on the accounts of some travelers.

Very interesting, you’ll say. And, as ever, a bit of culture won’t do any harm, but what does  this have to do with us rum aficionados of the XXI° century? It does, and a lot.  Because in this book I found the smoking gun that I was looking for: the first historical evidence that in Dutch Brazil, before Ligon’s Barbados, they commonly distilled a strong spirit from sugar cane, our rum.

In my article “Wills, provisions and stills” published in the July 2014 issue,  I wrote that, as far as I knew, the first undisputable source about the presence of stills in Brazil is  in a Sao Paulo Will of the 1611. Well, the latin worlds destillatus ( destilled) and alembicum (still) clearly appear in the book, in a chapter dedicated to medicine and, specifically, to the treatment of worms. From the context,  it is quite clear that the use of stills was something normal,  and we already know that  Brazil was the largest sugar producer of the age.

This is very encouraging for our Quest, but it is not nearly enough. The use of stills for medical purposes is not the clinching evidence yet. It does not prove without the shadow of a doubt that stills were used also for distilling on a large scale the fermented juice of sugarcane, to be consumed for pleasure.

For this reason, I entreat you to be patient until the next, and last, instalment.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on July 2015 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit www.gotrum.com


On the Quest again: neglected Brazil

Got Rum? readers may remember that I began my collaboration with the magazine with a series of articles entitled “The Origin of Rum – A Quest”. Starting from Richard Ligon’s book and reasoning on  the history of the Atlantic World, I concluded “My hypothesis is that the commercial distillation on a large scale of that by-product of sugarcane which today we call rum was started by Dutch settlers in Brazil during the first decades of XVII century. The origin of rum, therefore, is to be found in Brazil. Rum was born in Brazil, but it grew up in Barbados, and thence it has conquered the world.” (January 2014)

Then I wrote about my research in Barbados  where “I found many clues that support my hypothesis, but not the final proof, not the real smoking gun. In order to unearth it, it would be necessary to work on inventories, share purchase agreements, accounting records etc of the sugar plantations in Brazil under Dutch occupation.” (April 2014)

In May 2014, thanks to the late Brazilian scholar Joao Acevedo Fernandez, I did find the first real evidence: “ … sources do not mention stills or any distilled beverages throughout the sixteenth century. The first concrete reference to the existence of stills comes from a 1611 Sao Paulo Inventory and Will … . In 1636 …. the production of aguardente was already commonplace, because many stills existed …” (June 2014)

Next, I devoted myself to the history of rum from its origins to the end of XVIII century, and I am going  to continue until we get to the present.

But I have certainly not given up my Quest.

I looked into the birthplace of rum, Dutch Brazil, and I discovered its great historical importance. I learned that many scholars consider it a defining moment for the making of the Brazilian nation and that for a long time the Dutch regretted  its loss as a great, lost opportunity. A full century later, a Dutch poet still remembers it thus:

Neglected Brazil, O fertile grounds,

whose nature is diamonds and gold;

I hear them proclaim your surrender

Scholars have written  a lot  about these events..Its economy, policy, wars, arts and sciences have been studied in depth. But nobody has concerned themselves with rum.

And yet, digging deeper and deeper, finally I did find something. Something VERY interesting.

I’ll tell you about it in the next articles.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on June 2015 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit www.gotrum.com

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 www.gotrum.com

The Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West: from Apothecary to Tavern

As we have seen in the previous chapters, as far as we know, large-scale commercial distillation of alcohol, that is, the practice of distilling wine to produce water of life in sufficient quantities for regular sale and consumption began in Modena, Italy at the beginning of the 13th century. The distillation of wine became common throughout Europe after this.

In the Nordic countries, where grapevines would not grow and wine had to be imported and was therefore expensive, someone began to distil alcohol from grains. In Gaelic this was known as uisgebeatha, meaning the water of life, later to become whisky.

Let’s read our Forbes again: “It seems that the apothecaries were the first to produce alcohol on a large scale. …  That they were the principal tradesmen in alcohol is clear from early police regulations such as those of the Town of Nurnberg of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, in which ‘ gebrannter wein, bernewin, brandwin, etc.’,  that is, brandy, is specified as their special product. There is no doubt that brandy was not an expensive drink used by the higher classes only before 1500 as some authors have claimed. It was consumed by all classes and its spread can be read from the regulations cropping up from time to time, for instance in Frankfurt, where we find regulations of 1361, 1391, 1433, 1456, 1487, etc. which intend to cope with the spread of drunkenness and unruly behavior of intoxicated burghers.’  … Gradually the preparation of alcohol passes from the hands of the apothecary to those of specialists like the vintner or the ‘water burner’ (Wasserbrenner), the distiller…”

Forbes also writes: “Towards the end of the fourteenth century or the beginning of the fifteenth the manufacture of spirit from corn was discovered, which meant a cheaper product in those countries where wine had to be imported such as the Low Countries, England and Northern Germany. At the same time the use of sweetened alcoholic beverages spread again from Italy, where we find recipes as early as VILLANOVA [1240-1311]. These ‘liqueurs’ and the secret of their manufacture were brought to Paris by Italian distillers in 1332. In general liqueurs consist of alcohol, sugar or syrup and some flavouring matter. … The most beloved liqueur which the Italian brought to France was  ‘rosoglio’, a liqueur with the smell of roses. From France the habit of drinking liqueurs spread, and though the amount consumed grew it remained rather a luxury.  … In the wake of the liqueurs, brandy and aquavit came to France. The art of the distillers of Modena travelled along the same road as their product to Germany, where wine spirit came into vogue in the mining industry. At the end of the fourteenth century strong spirits were drunk all over Europe …”

Moreover, we know that at the court of the Popes in Avignon, writers addressed the question of preserving the health with the water of life in the early decades of the 14th century, and that in 1330 Pope John 22nd had an alembic made to produce it. We know of the existence of a true professional corporation of distillers (ayga ardenterius) in Provence as early as 1411.

As we know, there were two basic types, right from the start: water of life simple (aqua vitae simplex) made of distilled wine alone, practically nearly pure alcohol; and water of life composite (aqua vitae composite), in which plants, roots and medicinal herbs of all kinds were added to the distillate. As well as their curative properties, these also often added flavour.

People had been drinking fermented beverages, above all wine and beer, for thousands of years for their flavour and nutritional value, but above all for the effect that the alcohol contained in them has on our minds, alcoholic intoxication. Conviviality, relaxation, joy, forgetting their daily troubles… people sought this and more in alcohol, which is why it has found such an important place in the culture and everyday lives of so many peoples.

In the early 14th century, though it was now widely available and consumed in fairly large quantities, aqua vitae was still taken primarily as a medicine, not for the effect of the alcohol it contained. But both doctors and patients soon realised that aqua vitae (or rather, the various different types of aqua vitae that were becoming available) was much stronger than wine and beer and could produce the same effects more rapidly and effectively.

We don’t know, and perhaps will never know, exactly when, where and how aqua vitae stopped being a medicine and became a drink enjoyed for pleasure, but the overall picture is clear.

Where did it happen? On the basis of what we have seen so far, we may say that consumption of aqua vitae for pleasure probably became widespread in Italy first, then in Germany and France, before spreading to the rest of Europe.

When? It’s impossible to date this event precisely, as it was a process rather than a sudden change, but we may say that aqua vitae came out of the pharmacist’s laboratory and onto the innkeeper’s table at some point in the 14th century, following the success of Taddeo Alderotti’s works and after aqua vitae from Modena became common.

Lastly, how did the custom of drinking the water of life for pleasure, along with or in place of the traditional beer and wine, originate? The merit lies with the doctors and their prescriptions: Alderotti and other physicians of his age prescribed aqua vitae not only for rubbing onto painful or diseased body parts, but above all for drinking. Physicians not only prescribed it to treat a number of illnesses, but, fascinated by its virtues, recommended drinking it regularly, every day, even when healthy, not to cure but to prevent illness, stay healthy and – dulcis in fundo – ward off old age. Drinking aqua vitae became a habit for many well-intentioned patients, and we may well imagine they quite enjoyed it. In Tuscany, an anonymous fourteenth-century author wrote a treatise entitled Ars operativa medica in which we may read of aqua vitae: “And its goodness acts not only on the body, but on the soul: it causes us to forget our sadness and anxiety, makes us merry and refreshes the intellect when we dedicate ourselves to the study of difficult and subtle matters, gives courage, helps to lessen the effects of pain and fatigue, and has many more properties of this type.” And here we are coming very close to consumption for pure pleasure.

Lastly, fear made a significant contribution to the spread of the practice of drinking aqua vitae, or rather, liquor and spirits. The Black Plague made its appearance in 1348: one of the greatest pestilences in European history, the disease killed about a third of the continent’s population, and other lesser but still terrible epidemics continued to strike all over Europe in the centuries that followed. Physicians were practically powerless, and recommended the terrified population drink aqua vitae (which many of them called aqua ardente) every day not only to treat but to prevent the Plague.

Franciscan friar Giovanni di Rupescissa wrote in his “De consideratione quinta essentia” around the year 1350: “A little good aqua ardente must be taken every morning, as much as may be contained in an eggshell; and as much may be contained in a walnut or hazelnut shell, four to six times a day, if desired. In this way, corrupt air cannot harm.”

And many people continued to drink it after the Black Death was gone.

One of the most unusual of the many types of liquor produced, at least in terms of today’s tastes, was Aurum potabile (which, more or less, we may translate as drinkable gold), a great success among the wealthiest. It was made from an infusion of gold bars or foil (or even just gold filings) in wine and then distilling it. Distillation had to be repeated to extract all the (supposed) medicinal virtues of gold and transfer them to the resulting liquor, which was universally viewed as a very powerful drug. People were convinced that drinking it regularly had numerous beneficial effects, including preservation of the body against the corruption of time. And of course its high price made it available exclusively to the upper classes.

Marco Pierini

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 www.gotrum.com

The Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West: the Water of Life from Modena, a first for Italy

According to the ancient Romans, the genius loci was the protective spirit of a specific place; in contemporary usage, it usually refers to a location’s distinctive atmosphere, culture, skills, etc.

Founded by the Romans in 183 B.C., the ancient town of Modena is located in Northern Italy, in the Po River Valley. Modern Modena is a rich and pleasant town with a genius loci for hard work and technological excellence: suffice to say that Enzo Ferrari was born there and opened his Ferrari factory in nearby Maranello and that it is also the location of the Maserati factory. Moreover, among several delicacies produced there, Modena is also the birthplace of balsamic vinegar. Modena’s genius loci evidently has ancient roots, because, as far as I know, Modena is where we find the first traces of large-scale commercial production of aqua vitae, that is water of life.

According to a local historian, R. Bergonzini, “If the truth be known, tradition holds that water of life was distilled as early as the 11th century in the ‘apothecary’ of a Benedictine monastery in the city, though no documents have yet been found to demonstrate the truth of this rumor.” And the city’s Benedictine monastery of course had a close relationship with the famous ancient Benedictine abbey of Montecassino, which played an important role in the birth of the Medical School of Salerno, the cradle of  alcoholic distillation in the West.

Modena is not far from Bologna and has always been under its influence, especially that of its university. We know that Taddeo Alderotti made at least two important trips to Modena, in 1285 and 1288, under rather odd circumstances.  It was not unusual for a prominent physician such as Taddeo to travel to treat wealthy patients, and it was perfectly normal for him to be well-paid to do so. But these trips were different: before the trip, Taddeo signed contracts with a number of persons who were to escort him to Modena, complicated contracts involving the handover of considerable sums of money. Now Bologna and Modena are less than 50 km apart, on level ground. Of course he was traveling in the 1280s, but even then, 50 km was not far; it probably took less than a day for a healthy young man on horseback, perhaps two whole days for an elderly gentleman such as Taddeo. We know that travel was not safe in those days, but to sign two complicated contracts involving the transfer of large sums of money to be escorted for less than 50 km still seems a bit excessive.

N. G. Siraisi, in his scholarly masterpiece “Taddeo Alderotti and his Pupilspublished in 1981, suspects that the two contracts actually conceal two hidden forms of usury: “By mid-1280s, when his career reached its peak, Taddeo was a man of substantial property; most of the surviving documentary records of his activity concern his involvement in various business transactions. Evidently he multiplied the wealth brought by his profession through careful investment. He acquired real estate and a mortgage, and also, it would appear, engaged in money lending. Two curious contracts regarding excursions Taddeo made from Bologna to treat patients in Modena indicate this.”

Or were they perhaps investments? We will probably never know, but Taddeo definitely liked business. Siraisi notes: “Presumably Dante had good reason to select Taddeo as a type of worldly ambition, as contrasted to Saint Dominic, who acquired learning from purer motives. … Moreover, in his will he was careful to provide that some of his charitable bequest be invested so that the beneficiaries might enjoy the fruit and return.”

Just after these trips, we have certain information about the production of water of life in Modena. According to economic historian M. Cattini, “From the Lombard cities came iron in rods and metal tools for working the fields, wool cloth and cheese. In exchange, Modena provided cattle and swine, barrels of wine and water of life, raw and worked hides, lumber for construction and charcoal.”

There is, of course, no proof, but I like to think of a start-up in the 1280s arising out of the encounter of Taddeo’s scientific research and technical innovations with the traditional know-how of unknown Modenese craftspeople who were perhaps already distilling small amounts of water of life by slow, costly, traditional methods. A new enterprise that, for the first time in known history, manages to produce significant quantities of water of life (let’s remember that it was almost pure alcohol) of good quality, at a relatively low price. In short, making it into a commercial product to be sold on the market.

And now let’s read some quotes from our Forbes.

“ …the Middle Ages bring the discovery of the mineral acids and alcohol. … Gradually we see that the center of the chemical industry is shifted from the monastery and the home of the private artisan to a real industrial center or to a chemist’s shop. The rising capitalism of the later Middle Ages lead to a concentration of those trades which formerly formed part of the housework or belonged to the monk’s work. The earliest centers of the industries that concern us here were situated in Italy (Salerno, Venice and the Po Valley).”  

 “… distilling became more or less an industry, first in Italy, where we find a burgher of Modena producing larger quantities of alcohol for sale as early as 1320.”

 “ …at the same time distilling became more or less an industry, first in Italy, where we find a burgher of Modena producing larger quantities of alcohol for sale as early as 1320.”

 “Apart from the old centers of Modena and Venice, which exported large quantities of distillates not only to Germany but even to Turkey, other local centers of distillation of wine or fermenting of corn, barley etc. were formed.”  “Brandy was imported into England by the Genoese from the fourteenth century.”

And now let us leave Forbes behind and look at a precious little book published in 1999 by the  Grappa Documentation Centre, entitled “Grappa and Alchemy. A pathway into the thousand-year old  history of distillation” (Centro Documentazione Grappa “Grappa e alchimia. Un percorso nella millenaria storia della distillazione”)

“Testimony of this ‘first’ for Modena comes from afar. From Germany, in particular, where a series of surprising documents attribute to Modena the merit for production of water of life as early as the beginning of the 14th century. It is certain that at the start of this century they were already exporting discrete quantities of distillate beyond the city boundaries, and over the Alps to Germany via Venice.” (Bergonzini)

In a manuscript of 1320 the Burgermeister of the German city of Frickenhausen invited citizens to use the distilled wine imported from Modena as an effective defense against the plague and other common contagious diseases.

In the same years, Ludwig the Bavarian came down to Italy to be crowned Emperor by the Pope in Rome. Modena, like other Italian cities, initially welcomed him with all due honors. Then things changed, but this is not our concern here. Ludwig brought with him a German physician, Hieronymus Burkhard, who stopped in Modena to study the distillation method for water of life, already renowned in Germany. Burkhard spent a considerable amount of time in the city, and later, in 1351, received permission to open the first two Pharmacies in Berlin and the nearby Collin on Spree, with an imperial license authorizing him to distil water of life the way it was done in Modena.

Then came the taxes, the nightmare of all distillers over the centuries, which are however useful to us as proof of the existence of widespread production and sale of water of life in Modena. The 1487 Statutes of the town, reformed on the basis of those of 1327, establish a tax of three “soldi” to be paid to export a certain amount of water of life to any foreign country, clearly demonstrating the existence of a consolidated business of production and sale of the distillate in the city.

Lastly, F. Brunello writes in “History of water of life” (“Storia dell’ Acquavite” 1969), “How and when alcohol became a popular beverage in the form of aqua vitae or liquor, we do not know with precision; it is however certain that water of life was already traded in Italy in the 14th century XIV, and significant quantities were being traded over the Alps.”

To conclude, as far as we know, large-scale, commercial alcoholic distillation – that is, the practice of distilling wine to produce water of life in sufficient quantities for sale, consumption, export and taxation – began in Modena, Italy, around the year 1300. And, if I may be allowed to add a personal note, I cannot help being proud of this Italian First.

But while water of life had become a well-known and widely used product, at least in Italy, it was still sold and consumed above all for medicinal purposes. When and how did water of life come to be drunk for pleasure, and not as a medication? When and how did it leave the pharmacy and enter the tavern?

We shall see in the next article.

Marco Pierini

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 www.gotrum.com

The Origin of Alcoholic Distillation in the West: Taddeo Alderotti, from charity to business

Taddeo Alderotti is, in my opinion, a key figure, perhaps the key figure, in the origin of alcoholic distillation in the West.

Also known as Alderotto, Thaddeus florentinus, Tadio, and by other versions of his name, he was born in Florence around the year 1210 and died in Bologna, probably in 1296.  Living more than eighty years was exceptional at that time, and it is possible that Taddeo may have encouraged the idea that he was older than he really was in order to boost his reputation as a physician.

Around the year 1260 he began teaching at the University in Bologna, where he was one of the first to consider medicine a true, highly respected academic discipline and introduce Aristotelian logic to medical theory, obtaining for professors and students of medicine all the privileges that had hitherto been reserved for students of law. We know that he was very close to the Franciscan friars in Bologna, but it is hard to say whether this preference corresponded to a personal sentiment or should be viewed in the context of a special partnership between the Franciscan order and the study of medicine. In any case, his students continued this process of innovation and brought the new medicine to Europe’s greatest universities.

He was very famous in his day and is mentioned in a number of works. Popes and lords asked to be treated by him, while the cities of Perugia and Venice attempted to lure him away from Bologna to take up residence there. Physicians and academics continued to read his works for centuries: Michele Savonarola referred to him as “gran Tadio, gran medego” (“great Taddeo, a great physician”) around 1450.

Taddeo was a man of science, but also notoriously very much interested in money, and as his fame grew, his bills became very high, scandalizing many of his contemporaries. His alleged love for profit, earned him the dubious honor of being mentioned by Dante Alighieri, who may have met him in person, as a negative example of someone who pursues knowledge for the sake of wealth and worldly honors, not out of true love of the truth. The Harvard Classics, Paradise  XII 76-79:

Not for the world’s sake, for which now they toil
Upon Ostiense and Taddeo’slore;
But for the real manna, soon he grew
Mighty in learning;

In any case, he became very rich indeed, and in addition to practicing as a physician, he invested in property and even granted loans. He was also very interested in aqua vitae (water of life), that is alcohol, which, as we have seen, physicians and alchemists had been producing for some time, though it was not yet known to the general public.

Over the course of his long life Taddeo wrote a number of works, the best-known of which is his book of medical prescriptions and advice, Consilia. which was a great success for many years and gave rise to a true genre of medical writing. According to N. G. Siraisi in “Taddeo Alderotti and his Pupils”, “A consilium, as the name suggests, purports to be professional advice written down in response to an individual request for counsel. A good many consilia have reached us in a form that suggests they have undergone considerable editing. The publication of the names of noble patients gives rise to the perhaps unduly cynical supposition that another purpose in forming a collection of written consilia was do advertise the expertise and the distinguished clientele of the physician who treated the case.”

His last seven consilia were all dedicated to aqua vitae, which he also refers to as aqua ardens (burning water), hence the origin of the modern Spanish and Portuguese words aguardiente and aguardente.

These seven consilia are quite different from the others. Let us return to Siraisi:“The consilia of Taddeo and his colleagues seldom or never give any indications of the outcome of a treatment, and provide only occasional glimpses of the level of expectations of physician or patient.  In one famous instance, however, Taddeo abandoned his usual reserve in order to endorse a medicinal substance in the warmest possible terms. As is well known, he devoted no fewer than seven consilia to the manufacture and manifold virtue of alcohol distilled from wine. Drawing upon the process and techniques of alchemy, he described distilling equipment and gave directions for its use; he also noted with approval the capacity of distilled alcohol to absorb the flavors of fruit, herbs and spices stepped in it, and he gave his readers several recipes for cordials. … The capacity to distill spirits was a relatively recent accomplishment in western Europe in Taddeo’s day; so Taddeo’s enthusiasm for aqua vitae is no doubt partially explained by his novelty. His consilia on the subject are striking but scarcely historically unique examples of the praise of a new panacea that closer acquaintance would reveal as not without drawbacks. Yet it is also clear from his encomium that he found alcohol to be much more noticeable in its effects than most other medicinal substances known to him; the limited results produced by and expected of most medieval herbal remedies is nowhere more clearly revealed than by Taddeo’s sense of the contrasting and much more greater effectiveness of ardent spirits.”  In short, aqua vitae truly worked.

The seven Consilia Taddeo dedicates to distillation and aqua vitae ought to be seen as a true compendium of the state of knowledge on the subject. Let us take a brief look at what he considers to be the virtues and benefits of aqua vitae:

“These are the virtues of aqua vitae: first of all, it treats and eliminates, from inside or outside, all forms of bodily suffering proceeding from cold humors. From the inside, by drinking a certain quantity of it, or when applied on the outside. The quantity of the beverage to be taken is the amount that may be contained in a hazelnut shell, with a glass of good white wine. The same quantity may be applied externally. If you add spices or herbs, mince them in this quantity, and in two hours it will take on their flavor and virtues. And then it is highly effective against cold drops from the eyes, applying a little to the outside of the eyes, or putting a drop in the corner of the eye.”

A long list of illnesses that may be treated with aqua vitae follows: it cures fevers of all kinds, corrects “fetid breath”, slows balding, treats the falling sickness, the eyes, paralysis of the limbs, kidney and bladder stones, deafness, toothache, dysentery, sciatica and many more ailments. “And then it makes wine that has gone off better, if a little is added”.

And as if this were not enough, aqua vitae preserves the vigor of youth and deters aging, including white hair. Revealing that the desires of men and women have not changed much since 1280!

Lastly, aqua vitae not only treats ailments of the body, but of the spirit too: “Against melancholy and sadness, half a spoonful every morning, on an empty stomach, taken with a glass of fragrant wine, will cheer and make merry and playful”.

He also clearly describes how the alembic must be made. His long, detailed description begins like this: “To make aqua vitae, also known by the name aqua ardens, have two copper vessels made, one shaped like a gourd with an alembic in which rosewater is distilled, with the exception that this container must be all of one piece, with no channel inside it. It must however have a spout; there should be a large hole, the size of a finger, in its top, through which to introduce the substances to be distilled; the other recipient should be like a gourd without an alembic, exactly the same, containing a closed serpentine channel winding all the way from top to bottom…  and all must be well-greased and sealed, so that it cannot breathe, with clay made from quicklime and egg white”.

To obtain the best aqua vitae – practically nearly pure alcohol – Taddeo recommends using the best wine available and distilling it repeatedly, up to 10 distillations! But in actual fact, he writes, for reasons of economy and practicality, 3 or 4 distillations are normally considered sufficient. A long, detailed, concrete description of how to distil and how much liquid should be obtained each time follows, with a series of technical instructions that can only be the result of years of practice. For example, he specifies that the alembic must not be filled all the way, but only up to a maximum level of half, and this detail, like others, suggest that he has direct experience of the art of distillation, not just book knowledge. Taddeo was evidently an experienced distiller of aqua vitae.

According to Forbes, “Essential in his apparatus was the spout of the alembic (‘which should be of the length of an arm’) and the ‘canale serpentinum’ which he advises to be used with a cooling trough and a regular supply of fresh cooling water. Thaddeus was therefore the pioneer of the method of cooling the distillate after it had left the still-head and he thus paved the way for the modern method of cooling the vapors outside instead of inside the still-head and collecting the distillate in the alembic itself. In fact this method was the only efficient way of producing low boiling distillates like alcohol.”

Taddeo Alderotti and his fame played a decisive role in making the general public of cultivated readers of the day aware of aqua vitae. We might say he was a propagandist of this new product and very much aware of how much it could yield in strictly economic terms.

Taddeo and other physicians of the day recommended spreading aqua vitae on ill or painful parts of the body, and above all drinking it. They suggested consuming it both pure and mixed with spices and medicines, which often improved its flavour. They clearly prescribed drinking it regularly to treat numerous illnesses. But they also suggest drinking it when healthy, to prevent illness, keep the body healthy and slow down the process of aging. Many people therefore began to drink it regularly, and consumption grew significantly.

Put in modern terms, a new form of consumption appeared on the market, which could no longer be satisfied by the small quantities produced with so much time and trouble by the physicians and alchemists. Something new was required: a true commercial undertaking producing the required quantity at a reasonable price. Someone realized this and took action to respond to this new demand among consumers. This did not happen in Bologna, but nearby, as we shall see the in next article.

Marco Pierini

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 www.gotrum.com


The Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West: the Water of Life and the Franciscan Friars

In the 1200s a new concrete and experimental culture was developing throughout Latin Europe, focusing on practical things and centering around human beings and their needs. Central and northern Italy was one of the centers of this culture, which embraced alchemy.

The word alchemy is looked down on today, associated with odd and unreliable occult practices, but in those days it was viewed very differently. Alchemy was a serious matter in the 1200s; a practical branch of knowledge that was actively pursued, very different from the abstract, theoretical discussions of many European scholars of the day. Before it was classified among the ‘occult sciences’, alchemy was openly and amply debated by philosophers and theologians. Interest in the subject should not be identified as a propensity for irrational, secret, morally questionable practices, but as an expression of intellectual openness to a form of knowledge of nature that was not purely theoretical, but took into account human action in the world and aimed to perfect it.

The alchemists transformed the substances they worked with into something new and different, something that did not exist in nature. New substances, the fruit of the actions of the human mind and hands on the material world. This innovative character struck the first western readers and translators of alchemic texts: here was a field of knowledge that went beyond the information obtainable from sensory perception, allowing human beings to intervene actively in the hidden processes of the material world, understand the invisible dynamics that regulate creation and thus interact with them.

This attitude was maintained until the early 1300s, when philosophical-theological judgement and social condemnation became harsher, leading to condemnation of alchemists, but only to the extent that they were counterfeiters. It was not until later that alchemy was condemned as an occult science, at the end of the century, in a treatise entitled Contra alchimistas by one Nicola Eymerich, Inquisitor of the Crown of Aragon.

But let us return to the 1200s, when the subject of alchemy was addressed by many of the greatest minds of the day, including a number of Franciscan friars. Inspired by charity toward the suffering of humanity, they wanted to discover medicines to treat the illnesses that afflict the human race. And one of the most interesting substances produced by the alchemists was the so-called aqua (water), that is, alcohol.

Simplifying things a little, the alchemists subjected various substances of plant or animal origin to the action of fire within a closed apparatus to separate the volatile and solid parts. The solid material settled at the bottom, while the vapors separated from them rose up and were conveyed through a pipe, in contact with which they condensed, finally taking the form of a liquid offering the essential properties of the initial substance in a ‘subtle’ and ‘spiritual’ form, far removed from the heaviness of the matter. This procedure evolved rapidly, culminating in the distillation of wine with the production of alcohol. With great effort and expense, they finally managed to obtain small quantities of a strange, colorless liquid that burned like fire. The name initially given, in Latin, to the substance thus produced was aqua (water), because it was colorless as water. The Franciscan alchemists were fascinated by the new product, believing it to be a powerful medicine that could treat and prevent numerous illnesses and preserve health and youth: practically a panacea. In the Middle Ages, Latin was the common language of the cultivated people, and the new, wonderful medication was soon referred to as aqua vitae (water of life) or even aqua ardens (burning water).

There was a great proliferation of authors and works discussing the distillation of wine and the production of aqua vitae for medicinal purposes, to treat illnesses of all kinds and improve human life. The Franciscan friar Bonaventura Da Iseo, who died in 1280, stands out among these with his “Liber Compostille”. A great friend of Albertus Magnus, close to Roger Bacon and in contact with the young Thomas Aquinas, and therefore in touch with the greatest minds of the time, the friar describes the numerous medicinal waters that were by that time commonly used in medicine, including the production of alcohol, with distillation of both essences for making rosewater and wine for the production of aqua vitae. He believed that this knowledge should be put at the disposal of all men:

“Of these waters I shall speak, of the many truths I have learned about them over time, learning, experimenting and preparing numerous medicines… Human nature requires physical waters as well as medicinal waters; and so we, to whom God has granted the privilege of knowing many secrets… have decided to offer in this book an exemplary treatise on medicinal waters, for the use of the good and written with great care and sense, so that he who composes it and works on the basis of it will be considered a good physician: and not only a good physician, but an experimenter capable of producing miraculous medicines and effects and a good prophet.”

Aqua Vitae is the Latin name by which it was known, resulting in the Italian acquavite, the French eau-de-vie, the German aquavit, the Scandinavian akvavit and more, including the Gaelic uisgebeatha, which then became whisky.

There were two basic types, right from the start: aqua vitae simplex, made of distilled wine alone, practically nearly pure alcohol; and aqua vitae composite, in which plants, roots and medicinal herbs of all kinds were added to the distillate. Aquavite simplex is the ancestor of today’s distillates: grappa, brandy, whisky, etc., while acquavite composita is the ancestor of our liqueurs, bitters, aperitifs, etc. There were numerous recipes for acquavite composita, because the medieval pharmacopeia was largely based on plants, herbs and roots from the natural world, but it was made in three basic ways. In one of these, the herbs and so on were added to the wine and then the mixture was distilled. In another, the wine was first distilled alone and then infused with the herbs; in the third method, aquavite simplex was combined with herbs in the alembic and distilled again.

At this time, and in these places, the serpentine column began to be used to collect the vapors, an innovation with a decisive effect on the quantity and quality of the distillate.

According to Forbes, “The change in cooling methods during the Middle Ages was most important and it must have been the prime factor in the preparation of low boiling compounds like alcohol. It is true that it is conceivable to distill alcohol in the ancient cucurbits and alembic without cooling the delivery tube and even when cooling the head, but only if the temperature could be regulated carefully. But usually the too fierce heating and the long digestion period before distillation drove off the low boiling fractions. As we have mentioned this digestion period was considered most important by the alchemist, because in this period the alcohol or similar compound was considered to be formed by the heat applied to the content of the cucurbit.”

Moreover, “The word alembic changed its meaning during the Middle Ages, it gradually came to denote not only the still-head but the combination of head and cucurbit. The latter meaning won on the long run, perhaps aided by the fact that the technical evolution of the still led in this direction. Though the Arabic chemists preferably used glass apparatus the alchemists often combined earthen ware cucurbits with strongly luted glass alembics. As the glass industry evolved, it became more and more common to use both glass cucurbits and alembics and gradually they were blown or cast in one piece. The glass industry, an important factor in this art, received great impetus from the growing general use of glass for windows and chemical vessels. At the same time the existence of a flourishing industry at Venice and Murano must have influenced chemistry too.” (Forbes)

Doctors, and particularly surgeons, did not hesitate to appropriate this new pharmacological device, and had noted the antiseptic properties of alcohol: “It is highly effective on wounds, if washed with it.” In the mid-thirteenth century the production and consumption of aqua vitae that is, alcohol and other medicinal waters, like rosewater, was an established practice in northern and central Italy, though still in a medical context alone, and practiced by many as an act of charity.

Not without raising some problems. Let us read what Salimbene of Parma writes in his Cronica about a noblewoman named Mabilia who lived in Ferrara, in northern Italy, around the year 1250: “She was a beautiful, wise, clement woman… not miserly with her property, she gave generously to the poor. In her palace she had an oven in a secret chamber – I have seen it with my own eyes – in which she herself prepared rosewater for the sick. For this reason the physicians, booksellers and pharmacists who sold medicinal herbs did not look upon her favorably. But she did not mind, concerned solely about helping the sick and doing the right thing in the eyes of God.”

Marco Pierini

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 www.gotrum.com

The Origins Of Alcoholic Distillation In The West: The Medical School Of Salerno

In the South of Italy, on the Tyrrenian sea, lay the ancient city of Salerno. In the Early Middle Ages, the city was an important political and commercial center and a crossroads of influences  between all Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.

According to a legend, a Greek pilgrim named Pontus had stopped in the city of Salerno and found shelter for the night under the arches of the ancient aqueduct. There was a thunderstorm and another Italian wanderer, named Salernus, happened in the same place. He was hurt and the Greek, at first suspicious, approached to look closely at the dressings that the Italian applied to his wound. Meanwhile, two other travelers, the Jew Helinus and the Arab Abdela, had come. They also showed interest in the wound and at the end they discovered that all four were doctors. Together they founded the Schola Medica Salernitana, Medical School of Salerno, the oldest medical school in the West where their knowledge could be collected and disseminated.

We do not have reliableinformation about the beginnings of the School. The nearby great Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino must have given its contribution: Arabic medical treatises, both those that were translations of Greek texts and those that were originally written in Arabic, had accumulated in its library, where they were translated into Latin. This book knowledge was supplemented and enriched by Jewish and Arabic medical practice, known from contacts with nearby Arab Sicily and North Africa. As a result, the medical practitioners of Salerno were unrivalled in the medieval Western Mediterranean for medical treatments. What we know for sure is that in the X century the School was already famous and from all parts of Europe sick people flocked to Salerno to be cured, and doctors to learn.

The “School” was based on a synthesis of  Greek, Latin, Arab and Jewish culture and medical tradition. The approach was based on the practice and culture of prevention rather than cure, thus opening the way for the empirical method in medicine. Moreover, an important contribution to the School of Salerno was made by women as female practitioners, and among them, Trotula de Ruggiero was the most renowned. For the first time a woman  ascends to the honors of the chair, and gives instructions to women in labor. She is credited with having written several books on gynaecology and cosmetics.

In the middle of XII century, the School was at its apogee and provided a notable contribution to the formulation of a medical curriculum for medieval universities all over Europe. In Salerno there appeared also the new art of surgery which was elevated to the dignity of a true science by Ruggiero di Fugaldo. He wrote the first treatise on rational surgery that spread throughout Europe.

In 1231, the authority of the School was sanctioned by Emperor Federico II who established that the activity of a doctor could only be carried out by doctors holding a diploma issued by the Medical School of Salerno.

The most famous work of the School was the Regimen Sanitatis a Latin poem of rational, dietetic, and hygienic precepts, many of them still valid today. For instance: “Si tibi deficiant medici, medici tibi fiant haec tria: mens laeta, requies, moderata diaeta”, which means “If you lack doctors, let these three things be your doctors: a cheerful disposition, quiet, a frugal diet.”


And in Salerno in the XII century perhaps starts the journey of alcohol in the West, that journey which goes all the way to the present and to us. In fact,  as far as we know, the earliest instructions for the distilling of alcohol from wine appear in a short introduction to the study of medicine written around 1150 by a not well-known “Master of Salerno” or maybe a “Salernus” in a manuscript of the  so-called “Mappae Clavicula”.  The Mappae Clavicula (more or less “The Little Key of the Map”, but the title and its meaning are uncertain) is a medieval Latin text which contains recipes describing crafts techniques about metals, glass, mosaics, and dyes and tints for materials. The core was probably originally compiled around AD 600, perhaps in Alexandria in Egypt. The number of recipes was expanded over the course of the centuries, and some medieval copies have deletions as well as additions, so it is better thought of as a family of texts with a largely common core, not a single text. It was one of the few scientific treatises available in the Early Middle Ages in Latin Europe. Only the twelfth century and later versions contain the recipe for the preparation of alcohol in the form of a cryptogram. There exist slightly different versions of the cryptogram in different manuscripts, here is one of them:

De commistione puri et fortissimi XKNK cum III  QBSUF  TBMKT cocta in ejus necocii vasis fit aqua, quae accensam flammam incombustam servat”

That, more or less, means:

“A mixture of pure and very strong XKNK with III QBSUF  TBMKT cooked in the usual vessel make a water, which will flame up when set on fire but leave the material unburnt”

The three nonsense words are simple word puzzles with a mistake. They are formed by substituting for the proper letter – in Latin – the one which follows it in the alphabet:  XKNK = VINI (wines); QBSUF = PARTE (part); and TBMKT = SALIS (salt). The ‘n’ in the word  XKNK is probably a mistake of the amanuenses, it should have been an ‘o’.

It is interesting to notice how, in this first description of wine distillation, the name given to the new substance thus produced, which we call alcohol, is aqua, that is, water. We’ll get back to this.

Therefore, we can subscribe to the statements of our Forbes  “ … alcohol was discovered about 1100 and the evidence points to Italy, where the school of Salerno was then the most important chemical center. The reason of the late discovery of alcohol was of course partly due to inefficient cooling and the unnecessary long pre-heating period but certainly also to the fact that even the strongest distillate which the early stills could separate in one distillation still contained so much water that it would not burn. The secret of the success after 1100 was not only the rectification of the distillate or the recovery of this distillate in several fractions, but mainly the addition of such substances as salt, tartar (potassium carbonate), etc. which absorbed part of the water and made the rest ready to distill. Now this enabled them to make alcoholic distillates which burn quite readily because they contain less than 35% of water, and to obtain even absolute alcohol after several rectifications.”

As we have seen in the previous articles, alcohol might already have been discovered, by distilling wine, by Arabic and Alexandrine alchemists, but they had been isolated experiences, confined to the alchemists’ laboratories, often kept secret. In Salerno, on the other hand, the new substance was used in medicine and, although slowly and in narrow circles, it started to be known and used increasingly often. Later on, in the course of the XIII century, with the general booming of economy and culture, the Arabic books becoming more common, and with deep changes in the political situation of Southern Italy, the scientific influence of the Medical School of Salerno decreased. The cultural leadership of Latin Europe passed to the new Universities, among them those of the rich, thriving cities of Northern Italy, the “Comuni”. And there, first of all in Bologna, alcohol, would make the leap towards fame and success.

As we’ll endeavor to tell you in the next articles.

Marco Pierini

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 www.gotrum.com



The Origins Of Alcoholic Distillation In The West: The Arabs

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 sulphide or even of galena (lead sulphide) 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 Spain both were commonly used until the XVI century, and even now the Spanish language has the verb alcoholar which basically means “to color one’s eyes black”.

“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)

So, where does our use of the word alcohol come from? 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 origins of  alcoholic distillation? 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 muchto 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 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.”

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, 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 evidencethat it ever became a common technique, let alone a commercial production on a large scale.

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 environmentsuited to the passage of  alcohol 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 corroborationof 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 studiesmay bring changes, but for now I feel I can safely say that the Arabs developedalchemy, chemistry and distillation and probably distilled alcohol too. But theproduction of alcohol, if even achieved, remained a limited experience, whichnever became large scale commercial production.

Marco Pierini

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 www.gotrum.com