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

American Rum: a New Spirit for a New World

What is rum? Rum is a strong alcoholic beverage made by the fermentation and then by the distillation of the products of sugar cane: cane juice, molasses, skimmings etc.

It may be useful to remember that fermentation is the process by which microorganisms called yeasts feed on sugar, releasing alcohol, gas and heat. Fermentation is a natural, spontaneous process: for example, when fruit rots it often ferments. It was later gradually improved by men for their own ends, let us say that it is a relatively easy thing. When America was discovered, in Europe, Asia and Africa the production of fermented beverages had been commonplacefor thousands of years: wine, beer, etc.

The raw materials of rum are the coproducts of sugarcane: sometimes sugarcane juice, but mostly molasses, sometimes even syrups. The raw materials are put into a fermentation wash, to which water and other substances are added. Originally, the fermentation would happen owing to the yeasts naturally present in sugarcane, in the soil, in the air, and so on: it was a spontaneous process which man was unlikely to be able to influence, whereas today specifically selected yeasts are used, the whole process is monitored, by adding or removing nutrients, modifying the temperature, and so on. The production of alcohol takes place entirely during the fermentation process.

Alcoholic distillation, on the contrary, does not exist in nature, it is an artificial process, devised and realized by men. And it is difficult. The fermented liquid, or wash, is put into a container, pot-still or column-still, and heated until it boils and produces vapors. The vapors are then collected, cooled and brought back to a liquid state. At the end of this process, in the liquid produced, the spirit, there will be a much lower percentage of water than what was present in the fermented liquid, whereas the percentage of alcohol will be much higher. We have therefore produced an alcoholic beverage that is much stronger than any fermented liquid, which is exactly the desired result. To put it simply, distillation concentrates alcohol. For the sake of clarity, I’ll say that again: distillation concentrates the alcohol already present in the wash, it does not produce it.

According to some archeological remains the distillation of alcohol was made in present-day Pakistan as early as c. 150 B.C. and from there it spread later in south-east Asia and China. There are also some uncertain references in Indian literature that could push back its origins to c. 500 B.C. But this is not our point here. As far as we are concerned, it is more or less generally accepted that the history of distillation starts in the West with the Greeks of Alexandria before the Christian era. Later the Arab alchemists used distillation for studies and research of various kinds, and for making perfumes and maybe also to produce alcohol for medicinal use. In the XII century, it is thought to have reached Italy at the famous medical School of Salerno, where it was used to distill wine, creating a new, wonderful beverage, an almost pure alcohol called in Latin aqua vitae – water of life – from which derive the Italian acquavite, the French eau de vie and also the Gaelic uisgebeatha, later whisky. But, as far as I know, the earliest description of an alcoholic distillation can be found only about a century later. It is again from Italy, in the book Consilia by Taddeo Alderotti, a famous physician and scientist who was born in Florence, but lived in Bologna in the XIII century. It then spread all over Europe, but usually in limited quantities, quite expensive, that doctors and pharmacists dispensed to their élite customers. “Est consolatio ultima corporis humani” (“Last solace of the human body”), Raimond Lull will write later. Anyway, scholars agree that the first use of alcohol was medicinal.

Over the centuries, all over Europe people started to produce distilled beverages not only as a drug but also as a beverage for pleasure consumption. For example we know that in 1514 the King of France, Louis XII, issued a decree with which he granted the Guild of “vinagriers” (vinegar makers) the right to distill wine to produce brandy. And this is an important step in the long process which has transformed distillation from a mysterious activity, restricted to alchemists and pharmacists, into a mass production for the pleasure of drinking.

There isn’t a general consensus among scholars, but it seems to me reasonable to think that large scale commercial production of distilled beverages meant for drinkers’ pleasure consumption started in Europe, probably in Holland, in the second half of the XVI century. Holland was at that time the most modern and technologically advanced country in Europe and the very word brandy is thought to derive from the Dutch gebrande wijn, which meant, basically, burnt wine. And we know that a John Hester started his “Stillitorie” in London in 1576 with this advertisement: “These Oiles, Waters, Extractions or essences, Saltes, and other Compositions; are at Paule Wharfe ready made to be soldem by IOHN HESTER, practisioner in the art of Distillation; who will also be ready for a reasonable stipend to instruct any that are desirous to learne the secrets of the same in few dayes”.

The new importance of distilled beverages is reflected in the foundation of Guilds of distillers. The London Worshipful Company of Distillers was founded in 1638 and in the same years similar Guilds were born in Paris, Rotterdam and elsewhere. However, the distillation of wine continued to be expensive. Even producing alcoholby distilling grain was costly, and it was dangerous too: cereals were the staple diet of the majority of the population and harvests were often poor. Therefore, diverting a significant share of the harvest from food consumption to distillation increased the risk of hunger and famine. In any case, distillation was seasonal, it was done after the harvest and before the raw material could deteriorate.

Brazilian and Caribbean sugar plantations changed the situation radically. Sugarcane provided distillers with plentiful, cheap raw material. Molasses in particular was extremely cheap: actually, before it started to be used to produce rum, it was largely thrown away. Rum, our rum, was born when European distillation techniques met sugarcane and this meeting took place in the Americas between XVI and XVII centuries. But where exactly, and when?

We will deal with this issue in the next article.

Marco Pierini

PS: if you are interested in reading a comprehensive history of rum in the United States I published a book on this topic, “AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”. You can find it on Amazon.

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