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

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

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