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