Science trips – Aguardiente, pomace, water of life, where is the cradle of distillates?

Distilled alcoholic beverages are a relatively recent discovery of mankind, these are the places where they first appeared

The intoxicating properties of wine are often mentioned in Greek classics, but there is no record that the ancient Greeks drank stronger drinks. Surprisingly, in humanity there are no traces of distilled spirits until much later.

Everything indicates that this was a worldwide case of humanity’s inability to add two and two, as the distillation process had been known since time immemorial.

The first evidence of distillation comes from Mesopotamia, from Akkadian tablets dating from around 1200 BC, which describe perfumery operations. There are also documents that prove that distillation existed among alchemists working in Alexandria, Roman Egypt, in the 1st century.

Distillation was also known in India during the first few centuries of the Common Era, something we know from the remains of stills and pottery retorts. Distillation in China also began during the Eastern Han Dynasty (1st-2nd century AD). However, there is no data that any of these cultures used this technique to produce alcoholic beverages, something that emerged almost a thousand years later.

arab world

The distillation of alcohol from wine is documented in Arabic works attributed to al-Kindī (801-873 CE) and al-Fārābī (872-950), as well as in Book 28 of the Kitāb al-Taṣrīf (later translated into Latin as Liber servatoris) of al-Zahrāwī in the 10th century.


Archaeological remains indicate that the distillation of beverages began in the Jin (12th-13th centuries) and Southern Song (10th-13th centuries) dynasties. A still was found at an archaeological site in Qinglong, Hebei, dating back to the 12th century.

Distilled spirit plays an important role in social and ceremonial occasions in China. In Japan, shochu, a liquor distilled from rice, barley or sweet potatoes, has been produced since the 14th century and is one of the most popular drinks along with sake (which is fermented).


In the 12th century, recipes for producing aqua ardens (‘burning water’, i.e. alcohol) by distilling wine with salt began to appear in various Latin works, and by the end of the 13th century it had become a widely known substance. among Western European chemists.

The medicinal properties of alcohol distilled from wine were studied by the Valencian alchemist Arnaldo de Villanueva (1240-1311) and another French alchemist, Juan de Rupescissa (1310-1366), who considered it a vital substance capable of preventing all diseases. Rupescissa named it aqua vitae or “water of life”, or the quintessence of wine.

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The works of the Florentine Taddeo Alderotti in the thirteenth century describe a method of alcohol concentration that consisted of repeated fractional distillation through a water-cooled still, through which an alcoholic purity of 90% could be obtained. And in the north? In 1437, “burnt water” (schnapps) is mentioned in the Katzenelnbogen county records in Germany.

An alcohol for each country

It’s easy to go around the world for the liquors of each place:

  • Whiskey: Born in Scotland and traveled to America. Made from the mash of fermented cereals such as barley, corn, rye and wheat. The specific blend of grains, called mash bill, varies depending on the type of whiskey produced (e.g. Scotch, Irish, bourbon, rye).
  • Brandy: born in France and produced by distillation of grapes. However, other fruits such as apples, plums and cherries can also be used, giving rise to variations such as Calvados (apple brandy), Slivovitz (plum brandy) and Kirsch (cherry brandy).
  • Vodka: The quintessential Russian liquor was traditionally made from fermented grains (such as wheat or rye) and later potatoes.
  • Gin: The quintessential English drink is distilled mainly from fermented cereals such as wheat, barley or rye. Gin gets its distinct flavor from the addition of botanicals, especially juniper berries, during the distillation process.
  • Rum: the liqueur that came from the Caribbean is made by fermentation and distillation of sugar cane by-products, such as molasses or cane juice. The Brazilian version of this distillate is cachaça.
  • Tequila and Mezcal: These Mexican spirits are distilled from the fermented juice of the agave plant. Tequila is specifically made from the blue agave plant and is produced primarily in the region around Tequila City, Mexico.

Although its excessive consumption is very dangerous for health, distilled alcohol has a long and varied history in different regions of the world, and its relationship with each region can be appreciated through the types of distillates that are produced, as well as its culture, social and economic repercussions.

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