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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

An old whiskey still.
A display of spirits in a supermarket.

A distilled beverage, liquor, or spirit is a drinkable liquid containing ethanol that is produced by distilling, or less commonly freeze distilling, fermented grain, fruit, or vegetables.[1] This excludes undistilled fermented beverages such as beer and wine.

The term hard liquor is often used to distinguish distilled beverages from (implicitly weaker) undistilled ones.

Beer and wine are limited to a maximum alcohol content of about 15% ABV, as most yeasts cannot reproduce when the concentration of alcohol is above this level; consequently, fermentation ceases at that point.

The term spirit refers to a distilled beverage that contains no added sugar and has at least 20% ABV. Popular spirits include brandy, fruit brandy (also known as eau-de-vie / Schnapps), gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and whisky.

Distilled beverages that are bottled with added sugar and added flavorings, such as Grand Marnier, Frangelico, and American schnapps, are liqueurs. In common usage, the distinction between spirits and liqueurs is widely unknown or ignored; consequently all alcoholic beverages other than beer and wine are generally referred to simply as spirits.

Fortified wines are created by adding a distilled beverage (often brandy) to a wine.



  • Neat or straight — The spirit is served at room temperature without any additional ingredient.[2]
  • Straight up — This term refers to an alcoholic drink that is shaken or stirred with ice, strained, and served in a stemmed glass.
  • On the rocks — The spirit is served over ice.
  • The spirit is served with water.
  • The spirit is served with a simple mixer such as club soda, tonic water, juice, or cola.
  • The spirit is served as an ingredient of a cocktail.
  • The spirit is served with water poured over sugar (as with absinthe)


The origin of “liquor” and its close relative “liquid,” was the Latin verb liquere, meaning “to be fluid.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an early use of the word in the English language, meaning simply "a liquid," can be dated to 1225. The first use that the OED mentions in reference to a “liquid for drinking” occurred in the early- to mid-1300s. Its use as a term for “an intoxicating alcoholic drink” appeared in the 16th century.

The origin of "spirit" in reference to alcohol stems from Middle Eastern alchemy. These alchemists were more involved in medical elixirs than in creating gold from lead. The vapors given off and collected during some of their alchemical processes were described as being the spirits of the original object. When processes akin to distillation were carried out by accident alcohol was produced and the result known as a spirit.

History of distillation

Middle East

The first evidence of distillation comes from Babylonia and dates from the 2nd millennium B.C. Specially shaped clay pots were used to extract small amounts of distilled alcohol through natural cooling for use in perfumes. By the 3rd century A.D., alchemists in Alexandria, Egypt, may have used an early form of distillation to produce alcohol for sublimation or for colouring metal.[citation needed]

Alcohol was distilled for the first time by Persian chemists in the 8th and 9th centuries.[3] The development of the still with cooled collector—necessary for the efficient distillation of spirits without freezing—was an invention of alchemists during this time. In particular, Geber (Jabir Ibn Hayyan, 721–815) invented the alembic still; he observed that heated wine from this still released a flammable vapor, which he described as "of little use, but of great importance to science". Not much later Razi (864–930) described the distillation of alcohol and its use in medicine. By that time, distilled spirits had become fairly popular beverages: the poet Abu Nuwas (d. 813) describes a wine that "has the colour of rain-water but is as hot inside the ribs as a burning firebrand". The terms "alembic" and "alcohol", and possibly the metaphors "spirit" and aqua vitae (“water of life”) for the distilled product, can be traced to Arabic alchemy.[3]

Names like "life water" have continued to be the inspiration for the names of several types of beverages, like Gaelic whisky, Scandinavian akvavit, French eaux-de-vie and possibly vodka.

Central Asia

Freeze distillation, the "Mongolian still", is known to have been in use in Central Asia sometime in the early Middle Ages. This method involves freezing the alcoholic beverage and removing water crystals. The freezing method had limitations in geography and implementation and consequently was not widely used. A notable drawback to this technique is that it concentrates toxins such as methanol and fusel alcohols, rather than reducing concentrations.

Medieval Europe

Distilled alcoholic beverages first appeared in Europe in the 12th century among alchemists who were more interested in brewing medical elixirs than in making gold from lead. They first appeared under the name aqua ardens (burning water) in the Compendium Salerni from the medical school at Salerno. The production method was written in code, suggesting that it was being kept secret. Taddeo Alderotti in his Consilia medicinalis referred to serpente, which are believed to have been the coiled tube of a still.

In 1437, burned water (brandy) was mentioned in the records of the county of Katzenelnbogen in Germany.[4] It was served in a tall, narrow glass called a “goderulffe.”

Paracelsus gave alcohol its modern name, taking it from the Arabic word which means "finely divided", in reference to what is done to wine. His test was to burn a spoonful without leaving any residue. Other ways of testing were to burn a cloth soaked in it without actually harming the cloth. In both cases, to achieve this effect the alcohol had to have been at least 95 percent, close to the maximum concentration attainable through distillation (see purification of ethanol).

Claims upon the origin of specific beverages are controversial, often invoking national pride, but they are plausible after the 12th century A.D. when Irish whiskey and German brandy became available. These spirits would have had a much lower alcohol content (about 40% ABV) than the alchemists' pure distillations, and they were likely first thought of as medicinal elixirs. Consumption of distilled beverages rose dramatically in Europe in and after the mid 14th century, when distilled liquors were commonly used as remedies for the Black Death. Around 1400 it was discovered how to distill spirits from wheat, barley, and rye beers; even sawdust was used to make alcohol, a much cheaper option than grapes. Thus began the "national" drinks of Europe: jenever (Belgium and the Netherlands), gin (England), schnapps (Germany), grappa (Italy), akvavit/snaps (Scandinavia), vodka (Russia and Poland), rakia (the Balkans), poitín (Ireland). The actual names only emerged in the 16th century but the drinks were well known prior to that date.

Modern distillation

The basic process of distillation has not changed since the 8th century. Freeze distillation also remained in limited use, for example during the American colonial period applejack was made from cider using this method.[citation needed] There have been many changes in the methods by which organic material is prepared for the still and in the ways the distilled beverage is finished and marketed. Knowledge of the principles of sanitation and access to standardised yeast strains have improved the quality of the base ingredient; larger, more efficient stills produce more product per square foot and reduce waste; ingredients such as corn, rice, and potatoes have been called into service as inexpensive replacements for traditional grains and fruit. For tequila, the blue agave plant is used. Chemists have discovered the scientific principles behind aging, and have devised ways in which aging can be accelerated without introducing harsh flavors. Modern filters have allowed distillers to remove unwanted residue and produce smoother finished products. Most of all, marketing has developed a worldwide market for distilled beverages among populations which in earlier times did not drink spirits.

Microdistilling is a trend that began to develop in the United States following the emergence and immense popularity of microbrewing and craft beer in the last decades of the 20th century. It is specifically differentiated from megadistilleries in the quantity, and arguably quality, of output.

In most jurisdictions, including those which allow unlicensed individuals to make their own beer and wine, it is illegal to distill beverage alcohol without a license—with the notable exception of New Zealand, where personal alcohol distillation is legal (although selling still requires an appropriate licence).[5] Although illegal, moonshining has a long tradition in some locations.

See also


  1. ^ Britannica Online Encyclopedia: distilled spirit/distilled liquor
  2. ^ Walkart, C.G. (2002). National Bartending Center Instruction Manual. Oceanside, California: Bartenders America, Inc. p. 104.   ASIN: B000F1U6HG.
  3. ^ a b Ahmad Y Hassan, Technology Transfer in the Chemical Industries
  4. ^ See entry at Trinkglas.
  5. ^ Exemptions from manufacturing licensing requirements, New Zealand Customs Service,, retrieved 2008-03-24 


  • Blue, Anthony Dias (2004). The Complete Book of Spirits: A Guide to Their History, Production, and Enjoyment. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 324. ISBN 0-06-054218-7. 
  • Forbes, Robert. Short History of the Art of Distillation from the Beginnings up to the Death of Cellier Blumenthal. Brill Academic Publishers; ISBN 90-04-00617-6; hardcover, 1997.
  • Multhauf, Robert, The Origins of Chemistry. Gordon & Breach Science Publishers; ISBN 2-88124-594-3; paperback, 1993.

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