History of Spirits
Rum, whisky, vodka, brandie, gin, and tequila – they all come in a myriad of colours, shapes, and sizes. Many people have their particular favourite, but the incredible flexibility of spirits’ use in cocktails, cooking, baking, and of course, straight up, has led consumers to be more adventuresome in their spirit buying practices. It’s strange to think that thousands of years of history and millions of bottles of spirits all originate from a single concept: distillation.
Distillation is the backbone of spirit production. However, contrary to popular belief distillation doesn’t create alcohol – it only concentrates it. By taking weaker fermented liquids and boiling them, the non-alcoholic content vaporizes more quickly, helping to isolate and separate the alcoholic content. This new mixture can then be aged or flavoured by the distiller.
While the distillation process is identical in the world of spirits, variations in ingredients, types of stills, flavouring and aging all help contribute to the vast array of choices you see on store shelves today.
The earliest distilled beverages are thought to date back to approximately 800 B.C. when Asians distilled rice-based beverages into alcohol. Britain followed in 500 A.D. with mead, a medieval alcoholic staple distilled from honey.
A forerunner to brandy has its roots in the Muslim provinces of the Mediterranean near the 8th century, when Arab alchemists distilled a variety of grape and fruits to experiment with medicinal alcohol. Shortly thereafter, brandy (or “burnt wine”) became an international favourite because of its ease of transportation.
Vodka made its first appearance in Eastern Europe around the early 1400s, at which point it was discovered that cheap starch – such as wheat, potato or other grains – made for a great neutral spirit. Used originally for medicinal purposes, vodka quickly gained popularity as a way to stay warm in colder climates.
By the 1500s, when the flexibility of distillation began to spread, experimenters let loose and began to create a whole new line of alcoholic beverages. Whisky took advantage of barley and rye’s flavour; warm regions began distilling sugar cane by-products to create rum; the Dutch discovered the joy of the juniper berry with gin; and the Mexicans leveraged the blue agave to create tequila.
Thanks to worldwide distribution networks, every geographic region’s staple spirits are now available to most of us locally. So next time you fancy a taste of a fine spirit, think of the thousands of years of history it represents.