Spirits and Waters of Life

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

In Europe, significant quantities of distilled alcohol were produced around 1100 at the medical school in Salerno, Italy, where it developed its reputation as a uniquely valuable medicine. Two hundred years later, the Catalan scholar Arnaud of Villanova dubbed the active principle of wine aqua vitae, the “water of life,” a term that lives on in Scandinavia (aquavit), in France (eau de vie), and in English: whisky is the anglicized version of the Gaelic for “water of life,” uisge beatha or usquebaugh, which is what Irish and Scots monks called their distilled barley beer. Throughout the Old World, alchemists thought of distilled alcohol as a uniquely powerful substance, the quintessence or fifth element that was as fundamental as earth, water, air, and fire. The first printed book devoted to distillation, Hieronymus Brunschwygk’s Liber de arte distillandi (1500), explained that the process achieves