From Medicine to Pleasure and Drug of Oblivion

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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For several centuries after its discovery, aqua vitae was produced in apothecaries and monasteries and prescribed as a cordial, a medicine to stimulate the circulation (the word comes from the Latin for “heart”). It seems to have been liberated from the pharmacy and drunk for pleasure in the 15th century, when the terms Bernewyn and brannten Wein, ancestors of our word brandy that meant “burning” or “burnt” wine, appear in German laws about public drunkenness. This is also when winemakers in the Armagnac region of southwest France began to distill their wine into spoilage-resistant brandy for shipping to northern Europe. Gin, a whisky-like medicinal concoction from rye, with juniper added for its flavor and diuretic effect, was first formulated in 16th-century Holland. The renowned brandy of France’s Cognac, just to the north of Bordeaux, arose around 1620. Rum was first made from molasses in the English West Indies around 1630, and monastic liqueurs like Benedictine and Chartreuse date from about 1650 on.