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Distilled beverage

Related subjects: Drink

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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, i.e. concentrating by distillation, the alcohol and other compounds produced by fermented grain, fruit, or vegetables. This excludes undistilled fermented beverages such as beer, wine, and hard cider.

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

Beer and wine are limited to a maximum alcohol content of about 20% 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.


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-14th century. 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

Distillation apparatus of Zosimus, from Marcelin Berthelot, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (3 vol., Paris, 1887-1888).

The first clear evidence of distillation comes from Greek alchemists working in Alexandria in the first century AD. Distilled water was described in the second century AD by Alexander of Aphrodisias. The Alexandrians were using a distillation alembic or still device in the third century AD. The medieval Arabs learned the distillation process from the Alexandrians and used it extensively, but there is no evidence that they distilled alcohol. The earliest evidence of the distillation of alcohol comes from the School of Salerno in southern Italy in the 12th century. Fractional distillation was developed by Tadeo Alderotti in the 13th century.

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 the ice. 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

Although the Greeks and Arabs knew the art of distillation, the earliest written evidence for the distillation of alcohol comes from the School of Salerno in the 12th century. The production method was written in code, suggesting that it was being kept secret. Fractional distillation was developed by Tadeo Alderotti in the 13th century.

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

Paracelsus gave alcohol its modern name, taking it from an Arabic word that 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, a cheaper option than grapes. Thus began the "national" drinks of Europe: jenever (Belgium and the Netherlands), gin (England), schnapps (Germany), grappa (Italy), horilka (Ukraine), 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

Except for the invention of the continuous still in the 19th century, the basic process of distillation has not changed since the 8th century. Other novel methods such as freeze distillation have had limited use. There have been many changes in the methods used to prepare organic material for the still, and 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 to accelerate aging without introducing harsh flavours. 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 that previously 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 different from megadistilling in the quantity and quality of output.

In most jurisdictions, including those that 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). Although illegal, moonshining has a long tradition in some locations.


  • Neat or straight — The spirit is served at room temperature without any additional ingredient.
  • 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.
  • With water.
  • With a simple mixer such as club soda, tonic water, juice, or cola.
  • As an ingredient of a cocktail.
  • With water poured over sugar (as with absinthe)
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