The History of Distilling Spirits


Pot still at 7 Fathoms Rum

Vaportini is, in a way, just like a distillation process, only we are not turning the vapor back into the liquor.  A lot of people do not know the history or the process.  I am going to go over this history here and my next post will be a follow up on the process.

There are a couple of differing thoughts on the first civilization to distill liquor.  We do know that quite a few civilizations came up with their own processes independently of one another.  We know fermentation, which is the first step in distillation was already happening before 800 BC.  The Chinese, various Arabic cultures, and the Greeks all came up with their own processes.


An early device for distilling called a retort

The next step happened around the 1st century AD.  We know the Greeks had started on the process of distillation of water because Aristotle mentions this in his writings.  The first concrete evidence that we have of someone translating this process to alcohol was in the 12th century.  Clear evidence of the distillation of alcohol comes from the School of Salerno.  All of the first experiments were done by Alchemists.  This process grew for a few hundred years and new techniques were developed.  The study of by the Alchemists of the time later turned into the study of modern day chemistry.  So, if your children ever say chemistry wasn’t useful you can let the know that is how we came up with booze (when they are old enough).

Around the 15th century is when things really took off for the distilling of alcohol. This is when different grains, barleys, and fruits started being used for the process.  The is when countries all found their national drinks.  From the scotch in Scotland, to Italian grappa, Polish and Russians  were great with vodka, to the Greeks who made Ouzo, every region had a specialty.  For those of you that would like to know what we are good at, American’s were the first to develop bourbon but this is a bit later in the timeline.  Everyone else had a bit of a jump start on us.

The newest advances that are happening are with microdistilling.  This trend started because of microbrewing, but we soon found out that doing smaller batches, and one at a time, could improve the quality control.  Microdistilling has been around for a longer period than this but after prohibition large companies took over the alcohol business in the US and the practice was not often allowed.  They have made it get a license within the last 20 years and these distilleries are a fast growing industry.  They also have been putting out extremely high quality product and the variety is now skyrocketing, which people like me love.  I like trying things I have never tried before with alcohol for experience so this has played right into my hands.

Here is a list of distillery tours  you can take in bourbon country.