Alchemists of Europe

Ancient Alchemy: The Secret History of Distilled Spirits

Ancient Eqyptian practicing alchemy

The earliest evidence of whisky, also known as aqua vitae (Latin), uisge beatha (Scottish Gaelic) or water of life (English) can be found in early Scottish written records and anecdotally through the medicine practiced by monasteries and Scottish royal households. But the story begins much earlier in the land of ancient Egypt, where the practice of ancient alchemy in many ways is still cloaked in mystery.

Secrets to making whiskey you won’t learn in school.

Egypt has long been considered the birthplace of alchemical philosophy, a practice that attempts to purify, mature and transform physical matter. The most well known of these being the experimentation in metallurgy and the mythical ability to transmute base metals.

Turning Lead into Precious Gold

Alchemists believed the transmutation of one substance into another was indeed possible, as well as the ability to create elixirs that cure disease and prolong life.

“Alchemy” is from the Greek khemeioa or Kemet, a name derived from the ancient name for Egypt meaning: “Land of black earth”.

Revealed through its etymological roots, the study of alchemy is the precursor to modern chemistry.

At the heart of medieval alchemy was the idea that all matter was composed of four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water, and through the right combination any substance on earth could be transformed. Those beliefs progressed further into earthly matter being composed of three distinct states: solids, liquids or gases. Gases, also known as vapors.

Basic Alchemy Symbols

The word distillation is from the Latin, destillare, which means to drop, or to trickle down. The process refers to the visible dripping of the end product of any liquid distillation. Distillate is what remains after it has been vaporized then re-condensed into its essence or spirit.

Knowledge of distillation originates in the study of alchemy by early Persian scientists and medical practitioners, including Jabir ibn Hayyan (AD 721-815) and Rhazes (AD c.854-925). 

European Discovery?

Hundreds of years later, two globetrotting European scholars from 12th- and 13th-century studied with Arabic/Moorish teachers and shared the knowledge of distillation in Europe. 

Evidence suggests that Scotland owes its distillation mastery to these two men: The English Arabist, Robert of Chester and the Scottish mathematician and pioneering alchemist Michael Scotwho translated the ancient texts containing the principles of distillation. Michael Scot was a man of genius who served Popes and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II in the early 13th century.

Photo credit: The National, Scotland. Astronomer and Alchemist, 

Due to its pre-Christian origins and the secrecy to which its practitioners carried out their studies, alchemy was viewed by the Catholic church with suspicion and ultimately condemned. The church concluded that alchemy was blasphemy and attracted followers of the occult.

Practicing alchemy, witchcraft and sorcery could get you burned at the stake.

The secret processes of distillation and other alchemic processes were not taught in universities, but were instead transmitted in secrecy from teacher to apprentice and student. The clandestine method of teaching was not only to maintain control but also a matter of necessity. Alchemists needed to keep the practice hidden for fear of being persecuted as witches and sorcerers.

Why is Liquor called Spirits?

It’s an open question as to whether the essence of, or distilled spirits were considered holy. But, by naming the precious liquid aqua vitae in latin and eau de vie in French, both meaning “water of life”, it does provide some interesting clues.

Monasteries provided the ideal conditions for the development of early whisky and medicine. They usually had fresh water and abundant sources of grain gained from religious tithings. Monks could also devote the time and manpower to perfecting their methods. Monasteries contained hospitals, libraries and herb gardens to treat sick patients, develop cures and disseminate knowledge.  

The first written record in European History

Mr J Marshall Robb, in his book: ‘Scotch Whisky,‘ says: ‘The oldest reference to whisky occurs in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls for 1494, where there is a record that gives one Lindores Abbey monk, ‘eight bolls of malt’ to Friar John Cor to make aqua vitae for the King’. A boll was an old Scottish measure of not more than six bushels, with one bushel equivalent to 25.4 kilograms.

The word “spirit” –– in reference to ethyl alcohol or ethanol –– has its roots in Middle Eastern alchemy. Arabic alchemists were more concerned with medical elixirs than the vexing challenge of transmuting lead into gold. The vapor given off and collected during the alchemical process off distillation was referred to as the spirit of the original material.

So spirit, as in “essence” or “soul of matter”, may or may not pertain to the holy ghost, but it cannot be ignored that many European alchemists were men of the cloth. What’s more, the imagery used for an ethereal spirit may well have been based on how alcohol vaporizes.

In much the same way that living things were thought to be alive because of a vital fluid, or that humans were thought to have a spiritual essence including their souls, both of these characteristics were called spirit. Today, we still use these words to characterize the essence of someone or something. 

The Secret Practitioners 

In the later Middle Ages, alchemy was used as an instrument for the advancement of medicine and aided those with and without wealth and status. Wise women and the folk healers of their day combined their knowledge of distillation with herbal remedies, providing medicine for those unable to afford a university-trained physician. 

In contrast, Scottish royal families were treated by a special guild of medical practitioners devoted exclusively to them.

The masters of organized medicine in Scotland, a medical kindred called the MacBeathad (Anglicized to Beaton)emigrated from Ireland in the fourteenth century and served as the court physicians to every Scottish king. Their medical secrets, at the time, were the best that money could buy in medieval Europe.

The Secret Process of Making Aqua Vitae (Or Whisky)

Distilled alcoholic beverages are possible due to the different boiling points of the two primary ingredients. Water boils at a temperature of 100 C (212 F), while ethyl alcohol boils at lower 78.3 C (173 F).

This difference in boiling points makes it possible to boil out the alcohol from the original grain or fruit, leaving the water and other trace substances behind. To obtain a directly drinkable liquid, a higher temperature (that is still in range) is required to produce a liquor that contains: a target percentage of water, higher levels alcohol, and esters that were present in the original beverage. The separation and concentration of these elements give distilled spirits their distinctive flavor, aroma, and smooth refined character.

Throughout medieval Europe, experimentation in distillation created various alcohols that grew to be collectively known as aqua vitae, or water of life. The discovery was viewed as a panacea for curing human maladies.

Over time, aqua vitae became a popular ingredient in a number of ‘medicinal cocktails from the belief that it contained a wide range of curative properties and for its preservative qualities for other medicinal ingredients. 

But it goes without saying, the alcoholic drink composed of hot water, lemon juice, honey and whiskey or rum or brandy, called a hot toddy, can soothe a sore throat and clear cold-induced congestion. Or, you can choose Nyquil. But either way, you can thank ancient alchemy and early medicine for giving us both.The people of Scotland also found out that aqua vitae had other alleviating benefits as well, like feeling tipsy and or getting drunk. So when your toasting partner calls out “cheers!” and you reply with “slàinte” or “to your good health”, now you know why. 



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