Run of the Still

The spirited journey of aqua vitae — or the “Water of Life”

We have been boozing it up for over 10,000 years. After taking our last gulps of primordial soup, we roamed around, hunting and gathering for centuries. Thirsty work to be sure. Thankfully, things have improved since early nomadic man’s daily search for food and potable water sources. Once we figured out farming – which created surplus, which begat free time, which gave the thinkers time to think and inventors time to invent (things like the pot still) – the histories of civilization and distillation have been fascinatingly entwined.

“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”, the famous quote from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, perfectly illustrates life before the invention of modern-day water treatment technologies … or vodka.

Through time, numerous sophisticated societies have fallen as the disastrous result of disease, war, over-population, or the depletion of natural resources. And there is no natural resource more precious than water. Because water is vital to all living things, we are at its mercy. Since the beginning of time this simple substance has directed civilization, and it will continue to do so.

Early settlements centered around water sources. Both Mayan and Roman cultures built aqueducts as early as 312 B.C., to provide their citizens with constantly flowing water through centrally-located public fountains. This was certainly an advancement. However, as one might expect, the water quality standards were basic at best. Sometimes the only way to tell if the water was fit for human consumption was . . . well, when it turned out not to be.

According to the 19th century philosophical writer, Samuel Butler, “When the water of a place is bad it is safest to drink none that has not been filtered through either the berry of a grape, or else a tub of malt. These are the most reliable filters yet invented.” Of course he was referring to wine and beer, which were, depending on your view of things, either gifts from God or a happy accident of nature.

Either way, naturally-occurring fermentation was the result of the spontaneous combination of wild yeasts and the fermentable sugar sources lying about. Although primitive, this crude beer (and its close cousin, bread) has been credited with sustaining early civilizations. Ancient Egyptians, who taught the Greeks, who taught the Romans and so on, soon elevated brewing to an art form. Many countries have brewing traditions documented in their earliest historical records. In fact, almost every ancient society produced alcohol from whatever fermentable sugars were indigenous to their particular geographical location, be it a fruit, rice, grain, or some other plant.

Nevertheless, due to the rampant impurity of water, the search was not over for ways to purify it. Filtration through sand, charcoal, even cloth, served to remove impurities and eventually, as technology slowly advanced, distillation techniques were employed. The first clear evidence of distillation comes from ancient Persian, Egyptian, and Greek alchemists. They applied distillation techniques to water as early as the second century, but their main goals were the discovery of the “Philosopher’s Stone” – a legendary substance believed to be an essential ingredient for the transmutation of lead into gold -, and the discovery of the “elixir of life” – a remedy that would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. Intoxicating stuff.

However, it was the Moors in the 8th century who first used a fermented beverage and the newly-invented alembic still in their attempt to extract pure medicinal compounds from wine. They named the resulting liquid aqua vitae, or the “water of life.” Finally it was the Celtic monks, experimenting with applying distillation to fermented grains, who created a spirit or whisky they called uisge beatha, which is the Gaelic translation of “water of life.”  Emblematic of its significant impact on good health, the same term has been often used since, though locally translated. Akavit, eau de vie, okowita, and acquavite are examples from Scandinavia, France, Poland and Italy, respectively.

The pot still is a descendant of the alembic still, and is a relatively uncomplicated apparatus invented in the 1600s that remains in use today. It consists of a single heated chamber and a vessel to collect purified alcohol, allowing for only a small batch of distillation, with each batch being unique. The pot still is a discontinuous process, meaning it has to be filled and emptied for each batch. The single condensation allows particular flavors to be retained; these same flavors are mostly stripped away in the purer distillate produced in the Coffey or continuous still. This explains why many imbibers of straight spirits especially, prefer spirits made in pot stills. Spirits aged in wood, such as whiskey, single malt Scotch, Cognac, some rum and tequilas, are considered “corrected” in the barrel because the wood acts as a natural filter, removing some of the unwanted fusel oils while retaining some of the characteristics of the base ingredients.

Aeneas Coffey patented his new, more efficient column still in the early 19th century in Ireland. By working continuously, this still offered speed, immense capacity, and a lower cost per unit of output. However, the large outlay of capital needed transformed the distilling process to factory production, with its associated time and financial commitments. Column stills behave like a series of single pot stills, formed in a long vertical tube or column. As the alcohol continuously boils, condenses, and re-boils through the column, the effective number of distillations greatly increases and the purity or alcohol content along with it. Neutral grain spirits, reaching up to 96 proof, are distilled by this method.

Netherlands – Credit the Italians with the earliest use of juniper to flavor a spirit, albeit for rather unpleasant reasons: it is an excellent flea repellent. Because of the horrendous death toll from the Black Death, juniper was widely and wisely used in incense, elixirs, medicines, and tonics. Soon juniper became a preferred flavor in food as well. By the mid-16th century, eau-de-vie de genievre made its appearance. On its way across the close Flemish border, this spirit arrived in the Netherlands with its name transposed to jenever. Fortunately, Lucas Bol’s family had made a similar trek to Amsterdam and set up shop, making the “Dutch Courage” later favored by the British troops who came to help the Dutch fend off the Spanish. Thirty years later, they took home their tastes and recipes for “gin.”

Scotland – Legend has it that St. Patrick learned the art of distilling while in Spain and he introduced it to the Irish. The knowledge traveled to the Scots who named the distillate uisge beata, which later became usky and finally whisky. Until the 17th century, the stills used for the distillation of uisge beata were small, not exceeding 50 gallons and were for home use only. Industrial distilleries appeared at the end of the 17th century and were given a huge boost in the late 1800s by the phylloxera beetle’s devastation of France’s brandy and wine production. Grain whisky produced in the Coffey still, blended with the heretofore singularly-produced pot stills’ malt whisky, extended the appeal of the newer, lighter blended Scotch whisky to the world market.

Russia – When the Italian merchants brought distilled spirits to Russia, these spirits were referred to as zhiznennoy vody or “water of life.” The Russians spent the next 600 years perfecting vodka, whose name comes from the Russian word voda, meaning “water.” Vodka production soon became integral to Russian society and it still supports entire regions today. Vodka-making innovations, such as charcoal filtration at government-funded test distilleries, furthered the industry. In fact, by the 18th century, vodka production was the most technologically-advanced industry in Russia. After much experimentation with base ingredients, water sources, and filtration methods, the best Russian vodka is purported to use Moscow River water, be distilled from grain, and then diluted to a concentration of 80 proof.

Peru –Pisco was born from tenant farmers’ experiments with the poor quality grapes discarded as inferior for wine making. The bourgeoning wine industry’s grapes took a few years to be suitable for wine making, but fortunately, before reaching their peak, they were well-suited for turning into a local grape eau-de-vie preferred by the Spanish settlers. Around the world at that time, there was a similar economic segregation with regard to alcohol. Indigenous people, servants, and peasants drank cheap and quickly-made fermented alcohol such as beer, while the beverage of choice for the nobility and upper classes was a grape or grain-based distilled spirit.

Barbados – The Dutch brought Brazilian sugar cane and alembic stills to Barbados during the first part of the 17th century. Distilling molasses into a spirit as a way to extend the sugar crop revived the flagging economy of this British island colony. Many island settlements became rich from sugar cane or “white gold” production, but this came at a high cost to native forests and the health of the indigenous people, who were introduced to European diseases and forced into backbreaking labor. The Royal Navy became one of the largest consumers of rum, in part because the rum required less storage capacity to house sailors’ rations than did the often foul British beer they had been prescribed. The sailors also favored the increased quality of the purer finished product. In fact, a daily rum ration was a practice that only ended in the 1970s.

Brazil – While trying to find the western route to Asia, the Portuguese discovered Brazil and colonized it in the 1500s. Sugar plantations were soon established all along the coast. The conquistadors had to bring everything they thought might be useful for survival in the barbaric New World, and stills were brought in to produce medicine and potable water. They were soon used to turn fresh sugar cane wine into aguardente de cana or cachaça. By 1692, there were 349 cachaça distilleries in Brazil. Cachaça remains one of the most-produced spirits in the world, with over a billion liters distilled (in pot stills) annually.

Mexico – Mezcal, the first distilled spirit of the New World and the mother of tequila, was derived from the native fermented beverage named pulque. Pulque was made from maguey, a sacred plant used in religious rituals. When the Spanish settlers ran out of the stores of brandy they had brought with them, they built crude mud and wood-based stills. The resulting experimental distillate was first known as Mexicali. Seventy-five years later, commercial production of the agave into a distilled spirit began.

America – The colonists distilled rum before whiskey. Molasses from the Caribbean was cheaper to import than brandy, whisky, or gin. Rum distilling first began in Boston but later spread throughout New England, and rum production soon became the largest industry in the colonies. The French, Dutch, and British colonies in the Caribbean ramped up sugar production to meet the demand, contributing to the proliferation of the cheap, low-quality distillate. It was so cheap in fact, that workers were given rum as a job incentive and even paid a part of their wages in liquor. Bourbon, America’s native spirit, was developed using the knowledge of making grain-based whiskey that was brought in by Scottish and Irish immigrants; this know-how was applied to the native corn the settlers were growing in abundance.

That spirits have managed to turn even the smallest corner bar into one of the most multi-cultural places on earth is a testament to the unique interpretations each country has made. Whether that spirit came to be through the consequences of historical factors such as colonization, political or religious interference – both for good and ill -, geography, economics or any other reason, the “water of life” holds no grudges.

If a rising tide lifts all ships, then the “water of life” has lifted all of humanity. Next time you step behind the bar, take notice: the “striding man” is happy to hang with the “captain.” Check out the Polish, Russian, French, Swedish, and American vodkas all rubbing shoulders without a problem. Where else in the world can you find this level of peaceful, global coexistence? Even Mark Twain understood the powers of both, when he said, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting about.”