Around the year 1100, significant quantities of distilled alcohol were being produced at the School of Medicine in Salerno, Italy, where it gained a reputation as a valuable medicinal substance. Two hundred years later, the Catalan scholar Arnau de Vilanova referred to the active principle of wine as “aqua vitae,” meaning “water of life.” This expression still lives on in Scandinavia (aquavit), France (eau de vie), and in England, where “whisky” is the Anglicized version of the Gaelic word for “water of life,” uisge beatha or usquebaugh, which is what Irish and Scottish monks called their distilled barley beer.
Throughout the Old World, alchemists considered distilled alcohol to be a substance with unique powers, the “quintessence” or fifth element, as fundamental as earth, water, air, and fire. The first printed book dedicated to distillation, Hieronymus Brunschwygk’s “Liber de arte distillandi” (1500), explained that the process achieves “the separation of the coarse and the subtle, and of the subtle and the coarse, the breakable from the destructible, the material from the immaterial, in order to make the body more spiritual, the unpleasant more agreeable, to render the spiritual lighter through subtlety, to penetrate with its hidden virtues and introduce its healing function into the human body.”
This connection between distillation and purity and the ethereal is why distilled alcohols are called “spirits” in English.
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Bibliography: “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee.