From Medicine to Pleasure and Forgetful Drug
Continuing from the previous post where we began to tell the story of brandy with which we inaugurated this wonderful blog, today we want to talk about how it transitioned from being considered a medicine to being consumed purely for pleasure and indulgence.
For several centuries after its discovery, aqua vitae was produced in apothecaries and monasteries and prescribed as a “cordial,” a term derived from Latin meaning “heart,” a medicine that stimulated circulation. It seems that by the 15th century, it had already emancipated itself from the pharmacy and was being consumed for pleasure, as the German laws on public drunkenness at the time included the words Bernewyn and brannten Wein, ancestors of “brandy,” which means ‘burned wine.’
It was around this time that winemakers in the Armagnac region of southwestern France began distilling their wine to transform it into a brandy that could withstand deterioration and be exported to Northern Europe. Gin, a medicinal preparation similar to whiskey and made from rye, with the addition of juniper for flavor and its diuretic effect, was first formulated in the Netherlands in the 16th century. The prestigious brandy from the Cognac region in northern Bordeaux appeared around 1620. Rum began to be produced from molasses in the English Caribbean in the 1630s, and monastic liqueurs like Benedictine and Chartreuse date back to around 1650.
Over the next two centuries, the quality of spirits improved as distillers learned to refine their composition. First came double distillation: wine or beer was distilled, and then the distillate was distilled again. Later, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, ingenious French and English column stills emerged, producing higher-purity alcohols in a continuous process. With the increased availability and potability of distilled spirits, addiction became a serious problem, especially among the urban populations of the Industrial Revolution.
In England, the main scourge was cheap gin, which the average Londoner of the late 18th century consumed at a rate of about 400 ml per day to “seek relief in the temporary oblivion of their own misery,” as Charles Dickens wrote in “Sketches by Boz.” Later, government control of production and social progress improved the issue of alcohol addiction but did not eliminate it.
We are passionate about the history behind brandy, and we are even more passionate about being able to share it with you. What do you think?
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Bibliography: “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee.