Monday, 3 October 2011

A Brief History of Booze and Boozing

What is alcohol?

Alcohol is the result of the fermentation of yeast as it breaks down sugars (C6H12O6) and converts them into equal parts of carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. Certain ingredients for grain alcohol such as rye, corn or barley provide different flavouring for the resulting alcohols. This diversity of flavour is perhaps more evident in other types of alcohol fermented from fruit, most commonly these alcohols are lower in strength and are often sweeter: Wine and Champagne are good examples so too is Cognac or Grappa and more unusual Pochine (made from potato starch) and flavoured liqueurs.

It is important to note that there are several types of alcohol such as wood and rubbing alcohol but the only one safe to drink is ethyl alcohol or ethanol.


Fermentation is the process that allows us to produce wine and beer and is the basis for the further distillation of spirits.

The starch sugars and yeast necessary for the production of alcohol are present naturally inside most grains, fruit and vegetables and in the case of yeast on the skin. However to speed up the process alcohol producers have learned to use malted grain to release the sugars sooner and culture yeast to begin the chemical reaction sooner.

The most efficient temperature range at which fermentation can take place, is from 15° to 31° C.

First comes Aerobic (with air) fermentation; a vigorous action often resulting in a foam on the surface. It lasts for about a week and is usually conducted in a covered although not sealed container.

 Secondary- Anaerobic (without air) fermentation, a much less vigorous process that can last for several of months. Ordinarily this reaction takes place in a sealed container. The occasional bubbling of an airlock window is often all there is to show that the fermentation is in progress.

This process continues until most or all the sugar has been converted into alcohol or carbon dioxide.

Note: Elements called ‘esters’ may be added to give aroma and others called ‘congeners’ may be added for flavour.


‘The purification of alcoholic liquids by separating due to boiling point’.

A quick bit of History:

Early in the third century Zosime the Panapolitan a Greek living in the Nile Delta wrote a treatise on ‘the art of distillation’, in this paper Zosime makes mention of the Ancient Egyptians having practised distillation to produce perfumes and balsms for hundreds of generations. Later in the thirteenth century an Alchemist to the Pope Arnaud de Villeneuve found this work in a Moorish university in Cordoba Spain and brought the idea to Europe.

The works of Zosime suggest that the Egyptians began distillation in a manner we would recognise around 400BC. However it is now accepted that a crude form of distillation was being used in china to produce fermented rice wines as early as 800BC.

Amongst the early adopters of Distillation scientifically were the Greeks. Aristotle remarks that one may use distillation to draw fresh water from sea water, and then Hippocrates saw the opportunity to distil for entertainment and created a liquor from the fruits, cinnamon ad honey found in the Greek countryside. So popular was his creation that fruit mead in modern Greece is still referred to as ‘Hippocras’ even now 2380 years after his death!

There is a claim that the Arabic nations had been using a form of distillation earlier still than Zosime in the making of rosewaters. Unfortunately the transient nature of the Arab tribes and their largely oratory historical tradition means that there is no evidence to support this claim other than word of mouth.

Indeed there is a strong possibility that the word alcohol comes from the Arabic ‘Al- Khul’ meaning ‘delicate powder’. This process is believed to have been used to refine a basic form of gun powder (Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815)). It is also believed that the Polish alchemists of the 12th Century used a similar technique in the use of distilled alcohol to refine a crude gunpowder.

Who so ever first developed it and whatever the use they had for it there is less debate surrounding the spread of distillation to Europe: Learned from the Arabs, refined by the Greeks and stolen by the French. FACT!

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