Distilled Beverage Spirits History

The history of distilled spirits goes back into antiquity. Scientists have unearthed pottery in Mesopotamia depicting fermentation scenes dating back to 4200 b.c., a small wooden model of a brewery from about 2000 b.c. is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and Aristotle mentions a wine that produces a spirit. The first real distiller was probably a Greek-Egyptian alchemist who in the first or second century a.d., in an attempt to transmute base metal into gold, boiled some wine in a crude still. The discovery of ardent spirits that resulted from this effort was looked on with awe. It was kept a secret for centuries.

The technique of distillation probably came from the Egyptians who had been interested in alchemy since the pre-Christian era. At a later time the Arabians gained this knowledge from the Egyptians. Distillation was introduced into Western Europe either through Spain about a.d. 1150, or by the crusaders who learned about it from the Moslems in the 12th and 13th centuries. Distilled spirits were probably known in Ireland and Scotland before the 12th century, but actually it was not until then that there is a recorded history of distilled spirits in Europe. The first written evidence is in the description by Master Salernus who died in a.d. 1167. However, for another three centuries distilled spirits were regarded only as a rare and costly medicine called aqua vitae, "the water of life."

The first treatise on distillation was written by a French chemist, Arnold de Villeneuve, sometime before 1311, and was printed in 1478 in Venice. A Spaniard, Raymond Lully, was also instrumental in spreading the knowledge of distillation through Europe in the late 13th century. Liber de Arte Distillandi, by Hieronimus Brunswick, a well-known author of medical works, was printed in 1500 in Strasbourg. A more comprehensive book by Ryfif, another medical author, appeared in 1556 in Frankfurt am Main. Both works contain elaborate chapters on herbs and their distillates with indications of their uses as medicines.

Monks had been producing fermented liquors on a substantial scale since a.d. 800, and were the first to practice the new art of distillation because churchmen were the only one capable of reading and understanding the treatises on distillation. Gradually the knowledge of aqua vitae spread widely, and during the 16th and 17th centuries the production of distilled spirits became a full-scale industry. The popularity of distilled spirits in Europe grew during this era and may best be traced through court records.

The word whisky comes from the Gaelic word uisgebea-tha, or usquebaugh, as the Irish called it, meaning "the water of life." Usquebaugh, supposedly the Celtic form of whisky, was actually a cordial made with aniseed, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, caraway seeds, raisins, licorice, sugar, and saffron. The real whiskey of the Irish was called potheen, reputedly a formidable drink, full of heavy-bodied flavors resulting from simple distillations.

The early methods of distillation used the alembic, a simple closed container to which heat was applied. The vapors were transferred through a tube to a cooling chamber in which they were condensed. Alembics made of copper, iron, or tin were preferred. Other metals were said to have an adverse effect on the distillate. Occasionally, glass and potter's earth were used. From this developed stills consisting of clay or brick fireboxes into which the copper pots of the still were fitted. Direct heat was applied to the body or cucurbit containing the fermented mixture, and the vapors rose into the head, passed through a pipe (the crane neck) to the worm tub, where a copper coil was immersed in a barrel of cool water. Variations and improvements of this technique resulted in pot stills, some of which are still in use in the production of malt whiskies, notably in Scotland, and brandies, in France.

During the latter part of the 18th century, great strides were made in the development of distillation equipment, mostly in France. Because brandy (from fruit) was the principal distillate in France, the French had an advantage over the British and Germans, who were both hampered by the thick mashes obtained from grains. Argand invented the preheater, and in 1801, Edouard Adam designed the prototype of a charge still. He used egg-shaped vessels to hold the alcoholic liquid through which vapors from the kettle passed to the condenser. In the early 19th century several stills were patented in France and England, and in 1830 Aeness Coffey, in Dublin, developed his continuous still. The Coffey still (Fig. 1) is composed of two columns: in one, the fermented mash is stripped of its alcohol and, in the other, the vapors are rectified to a high proof (94-96%). Almost all of the fundamentals of distillation had been recognized and incorporated into the Coffey still. Later developments do not differ fundamentally from the stills of Cellier-Blumenthal and Coffey.

The early history of distillation in the United States is as poorly documented as it is elsewhere. No one knows who made the first rum, colonial New England's most important product; no one knows when or where the first rye whisky was made, or with any certainty who made the first bourbon in Kentucky. The Indians may possibly have known distillation. They had fermented drinks from maple syrup, corn, ground acorns, chestnuts, and chinquapins. Columbus reported an Indian drink made from the marrow of maguey. The fermented sap of maguey makes pulque, and distilled pulque becomes mezcal. Whether or not Columbus tasted mezcal is conjectural. However, the Spanish and Portugese brought the still.

The first recorded beverage spirits made from grains (corn and rye) were distilled on Staten Island in 1640 by William Kieft, the director general of the Dutch Colony of New Netherland. During the early colonial days, fermented beverages made from sugar-bearing fruits and vegetables were very popular. Pumpkins, maple sugar, parsnips, peaches, pears, apples, currants, grapes, and elderberries provided a ready source. The more aristocratic colonists preferred imported wines. However, in the 18th century colonial drinking customs changed to distilled drinks, especially rum. Rum was made in Barbados as early as 1650. In colonial America, the earliest reference is in the records of the General Court of Massachusetts in May 1657. By 1750, there were 63 distilleries. One of the first acts of the Continental Congress was to establish a

Coffey Double Column Still
Figure 1. Coffey still. 1, Boiler; 2, spent mash chamber; 3, stripping column (analyzer); 4, rectifying column; 5, residual mash (stillage) outlet; 6, fermented mash (feed); 7, feed pump; 8, condenser; 9, product tank.

ration of rum for soldiers and sailors. Brandy, which had been made in the colonies as early as 1650, and gin, which was popular with the poorer classes in England, never achieved the popularity of rum in this country. Nevertheless, rum was not a native drink, because the raw materials had to be imported. But rum starts with an inexpensive by-product of the sugar industry, molasses, and so could be the least-expensive distilled spirit. There are sufficient sugars left after most of the cane sugar has been removed to serve as the source of alcohol for rum.

With the decline of the three-cornered trade, the revolution, and the movement of settlers from the coastal areas inland, the rum industry slowly declined. Americans turned to rye, a successful crop in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and to corn, which grew in the South and West. George Washington is reported to have made rye whisky. His distillery had an excellent reputation for making fine liquor under the supervision of James Anderson, a Scotsman. In 1798, Washington's net profit was £83 with an inventory of 587 L (155 gal) still unsold.

Canada's first distillery produced rum from molasses in Quebec in 1769, but whisky did not develop until the 19th century. By 1850, there were some 200 distilleries operating in Ontario alone. Today there are only 27 of which 2, Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Ltd., and Hiram Walker & Sons, Ltd., have been in business continuously since 1857 and 1858, respectively.

The Whisky Rebellion in 1791 resulted in the rise of Kentucky as the greatest whisky-producing state in the union. In 1810, Kentucky which had achieved statehood in 1792 with over 70,000 inhabitants, many of them Scotch-Irish and German farmer immigrants with distiller experience, had 2,000 stills out of 14,000 in the United States producing well over 7,500,000 L (2 million gal) of whisky annually. Many counties of Kentucky claim the first production of bourbon. However, it is generally agreed that the first bourbon whisky (genuine, old-fashioned, handmade, sour-mash bourbon) was made by a Baptist minister, the Reverand Elijah Craig, in 1789 at Georgetown in Scott County which was part of Bourbon County, one of the Virginia counties that made up the Kentucky territory, from which Craig's corn whisky got its name. In order to distinguish this corn whisky from Pennsylvania rye, it was called Kentucky bourbon, with a mashing formula of at least 51% corn grains. Until 1865, few Kentucky distilleries produced more than 160,000 L (1,000 bbl) per year. Most of them were small, with an annual production of only 8,000-80,000 L (50-500 bbl).

The method used in Kentucky of making whisky, with the exception of malt preparation, was in most respects similar to that used in Scotland and Ireland for hundreds of years. Ground corn and rye meal were scalded in tubs somewhat larger than barrels, stirred with paddles, and allowed to cool and sour overnight. Then malt made from rye, corn, or barley was added for conversion of the starch to a fermentable grain sugar. Yeast was added and the mash allowed to ferment for 72-96 h. A simple, single-chambered copper still was used to separate the spirits from the mash. When redistilled, the product was called double distilled. In 1819, New Orleans received some 750,000 L (200,000 gal) per month of this product. By the time it had floated down the Ohio and Mississippi on flat-boats, the hot sun and boat movement had aged it.

Before the Civil War, not much attention was paid to aging, even though it was recognized that whisky left in charred oak barrels took on a golden color and some mellowness. Originally, whisky was sold in its natural white state or artificially colored to resemble the amber glint of brandy. No one bothered with brand names, whisky was whisky, as everyone knew, and not too much was made of the wide variation in palatability. The hunter or riverman who drank raw white whisky was not particular about quality.

After the Civil War, the rise in taxes made storage in bond desirable. Many family names, always important in Kentucky lore, now became associated with distinctive whiskies. As the industry grew, it engaged in bitter controversy over what was whisky. As a result, in 1909 during President Taft's administration, whisky was finally defined as any volatile liquor distilled from grain, and standards of identity based on current manufacturing processes for various whisky types, such as rye and bourbon, were established (1). In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed requiring a statement of manufacturing process and materials on the label. By 1920 when prohibition began, blended whiskies comprised 70% of the whisky market.

Prohibition brought with it evils that were greater than those it was designed to prevent. During Prohibition, consumption of spirits increased from 530 to 750 million L (140 to 200 million gal) annually. In 1930, the Prohibition Enforcement Bureau estimated that the production of moonshine was more than 3 billion L (800 million gal) per year. In December 1933, Prohibition was repealed and the distilling industry began to catch up with developments in bacteriology, chemistry, engineering, and sanitation. Many of the small producers were absorbed by the major organizations, and capital was provided for new equipment and inventory.

Per capita consumption continued to decline; it was 10.26 L (2.71 gal) in 1864, 6.47 L (1.71 gal) in 1922-1930, and only 4.96 L (1.31 gal) in 1960. However, the growth in population accounted for an increase in total consumption from 550 million L (145 million wine gal) in 1940 to over 1.6 billion L (420 million gal) in 1976. In World War II the industry offered its facilities to the government for war production, even before the United States entered the war. From Pearl Harbor to V-J Day, almost 3 billion L (750 million gal) of 190° proof (95%) alcohol was produced for the war effort in 127 distilling plants.


The distilling industry has always been taxed heavily, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. On the one hand, governments have laid an unduly heavy burden on the legal producers of distilled beverage spirits. On the other hand, dishonest men have evaded legal obligations and brought the industry into disrepute. Moreover, in many instances, dry interests have attempted to further their cause by advocating high taxes. For example, in England, by 1730, the laws were so complicated and onerous that they all but destroyed the industry, and in 1743 Parliament completely revised the regulations. Whenever taxes were too high, illicit distilling flourished.

Alcoholic beverages were subject to regulations as early as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, ca 2000 B.C., which contained provisions for the quality, sale, and use of fermented liquors. In the Magna Carta, a clause provided a standard of measurement for the sale of ale and wine. With the increase in consumption of distilled spirits in Europe, governments became increasingly interested in the tax revenues, and in 1643, Parliament imposed the first tax on distilled spirits.

The first liquor tax in the United States (2 guilders on each half-vat of beer) was imposed in 1640 by William Kieft, director general of New Netherland. The Molasses Act of 1733 and the Sugar Act of 1763, imposing a heavy tax on French and Dutch rum and molasses and leaving the more expensive British products free, provoked protest and action against its enforcement.

In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, in testing the strength of the new federal government, imposed an excise tax to be collected by revenue officers assigned to each district. This tax was fiercely contested and was repealed in 1800 during Jefferson's administration and, except for the years between 1812 and 1817, as a war measure, there was no further excise tax on domestic beverage spirits until 1862.

In 1975, the combined federal excise tax and the average state tax (32 licensed states) amounted to $13.13 per proof gal; federal taxes alone, $10.50 per proof gal. Table 1 lists the federal excise tax rates for various years. The federal excise tax was raised in 1991 to $13.50 per proof gal, ie, a gallon of liquid containing 50% by volume of ethyl alcohol (100° proof). Prior to that, and since 1985, it had been $12.50. per proof gal.

Even though the metric system for containers has been adopted, determination of the excise tax remains on a tax-gallon basis. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has established an official conversion factor: 1L = 0.26417 U.S. gal (Treasury Decision A.F.F. 39, Jan. 21, 1977).

In the United States, the revenue from excise taxes on distilled spirits has become a substantial part of income realized by the three levels of government: federal, state, and local. In 1863, with a $0.20 rate, the federal government collected over $5 million; in 1960, $3,090 million; and in 1975 the total revenue amounted to $6,277 million, of which 60% represented the federal government's share, collected at a rate of $10.50 per tax gallon. In 1997, the federal government collected $3.6 billion from distilled spirits and $3.4 billion from beer and $0.6 billion from wine. In addition, the states collected $1.9 billion from beer alone. State and local governments collected $7.5 billion in 1988, of which $3.1 billion came from distilled spirits and $4.4 billion from wine and beer.

Supervision over the production of distilled beverage spirits is maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,

Table 1. Federal Excise Tax Rates on Distilled Spirits


Rate" (dollars)


Rate" (dollars)

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