With growing uncertainty and societal issues, many people take a break from it all and grab a drink to relax. Frequently, those drinks contain what many refer to as “spirits.” However, most of us are too busy enjoying our drinks to actually stop and think about where that strange nomenclature originated from.
The real answer is quite simple: no one knows for sure. What we do know for sure is that the term “spirits” takes on many meanings. It can refer to a person’s disposition, a human soul, or even the Holy Spirit in biblical terms. One of the most common uses of the word is to refer to the liquor that is used to make alcoholic beverages. So how did such a diverse term become associated with boozy concoctions? Let’s take a look at how this term can be traced back through the ages.
For a general summation of the term, let’s refer to the Oxford Dictionary, which describes a “spirit” as a “strongly distilled and processed liquor such as gin, rum, or whiskey.” The Merriam-Webster edition provides a more scientific definition by describing it as: “the liquid containing ethanol and water that is distilled from an alcoholic liquid or mash —often used in the plural.”
Then how did such a word with so many deep meanings come to represent something so intoxicating? Similar to many other stories in the mythos of alcohol, the intention is steeped in complicated and often competing theories and oral histories. While we may never know the true origin story, the many competing timelines are undoubtedly entertaining.
While the true origins of the term “spirit” might be a bit of a mystery, one thing is for sure: the phrase goes far back in history. Many believe that the term dates back all the way to the 4th C.E. B.C. Others claim that the word “alcohol” originated from the Middle East. The term consisted of the prefix “al,” which is undoubtedly Arabic, but there is some debate as to whether the full term was “al-Koh’l” or “al-ghawl.”
If the term did, in fact, come from the phrase “al-ghawl,” the link would be a very straightforward way to explain the etymology. That is because “al-ghawl” means “spirit” in Arabic. It is referenced in the Qur’an in verse 37:47, which uses “al-ghawl” to describe a demon that produces a sense of intoxications.
Another more interesting theory that stems from ancient times is the link to ancient eyeliner. Yes, you heard that right: eyeliner. Allow me to explain.
Eyeliner used to be produced in ancient times by using a very fine, powdery substance known as stibnite. Stibnite is a black mineral substance and made up the main ingredient in ancient eyeliner called “al-Koh’l,” which means “to paint” in Arabic. The product itself was created using an ancient form of sublimation. The process was quite similar to what we now call distillation. Many people theorize that it became a more generalized term for any distilled substance. In later points in history, “Alcohol” was attached more often to mean ethanol, specifically. The “spirit” of the substance was released throughout the process of distillation.
Of course, with all of this uncertainty, many holdouts claim that the term could have come from either original source. Their similarity in sound and spelling could have led the two words to become transliterated through the years, which is quite common when tracing back the origin of words or phrases.
The Spiritual Possession of Aristotle
Acclaimed alcohol connoisseurs and authors Dale DeGrodd, David Wondrich, and Paul Pacult penned the infamous “BarSmarts Advanced” handbook, in which they attributed the term “spirits” with none other than Aristotle. The guides state that Aristotle detailed the distillation of spirits as early as 327 BC; however, there is very little evidence that spirits’ distillation was a widespread occurrence in ancient Greece.
According to this passage, he was the one who named the alcohol “spirits” as he thought that when one was to drink the alcohol, they would be left with an invigorated “spirit.”
While this claim may or may not be accurate, many experts tend to disagree. Those who study the classical Greek language refute this by claiming that if he were referring to them in the sense that we know today, he would have more accurately used the word “pneuma,” which translates to “spirit or breath.” So, if one were to believe the naysayers’ theory, where else could this term have originated?
Go Telling on the Bible
Suppose you are familiar with the biblical teaching of the New Testament bible. In that case, you may also be familiar with a passage from Acts 2:13 in which the author identifies the Holy Spirit as tongues, a dove, water, fire, and even wind. The passage goes interpreted to mean that the Pentecost’s bystanders were actually comparing the effects they felt from the Holy Spirit as the sensation of being intoxicated from drinking too much good wine. Simply put, the holy spirit is physically compared to intoxicating spirits such as alcohol. Let’s hope that came without the dreaded hangover.
Even for nonbelievers, the connection between alcohol’s intoxicating nature and the Holy Spirit is a natural jump in logic. However, like many Bible verses, it isn’t laid out clearly and can be open to the reader’s interpretation.
So, if it didn’t come from a religious text, what does the scientific community have to say about its origins?
Liquor as the Spirit of Booze
Traced down throughout history, the first successful instance of distillation can be found in none other than alchemists located in the Middle East. While many alchemists were made famous for their search for gold, many were also attempting to mix up elixirs for medical purposes. In order to make medicine more potent, they would mix up a liquid, distill it, collect the vapor, and then enhance the “spirit” of the original mixture.
Moving along through history, the first instance of distillation for the purpose of making alcohol was found to be perpetrated by a Franciscan monk. He went by the name of Roman Llull. When his journals were analyzed, it was found that he was the first to produce and record formulas for “loosening” the alcohol content from a batch of grape wine.
Liquor ends up as base alcohol in which the water has been physically and naturally taken out in the distillation process. This also has the effect of increasing the concentration of alcohol through the process of evaporation. Once these processes are complete, the alcohol can be condensed.
Simply put, the original mixture’s spirit is enhanced through the purification and distillation of the ingredients so they can be drunk. Perhaps through this process, it was said that we are drinking the “spirit” of the mixture as a final product.
A Spiritual Look at Liquor
When it comes down to it, there is no clear answer as to where the term “spirits” actually came from. To get a better look at what might have inspired ancient humans to coin this term, let’s take a closer look at liquor.
Liquor comes in many flavors and varieties, but all liquor starts as a mash of fermented ingredients that then undergo a distillation process. Prior to this, the fermentation process is responsible for turning sugars in the mixture into alcohol. The distillation of the mixture creates a higher concentration of alcohol. Some liquor is aged in wooden barrels, which can help to increase or enhance the color or flavors of the end product.
For a beverage to be considered a liquor, it must be distilled to produce alcohol. Due to the distillation process and since no extra sugar is added, hard alcohol is known to contain a large percentage of alcohol. Their ABV categorizes most alcohols, and to get the proof; the ABV is doubled. For example, a spirit with 40% ABV would have a proof of 80.
Beer and wine are not considered liquor or “spirits” since they are not distilled. Even though spirits are much higher in alcohol content than a beer or a wine, they are often mixed with other ingredients so that they have similar alcohol content. Those who prefer a more substantial drink can simply mix more liquor or less if desired.
With that in mind, the answer to where the term came from might be as simple as a mixed drink or a cocktail. The alcohol gives these mixes life or “spirit.” It also might raise the spirits of the drinker as opposed to ordinary mixers.
While it is not entirely clear where the term “spirits” originated from, there many who will try to venture a guess. One thing is for sure, the human race has had a close relationship with alcohol and “spirits” for centuries, and it could have honestly been any one of these origins. Whatever the source, if you enjoy spirits, this topic is sure to spark a lively debate at your next cocktail party.