Alcoholic Beverages



History of Alcoholic Beverages

Topics Wine
Modern Wine
Distilled Spirit
Classification of Alcoholic Beverages



Wine probably dates back to prehistoric times when a cave dweller came across some crushed grapes he had forgotten. During his absence fermentation occurred and wine was the result.

Archaeologists maintain that grape wine was made 10,000 years ago, and it has been suggested that honey be fermented even earlier. Honey and water fermented and flavored with herbs is called mead. In addition to honey, date and palm wine may have preceded grape wine. The Bible mentions wine frequently in both the old and new testaments. In fact, the first Biblical wine reference touches all bases, KK and Noah began to be a husbandman, and he planted a vineyard, and he drank of the wine, and was drunken. In Mesopotamia and Asia, indications are that the vine was cultivated about 6000 B.C. By 3000 B.C. the vine was being cultivated in Egypt and Phoenicia, and there is some evidence of wine in China at about the same period. The art of making wine reached Greece by 2000 B.C. and it is believed to have come from both Egypt and the East. Ageing of wines was probably first practiced in Greece where they were kept in a clay cylinder called an amphora. These amphorae were not porous and were air tight. Wine will age under these conditions. Unfortunately the Greeks must have been somewhat close-mouthed as the secret was later lost and 1500 years passed before the bottle and cork were used for the same purpose.

The Romans, whose moment of glory (historically) came after the Greeks, had inferior amphorae. The Roman amphorae were porous and allowed evaporation. To combat this, the jars were coated on the inside with tar. The process is called pitching. Although this may well have prevented air from entering, we can only imagine its effect on the wine.

At about 1000 B.C. the vine was in Sicily and North Africa. During the next 500 years it reached Spain, Portugal, Southern France and probably Southern Russia as well. Finally, with the advance of the Roman Empire the vine spread into Northern Europe and Britain. The following dates are regarded as approximations of the introduction of vines in various areas:

Marseilles (France)

600 B.C.

Bordeaux (France)

50 A.D.

Rhone (France)

50 A.D.

Burgundy (France)

150 A.D.

Loire (France)
250 A.D.
Rhine/Morsel (Germany)
300 A.D.
Champagne (France)
350 A.D.
Alsace (France)
800 A.D.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the church was the prime mover in viticulture. Through the early middle ages the church, due to the need for wine for both sacrament and sustenance, was in the vanguard of wine producing knowledge and developed the modern methods. While this trend was developing in Europe, in the Middle East, from whence the wine had come, the Moslem religion achieved predominance and wine consumption ceased. The disappearance of the knowledge of the Grecian amphorae meant that during these years wines were consumed very young and were probably acrid and crude by our standards. They were probably made palatable by the addition of spices and honey.

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Modern Wines 

When William of Orange came to power, England put high duties on French wines in order to punish France. They also allowed Portuguese wine to be imported cheaply. This was hardly a satisfactory situation for English wine drinkers until about 1715 when the Portuguese began fortifying their wines. Port, as we know it today, dates from then. By 1800 Port was first in English popularity. To gain an idea of the position Port held in English society at that time, one need only remember that great line in My Fair Lady when Colonel Pickering, prior to leaving with Eliza for the great Ball, says to Higgins, It's positively indecent not to have some Port. In truth, it was indecent at that time.

During this time, wine bottles changed from a squat form to today's traditional shapes. The Portuguese, besides being the first to fortify wines, were the first to ship corked bottles. This meant that matured wines could again be enjoyed. Both these milestones came about because of market pressures. The wine merchants of Oporto had a handicap in competing with wines from Lisbon. And this was the problem of dryness. The Oporto wines hadnt any sweetness although the grapes were abundant with sugar when picked. In the Duoro Valley, where the wines were made, the hot climate resulted in a vigorous fermentation which utilized all the sugar. By fortifying the wine with alcohol during fermentation, some sugar and sweetness would remain. A new problem resulted, however, since the resulting wine was harsh and unpalatable and needed maturing. It was found that barrel ageing would not do, so an equivalent of the ancient amphora had to be developed. This occurred in 1780, and the modern age of wines was ushered in. By the late 1800s, the vine had attained great economic importance in Europe. In Italy, in 1880, it was estimated that about eighty percent of the population relied at least in part on wine for a living. It was at this time that phylloxera struck the vineyards of Europe and caused incredible devastation. This will be explained in detail later.

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Distilled Spirits

The art of distillation was known in the ancient world. Pliny described a method of distilling spirits of turpentine from resin by cooking it in a pot covered by a fleece of wool. The spirits were squeezed out of the wool afterwards. Aristotle wrote that "sea water can be rendered potable by distillation; wine and other liquids can be submitted to the same process." It is recorded that the Chinese produced a distilled spirit from rice beer, and Arak has been produced from sugar cane and rice in the East Indies since 800 B.C. When Captain Cook took his voyages to the South Pacific he found the natives familiar with the distillation process.

The modern history of the distillation of alcohol dates from the Arabs (or Saracens) during the time of the early middle ages. From the Arabs we also gained the words alcohol and still.

An interesting fact of historical spirit making is that the ancient treatises always referred to spirits as aqua vitae, or water of life. In Italy during the Middle Ages one could in fact, buy aqua vitae.

In 1800 a great step forward was taken with the discovery of rectification (re-distillation). The importance of this technique was that it produced a much cleaner and more nearly pure spirit than had been heretofore possible. Prior to this time spirits contained many objectionable flavor elements, and it was common to add herbs and fruits to mask them. Since the new process was capable of producing a rather neutral spirit the French soon were again adding herbs and fruits, not to mask flavors but to create them. Some of the great liqueur formulas were developed in this way.

In Scotland and Ireland, a grain spirit called whiskey was being produced during the middle ages. The Irish and the Scots, each proudly and fiercely lay claim to being first. Who actually was first is something authorities cannot determine. Suffice it to say that each has been making their marvelous product for many hundreds of years.

Cognac brandy appears to have been well established in England by 1688, which means of course that the distillation of wine into brandy had been going on for some time in France. Reports from those times indicate that there wasn't much demand for the thin and acid white wines of Charente (Cognac), France until it became concentrated. When the wine was converted to Eau-de-vie a great demand was created, and it has continued unabated to this day.

Distillation, of course, was known in America from the earliest settlers. America being a great grain producer, it was natural that the distinctive American spirit was to be a grain spirit - bourbon. The primary criteria for locating a distillery in those days was the water supply. The best water came from soil with a limestone subsurface so the distillation industry settled in Kentucky and in other areas with similar soil and water.

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Beer has an ancient story. Its origins go back nearly as far as do those of wine. Beer has been made by almost all people in all stages of civilization.

Down through the pages of history few things are consistent in the behaviour of man, but one of those has been a desire for alcoholic beverages. These have been made from whatever nature provided most abundantly. If it was the grape, as in Italy, then wine resulted, if it was grain, as in Scotland, then whiskey came about. The forerunner of whiskey, however, was beer, and beer has been made through the ages from whatever was available. In Africa, the tribes made it from millet; in Japan, from rice; and in Europe, and North and South America, from barley. Babylonian tablets, over 6000 years old, give recipes for brewing beer; and in Ancient Egypt, Ramses III gave 30,000 gallons of beer each year to quench the thirsts of the gods.

Beer and wine making are closely related, not only historically but from a processing standpoint since they both rely upon fermentation to produce alcohol. In beer making the carbon dioxide is retained; and another difference - a key one - is that the grain starch must be converted to sugar so the yeast can act upon it. Both beer and wine are the antecedents of distilled spirits.

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Classification of Alcoholic Beverages

I.    Fermented

  1. Grapes
    1. Natural
    2. Sparkling
    3. Fortified
    4. Aromatized
  2. Other Fruits
  3. Grain
    1. Beer
    2. Ale
    3. Stout
    4. Porter
    5. Sake
  4. Miscellaneous
    1. Pulque
    2. Kava

II.    Fermented and Distilled

  1. Grain
    1. Whiskey, also Whisky
      1. Rye
      2. Bourbon
      3. Blend
      4. Irish
      5. Scotch
      6. Canadian
    2. Vodka
  2. Sugarcane and Molasses (Rum)
  3. Agave (Tequila)
  4. Fruit Brandies
    1. Grape
      1. Cognac
      2. Armagnac
      3. California brandy
      4. Spanish brandy
      5. Greek brandy
      6. German brandy
    2. Apple
      1. Calvados
      2. Applejack
    3. Cherry
      1. Kirsch
      2. Silvowitz
    4. Plum
      1. Mirabelle
      2. Quetsch
    5. Apricot

III.    Compounded Spirits

  1. Gin
  2. Liqueurs or Cordials


Beer : a liquor fermented from cereals and malt, flavoured with hops.
Distilled Spirits : potable alcoholic beverages obtained from the distillation of alcohol-containing liquids.
Wine : naturally fermented juice of ripe grapes.

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