72 pages • 2 hours readTom Standage
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In Chapter 5, titled "High Spirits, High Seas," Standage discusses the Golden Age of the Arab world, during which the process of distillation was perfected and applied to wine. While evidence for distillation can be dated back as far as the fourth century BCE, its use had previously been limited to the production of perfumes. The process, which involved “vaporizing and then re-condensing a liquid in order to separate and purify its constituent parts” (94), made wine much stronger and allowed for the development of spirits, or hard liquor. The emergence of these drinks coincided with a period of European exploration and imperialism. Their compact nature made them ideal for transporting by ship on long voyages, they were used as a form of currency and their popularity meant that taxing spirits became a significant source of income for many countries.
Initially, distilled wine was considered a medicine, not a drink, and became known as aqua vitae, or the water of life, as it was thought to extend a person’s life. During the fifteenth century, however, aqua vitae became a recreational drink. Knowledge of how to distil spirits spread widely and quickly after the invention of the printing press in Europe in the 1430s.
By Tom Standage