In English, “spirits” can refer to many things: ghosts, religious entities, moods, or the ineffable something that makes each one of us unique. And, of course, it can refer to booze.
But not just any booze. Generally, spirits can only be used to refer to alcohol that’s been distilled. Brandy is a spirit, for example. Beer and wine aren’t.
But why is that? And what is it about liquor that makes us use a word from religious practice to describe it? There’s no clear answer, but it’s entertaining to speculate
A Translation from Arabic?
Most culinary historians believe that modern alembic distilling originated in the Middle East. The word “alcohol” likely comes from Arabic–although exactly which Arabic word is open for debate.
Some think it stems from the Arabic word al-ghawl, which means spirit in the demon sense. Others think it comes from the word al-koh’l, a word meaning to paint. Al-koh’l was used to refer to the black eyeliner popular in ancient times that was created through a chemical process similar to distilling.
In the first case, it’s pretty easy to see how we got from al-ghawl to spirit–it’s a direct translation. Relatedly, there’s a German style of distilled spirit called a geist, the German word for ghost, that’s made by macerating fruit in liquor, then redistilling that liquor to capture the “ghost” of the fruit.
The second al-koh’l story requires an extra leap. The historic process of making cosmetics relied on a kind of refinement, extracting the most important part and leaving the rest behind. Distilling alcohol is similar. Whiskey, for example, is basically just distilled beer. Distillation extracts the alcohol, inarguably the most important part of beer, and leaves the water behind.
Then, there’s one more leap: the intuitive connection between the ideas of extracting some important essence from a substance, and whatever the most important essence is within human beings–what we call our soul, or our spirit. If you can make that jump, voilá! You’ve arrived at a plausible explanation for the English word spirit, albeit a more conceptual link than a direct one.
The Transportive Effects of Drinking?
Of course, it’s also possible that the connection is more direct. Long ago, alcohol really was almost as important to human flourishing as organized religion. Early on, distilled spirits were used medicinally, both as a disinfectant and as a vehicle for creating tinctures, extractions, and remedies.
While intoxication may have been a byproduct rather than the intended purpose of distilled spirits, it’s not hard to imagine how remarkable a little buzz might have felt to the people of many centuries ago–not entirely unlike a spiritual experience.
The Bible even acknowledges as much. Acts 2:13 describes how, when seeing the enlivening effect of the Holy Ghost on the disciples, bystanders were perplexed by their strange behavior--and some assumed that they were drunk. (“Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.”)
So maybe it really is that simple: That drinking alcohol–especially strong distilled alcohols–made people feel as enlivened as a spiritual experience.
Lift Your Spirits
Whatever story you buy (and feel free to choose whatever you want, because there’s really no way to know for sure), it’s worth contemplating it over a glass of something special. Mash & Grape stocks hundreds of different bottles in every spirit category you can think of, from agave spirits like mezcal and tequila, to the many different types of whiskies made across the world.
Want a few suggestions? Read on for some of our favorite spirits inspired by the historical or mysterious sides of the distilling industry.
Made in a historic German wine region, Ferdinand’s Saar Dry Gin is made from a base of distilled wine and infused with locally grown fruits, herbs, and botanicals, including juniper, quince, rosehip, sloe berries, hop blossom, and rose. We have no idea what German monks were drinking in the early days of distillation, but we’d be willing to bet they’d have enjoyed this remarkably sophisticated gin.
Bowmore traces its founding back to 1779, which makes it just three years younger than the United States. Back then, the people living on Islay spoke Gaelic, and they called whisky uisge beatha, “the water of life.” Sounds pretty spiritual to us. This single malt from Bowmore features a three-year finish in ex-Oloroso casks, giving it rich flavors of dark chocolate, mango, and smoke.
Bruxo means wizard in Spanish, and there’s something magical about the way distillers in Mexico can transform tough, spiky agave into silky, flavorful elixirs. Bruxo No. 5 Tobala is distilled in San Agustín Amatengo, Oaxaca, by Mezcal Master Cándido Reyes. It’s got a full, robust character with bell pepper, apricot, aloe, sage, and pine.
You can shop all of these and many, many more at Mash & Grape’s website. It’s easy: Browse, click, and relax while we deliver directly to your door.