At the end of the first millennium AD, the most “cultured” city in the Western world was Cordoba. Cordoba had a vast library, beautiful palaces, sophisticated sewer systems, and many other strikingly modern features. Cordoba was an Arab city, and the center of Arabic scholarship. Cordoba’s citizens pioneered trigonometry, modern cartography, algebra, and—most relevantly to this book—the process now known as distillation.
Standage begins his chapter on the history of spirits (“hard” liquor) in Cordoba (southern Spain). Although most of Standage’s history is Eurocentric (his last two chapters, for instance, were about the Greeks and the Romans, who regarded the Eastern world as barbaric), he readily admits that the Arabic world was far more sophisticated than Europe in the 1100s. Yet despite this, he doesn’t focus on these parts of history like he does in describing Rome, Britain, or America, for example.
Distillation involves vaporizing and then re-condensing a liquid. This process makes the liquid pure. When wine is distilled, it becomes much more alcoholic, because wine’s boiling point is lower than water’s—that is to say, the steam that rises from boiling wine contains more alcohol and less water. Arabic scholarship was crucial in describing this process and popularizing it throughout Europe. Even the English word “alcohol” derives from Arabic, proving the importance of Arabic thinking in Western drinking. Throughout the age of imperialism, Standage argues, distilled liquor was an important commodity, reflecting the enormous changes in the world at the time.
Standage explains how liquors are produced, but doesn’t linger on the details of the process. His focus isn’t on the science of the creation of spirits, but rather the processes by which spirits became popular and influential throughout the world. In this section, he lays out his project for the chapter: he’ll describe how spirits reflected the changes in the world during the “Age of Exploration.”
In 1386, Charles II of Navarre, “Charles the Bad,” was lying on his deathbed. His doctors decided to try a new medicine—distilled wine, or “aqua vitae.” They had learned of the distillation technique from Arabic texts. The doctors fed Charles highly alcoholic liquid, hoping that it would cure him of his diseases. Likewise, many other doctors at the time advocated distilled wine as a medicine. Doctors claimed it could improve the memory, fight nerve disease, and cure dozens of other afflictions. Aqua vitae was known as “burnt wine,” or, in English, “brandy.”
Like wine and beer, spirits were celebrated for their medicinal properties—and as with wine and beer, this idea was based in fact. While spirits don’t seem very healthy by modern standards, they weren’t contaminated with bacterial diseases, meaning that they were often a healthier beverage than plain water, which could carry all sorts of diseases.
The invention of distillation coincided closely with the rise of European exploration. Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal pioneered voyages to north Africa and the Americas. In the Americas, Portuguese explorers found sugarcane, a plant that could be enriched to produce sugar. Because sugar required a large amount of labor to cultivate, Portugal turned to slavery, kidnapping Africans and taking them to the Americas to work. This constituted the first major surge in slavery since the time of the ancient Romans. The surge continued throughout the 16th century, when Britain, Holland, Spain, and France joined Portugal in exploring the New World. All of these nations used alcohol to trade with Africa: wine and brandy were accepted forms of currency for slave traders in Africa. As Standage puts it, “brandy oiled the wheels of the slave trade.”
Although the Age of Exploration was inaugurated because of the personal ambitions of a few Western monarchs like Henry the Navigator, by the end of the century, exploration was often being fueled by the desire for specific products. Standage tries to take a dispassionate view of the more horrifying aspects of history, instead simply showing how beverages affected global trends—even if these trends were atrocities like the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
On the island of Barbados, colonists experimented with new ways of making spirits, using the new supply of sugar. One new drink, rum, became popular in the 17th century. Rum was produced by allowing cane sugar to ferment for long periods—its name derives from the slang word “rumbullion,” meaning a brawl—suggesting the link between drinking and fighting. Rum was served to slave traders in Africa and slaves in the Americas to soften their hardships. Rum was also a popular drink for sailors journeying to and from Europe. Rum elegantly closed the “triangle” of trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas: rum purchased slaves, who were then used to produce sugar and more rum.
As with beer, the invention of rum represented a new set of resources becoming available to a new group of people. In this case, the new resources were sugar and sugarcane, and the new group of people were Europeans—who applied the processes of fermentation that they’d used to produce beer and wine for thousands of years. It’s also interesting to note that rum immediately appeared as an alcohol of incivility—emphasizing all the negative aspects cultures had found in beer and wine. Again Standage is detached in describing the human cost of his beverages’ respective histories. He is most interested in how imperialism and slavery spread resources, and never spends time condemning them.