Why do we call some alcohol spirits?

Posted May 7, 2018

Have you ever wondered where some colorful nicknames and phrases have come from? Many of these linguistic eccentricities can be traced to a specific point in time, where their emergence into the English lexicon is well documented. Others, however, have a less obvious beginnings. The word “spirits,” used to describe some alcoholic beverages, is among those with a murkier past. In this article, we examine the spirited debate regarding the genesis of this boozy term.

To pinpoint the origin of a word or phrase, most etymologists scour ancient texts looking for the first instance of its usage. Absent these resource, they may look to history for the seeds of its development. Different interpretations of the available information often lead to competing theories. The is especially true in the case of the the term spirits.

Spirits are defined as a “an alcoholic drink produced by distillation of liquid drinks made with grains, fruit, or vegetables that have already gone through alcoholic fermentation,”1 and seems to have first appeared in the English language about the 1500s.2 Though this definition is pretty straightforward, historians and etymologists disagree on the word's origin. Some theories point to the effects of alcohol on the body, i.e. intoxication, that give the impression “spirits,” or outside essences, control the body. This assertion is linked to not only the biblical New Testament, where onlookers thought the disciples were drunk on wine when preaching their newfound faith, but also to ancient thinkers such as Aristotle. The philosopher and scholar had a similar idea about spirits being responsible for intoxication.3 These explanations carry less weight than others, primarily due to lack of concrete linguistic evidence.

The term alcohol itself is thought to be Arabic in origin and archaeological evidence suggests distillation was first demonstrated in Mesopotamia. However, experts disagree on which word it was derived from. Scholars are torn between the Quranic word for drunkeness, “al-ghawl,” and the word for a dark, Cleopatra-like eyeliner, “al kohl.” Texts indicate the make up was produced through a procedure similar to that of distillation known as sublimation. This is the mechanism by which a solid is transformed to a gas, skipping the liquid phase altogether.4,5 Though the academic debate will surely continue, the evidence is strong for both theories.

The final theories to discuss are more akin to how we regard alcoholic beverages today. Ancient texts and modern television advertising campaigns illustrate the belief that alcohol possesses ephemeral characteristics.6 The idea of the “spirit” as an entity of the libation itself is directly related to the distillation process. Gathering the vaporous byproduct of this purification method, thought by some to be the “soul,” giving the impression that liquor has an actual life force. Additionally, the evaporation inherent in the production of some dark liquors adds another spiritual concept: offerings. Known by whiskey and scotch distillers today as the “angel's share,” this phrase likens this side effect of the maturation stage to an offering to heavenly beings.7

Spirits: wicked demons at play or blessed offerings to divine messengers? Rather than clarify the mysterious derivation of a word, the the research reflects the often contrasting views humans have of alcohol consumption. Though its root may not be “settled science,” sources highlight the religious connotations humans have placed on alcohol and its consumption from the very beginning.


1 Wikipedia. "Distilled beverage," Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distilled_beverag: last edited on on 6 May 2018, at 02:48 : last accessed 6 May 2018), para. no. 1.

2 Eplett, Layla. "A Spirited Debate: How Did Some Alcohols Come to Be Known as Spirits?," ScientificAmerican.com (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/food-matters/a-spirited-debate-how-did-some-alcohols-come-to-be-known-as-spirits/: last accessed 6 May 2018), paragraphs 1 through 8.

3 Hines, Nick. "Why is Liquor called 'Spirits'?," VinePair.com (https://vinepair.com/articles/why-liquor-called-spirits/: published 5 January 2016: last accessed 6 May 2018), paragraphs 1 through 13.

4 Ibid.
5 Wikipedia. "sublimation," Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sublimation_(phase_transition): last edited on 3 April 2018, at 16:36 : last accessed 6 May 2018), para. no. 1.
6 Ibid.
7 Houston, Jonathan. "What Is the Angel’s Share?," TheWhiskeyWash.com (https://thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/american-whiskey/what-is-the-angels-share/: last accessed 6 May 2018), paragraphs 3 through 5.

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