Ein Destillationsgerät mit Alembik und Luftkühlung. Aus: Kräuterbuch des Matthioli, 1586

Following the Traces of Alcohol – From Rose Oil to high-percentage Alcohol Distillation

In our inter­view series “Following the Traces of Alcohol” we examine the begin­nings of the alcohol produc­tion.

From oils in China through the Master of Salerno to today’s well-known German spirit of wine – our inter­view partner Kur Sartorius, initi­ator and leader of the “Schwäbisches Schnapsmu­seums Bönnigheim” (Swabian Hard Liquor Museum in Bönnigheim) shares his expert know­ledge!  

Brüggemann­Alcohol: When was a distil­la­tion process carried out for the first time in history?

Kurt Sartorius: The process of distil­la­tion has been in exist­ence for more than 5,000 years. The Chinese and Egyp­tians were considered to be the pion­eers for this process. They were the first to have distilling equip­ment. However, there is no confirmed evid­ence that they produced alcohol. Rather, they used it to make perfumes such as rose oil. The differ­ence between this and the distil­la­tion of alcohol was that this oil produc­tion did not require a cooler.

Brüggemann­Alcohol: When did the produc­tion of alcohol first start and for what purpose was it used?

Kurt Sartorius: Recent find­ings in China show that oldest known “wine“ was produced 9,500 years ago. With a low alcohol content and mainly in the form of must and honey wine, this was consumed by the nobility and the wealthy at that time. In the 11th century, strong brandy was first produced in the Univer­sity of Salerno (Italy). The Magister Salernus is still considered to be the discoverer of alcohol distil­la­tion. Back then he described his process with a lot of odd signs that only insiders were supposed to read. Never­the­less, the general produc­tion of alcohol was limited to very small amounts due to inad­equate equip­ment. Initially, the spirit could only be used as a medi­cine as the quantity avail­able didn’t suffice to make luxury foods out of it. People discovered alcohol’s pleasant effect as consumer good many years later. With the inven­tion of the water cooler in the 14th century, the facil­ities for produ­cing alcohol improved. Now larger quant­ities could be produced and the produc­tion of drinking spirits as luxury goods began.

Brüggemann­Alcohol: Why do the Germans call potable alcohol also “Weingeist” (wine spirit)?

Kurt Sartorius: “Weingeist” (Wine Spirit) is the oldest term for potable alcohol. Until 1800 the people believed in the Greek world view that the eart exists of four non-combin­able elements (water, fire, earth, air). By advan­cing the produc­tion of alcohol that perspective began to change. Initially grapes, meaning wine, have been used as raw material for spirit drinks. In the next step a burning water arose and such a spooky, previ­ously incon­ceiv­able reac­tion led to the term “Weingeist” (Wine Spirit). This sudden connec­tion of the four elements, which were once impossible to combine, made a form­ative contri­bu­tion to our view of the world today.

Brüggemann­Alcohol: Why do the Germans call schnapps „Schnaps“?

Kurt Sartorius: That most common name “Schnaps” derives from the Low German language and relates to the verb „schnappen“ (to snap). The point is to "snap" the spirit with a small, quick sip.

Brüggemann­Alcohol: Where did liqueur develop from?

Kurt Sartorius: Once the distil­la­tion process was fully developed, people discovered quite early the bene­fits of alcohol in terms of dissolving and conserving effective healing substances. That is how various medic­a­tion got produced until today (e.g. homeo­pathic drops or herbal medi­cine). The disad­vantage: An extremely bitter taste in the final product. Let's take the example of the Blood­wort, a plant supporting digestive prob­lems. Its roots are prepared in water, which results in a dark red and bitter schnapps. To make this bitter medi­cine enjoy­able people would add sugar or honey. That is how liqueur emerged – which is, in my eyes, no other than sweetened medi­cine.

If there is a person entitled to call himself an expert of the history of alcohol, it defin­itely would be Kurt Sartorius, initi­ator und leader of the “Schwäbisches Schnapsmu­seum Bönnigheim”. He completed his first spirit distil­lery 44 years ago and has ever since been dealing intens­ively with the history of alcohol. As a result, the distil­lery was to be turned into a local museum. In 1985, based on a recom­mend­a­tion from the state museum and consid­ering the large number of already existing regional wine museums, the plan changed and led to the creation of a special­ized schnaps museum which opened in 1993. Today Kurt Sartorius has Germany's largest alcohol history museum collec­tion. In partic­ular, distil­la­tion tech­niques, the devel­op­ment of alcohol history and illicit distil­lery are among his areas of expertise. In 2020 the “Schwäbische Schnapsmu­seum Bönnigheim” was nomin­ated for the German Berlin Spirit Awards of Tradi­tion.

Picture Credits: Kräu­ter­buch des Matthioli, 1586 / Schwäbisches Schnapsmu­seum Bönnigheim / Alembic. A still with alembic and air cooling.

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