Have you ever wondered why alcohol is called “spirits”? The word spirit may refer to either a human soul, an intelligent creature with no physical body (demons or angels), the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, courage, and also as a defining quality of the spirit of a place. The word spirit is associated with anything that is physical, something like alcohol. “Spirit” is coined from the Latin word spiritus which means air, breath or a gentle wind. In the early Church, it was used to translate the Greek pneuma and the Hebrew ruah; both of which indicate wind, breath, or spirit.
Ancient Egyptians may have invented the beer, but the medieval monasteries perfected the art of brewing the beer in the right manner. In fact, they also discovered and improved the methods of distilling. Today, many parts of the world make the finest alcohol within such cloisters. So, how did air become hooch? A famous theory on the Internet suggests that “alcohol” originates from Arabic al-kuhl or a “body-eating spirit.” However, the issue here is that al-kuḥl denotes “eye cosmetic,” which was once made in a way that it resembled the distillation of alcohol.
In English, the word spirit found its place from passages in the Vulgate translation of the Bible which mentioned a word called spiritus. In other words, the spirit has a profoundly spiritual meaning and refers to worldliness, literalness or materiality. Taking the usage further, it also meant other qualities of the soul like mental vigor, liveliness or courage.
The Drink and the Holy Spirit
In the early 14th century, the spirit in medical terms was used to refer to an alleged fluid that pervaded the chief organs of the body and the blood. There were three kinds of spirits; animal spirits which were responsible for sensation and movement, natural spirits that aided growth and nutrition and the vital spirits which were life itself. Similarly, the alchemists of the medieval period identified four substances as spirits; orpiment or arsenic trisulfide, brimstone, Quicksilver and sal ammoniac.
In this way, the realm of air got into the oceans of liquid. From here, it was a small jump in identifying that the spirits were distilled alcohol just as it was seen in Ben Jonson’s 1612 Alchemist and John Bunyan’s 1684 Pilgrim’s Progress. In the latter, the Holy Spirit offered the protagonist Christiana some honeycomb and a small bottle of spirits. The first alcoholic reference of spirits in English religious texts came to us from a Baptist and as a gift of the Holy Ghost.
However, the question remains unanswered; why did the early authors refer an aerial word to fluids? The answer is again in the Bible! The New Testament has five main images for the Holy Spirit; the first four are relatively known (dove, fire, wind, and the tongue). But the fifth image is that of the Holy Water or as our Lord calls it spirit “rivers of living water” that will flow out of the believer (Jn. 7:38).
The Bible links the Holy Spirit to strong drink. St Paul used a liquid imagery for the Holy Spirit and wrote, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is a luxury but be ye filled with the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).
According to St Augustine of Hippo, the state of drunkenness overthrows the mind, gives a high and makes one forget things. On the other hand, being “drunk” on the Holy Spirit carries the mind towards the heaven and makes one forget all the earthly things.
There is yet another mystery surrounding the term spirits. Why is the term not used for all other alcoholic beverages but only for distilled liquors (the ones with at least 20 percent alcohol by volume and no added sugar)? It could be because the juxtaposition in the New Testament is only between the Holy Spirit and wine, not the Holy Spirit and gin.
Freeing Spirits in Medieval Monasteries
While separating the alcohol in a fermented beverage, the “lively” element is isolated. The distillation releases the spirit from the diluted liquid. Another theory is that the vapors coming out during the distillation process remind the folks of spirits floating in the skies. Till date, the part of whiskey that is lost to evaporation while aging in oak barrels is called as the angels’ share. But the association between the Catholic thought and drinking is far beyond the mere word connect.
Here are some interesting facts related to brewing and distilling that was done in medieval monasteries:
• Méthode champenoise was invented by a Benedictine monk whose name is given to the world’s finest champagnes: Dom Pérignon. According to the story, when the monk sampled the first batch, he cried out to his fellow monks, “Brothers, come quickly. I am drinking stars!”
• The Irish monks discovered Whiskey as they shared their knowledge with the Scots during their missions. Whiskey was first prescribed as a cure for tongue paralysis. Apparently, it works as no Irishman has ever complained of having a paralyzed tongue.
• The world’s most magical liqueur, Chartreuse was perfected by Carthusian monks. It is still made by them. However, only two monks know the recipe!
• Blessed Junípero Serra and his Franciscan brethren brought first wine grapes to California, and the wine industry started in the region. The industry’s rebirth in Napa country post the prohibition was because of a chemistry teacher and a LaSalle Christian Brother, Brother Timothy.
• Dom Bernardo Vincelli invented the Bénédictine DOM (abbreviation of Deo Optimo et Maximo, “To God, Most Good and Most Great”) to “fortify and restore weary monks.”
• A hermit monk by the name Frangelico discovered the Frangelico liqueur by experimenting with different types of nuts, berries, and herbs that he had gathered during his solitude. Today, the drink is available in a monk-shaped brown bottle with a cloth tied around its waist like a rope.