Why Alcohol Is Called Spirits: History and Fascinating Facts

Why Alcohol Is Called Spirits

If you have a curious mind, you must have wondered while taking a sip of your favorite vodka or whiskey, why is it called a spirit? Most would just drink their way through the weekend night or a celebration without thinking about the theories on why some alcohols are called spirits. 

The next mind-boggling question is whether the term is associated with chemical composition, religion, some myth, or belief. 

Though there is no proof of why and who named some liquor spirits, the history of alcohol is intriguing. 

The Definition and Connotations of the word “Spirit”

What does the word “spirit” brings to your mind? The simplest meanings are the human soul, personality/outlook, or a member of the Holy Trinity. Spirit has been derived from the Latin word “Spiritus,” which means breath and implies respiration and wind both. 

The term is also associated with another Latin word, “Spirare” which means “to breathe.” The definition of spirit, as per the “Oxford English Dictionary” according to most initial records, is “a liquid.” However, it was in the 16th century that there is evidence of the meanings/usage of the word as an “intoxicating alcoholic drink.”

There is a theory that the origin of the word “alcohol” traces back to the Middle East, the reason for which is the prefix al which seems to have stemmed from the Arabic words al-koh’l or al-ghawl. 

The second theory that logically links alcohol and spirits is that the term alcohol originated from the Arabic word al-ghawl, which has been mentioned in the Qur’an as a spirit that induces intoxication. 

Digging into the History of Alcohol 

Now that you have some insight into the history of the word “spirit,” a dig into the history of alcohol will help you better understand the link between the two. 

When was the first time alcohol was made? There is no definite answer with an era stamp, so the common belief is that fermentation commenced worldwide at various places independently, and so alcohol has been available to people since times immemorial. 

Here are some facts from the documented history: In 7000 BC China, fermentation through rice, honey, and millet was done using clay pots. The artifacts discovered suggest that people were familiar with making wine as grapevines grew opulently in those times. 

A thousand years down the line, the cultivated vines were found in Armenia, Turkey, and Georgia. The history seems dull without mentioning the Greeks and Romans, and you must be pondering what kind of alcohol they were making.

Greeks and Romans were fond of grape wine, living in just the perfect climate for cultivating them. Mesopotamians used an alternate method to make alcohol because of the unfavorable climate for growing the grapes.

Aristotle and Alcohol 

History has another interesting association of alcohol with spirits, and the reason is none other than the great Aristotle. According to a book authored by Dale DeGrodd, David Wondrich, and Paul Pacult describes that despite not being a common practice in ancient Greece, Aristotle carried out the distillation of spirits in 327 BC. 

There is a passage in the book that attributes Aristotle to naming alcohol “spirits.” The reason was that he experienced a reviving spirit after drinking the alcohol. Many historians and experts don’t agree with this account, especially the classical Greek language experts who are of the view that he could have used a Greek word for spirit instead. So another theory refuted!

The Biblical Implication 

In the new testament, there are five images of the Holy Spirit, tongues, a dove, water, fire, and wind. The passage from Acts 2:13 is inferred as the Pentecost’s bystanders associating the impact of the Holy Spirit with the feeling of intoxication from having too much wine. 

But the Holy Spirit, compared to intoxicating spirits such as alcohol, isn’t very obvious and is subjective to the readers’ and believers’ perception. For non-believers, the connection can be defying logic, but it is not affirmative that it came from the religion, so there is hardly any room for sparking a debate on this. If you are an avid believer, you might find the inference somewhat true. 

Distilled Spirits – Tradition and Myths 

Distillation traces back to India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. During the 2nd century BC and by the 1st century AD, the chemists in Alexandria were devising techniques and tips to improve the distillation process. 

Greeks took the lead to Egyptians for detailing distillation. The Greek sailors of ancient times used to call distillation “boiling” and were acquainted with getting alcohol in the vapor form. 

Anaxilaus of Thessaly had to flee Rome on the allegations of practicing magic, and he was the first one to prepare the distillation formula.

Distilled liquor became a sought-after trade as it retained the taste and content of alcohol during transportation. It was in 1650 that rum was brought to North America and was widely liked on the east coast of North America. 

During the time of colonization, the Europeans brought spirits to Africa, and they started to get utilized for purposes other than pleasure, like protecting the water from spoiling on board ships. 

It was the philosophers who realized that spirits, if not consumed carefully, can have negative implications. Plato suggested that the age for drinking wine should be above 18 years. Relentless alcohol consumption was widely condemned by Aristotle. 

The technological development during the Middle ages further improved the distillation process. 


The 20th century marked the golden era for the liquor trade in the United States. With micro-breweries and micro-distilleries gaining popularity, there are now spirits that are made to match the taste of spirit lovers. There is certainly not a shred of definite evidence as to where and when the term “spirits” originated. However, the connection of humans with alcohol and spirits is centuries old. From celebrating festivities to having fun and manufacturing well-being products, liquor has always been liked and loved by people all around the world. 

The spirits lift your spirits, which is why they are an important part of celebrations. For some, they enhance their creative streak, many use them to ease up tiredness and sadness. The spirits indeed rekindle the spirit of enjoyment and fun social time. 

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