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An old whiskey still
A display of various liquors in a supermarket
Some single-drink liquor bottles available in Germany

Liquor, spirits, spirit drink, distilled beverage or hard liquor is an alcoholic drink produced by distillation of grains, fruits, vegetables, or sugar, that have already gone through alcoholic fermentation. The distillation process concentrates the liquid to increase its alcohol by volume.[1] As liquors contain significantly more alcohol (ethanol) than other alcoholic drinks, they are considered "harder" – in North America, the term hard liquor is sometimes used to distinguish distilled alcoholic drinks from non-distilled ones, whereas the term spirits is used in the UK. Examples of liquors include brandy, vodka, absinthe, gin, rum, tequila, and whisky.

Like other alcoholic drinks, liquor is typically consumed for the psychoactive effects of alcohol. Liquor may be consumed on its own (“neat”), typically in small amounts. In undiluted form, distilled beverages are often slightly sweet, bitter, and typically impart a burning mouthfeel, with a strong odor from the alcohol; the exact flavor varies between different varieties of liquor and the different impurities they impart. Liquor is also frequently enjoyed in diluted form, as flavored liquor or as part of a mixed drink; with cocktails being a common category of beverage that utilize liquor.

Acute liquor consumption causes severe alcohol intoxication, or alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal. Consistent consumption of liquor over time correlates with higher mortality and other harmful health effects, even compared to other alcoholic beverages.[2][3]


The term "spirit" (singular and used without the additional term "drink") refers to liquor that contains no added sugar and has at least 20% alcohol by volume (ABV).[citation needed] Fruit brandy, for example, is also known as fruit spirit.

Liquor bottled with added sugar and added flavorings, such as Grand Marnier, Frangelico, and American schnapps, are known instead as liqueurs.

Liquor generally has an alcohol concentration higher than 30%. Beer and wine, which are not distilled, are limited to a maximum alcohol content of about 20% ABV, as most yeasts cannot metabolise when the concentration of alcohol is above this level; as a consequence, fermentation ceases at that point.


The origin of "liquor" and its close relative "liquid" was the Latin verb liquere, meaning "to be fluid". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an early use of the word in the English language, meaning simply "a liquid", can be dated to 1225. The first use the OED mentions of its meaning "a liquid for drinking" occurred in the 14th century. Its use as a term for "an intoxicating alcoholic drink" appeared in the 16th century.

History of distillation[edit]

Early history[edit]

Distillation equipment used by the 3rd century alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis,[4][5] from the Byzantine Greek manuscript Parisinus graecus 2327.[6]

Early evidence of distillation comes from Akkadian tablets dated c. 1200 BC describing perfumery operations, providing textual evidence that an early, primitive form of distillation was known to the Babylonians of ancient Mesopotamia.[7] Early evidence of distillation also comes from alchemists working in Alexandria, Roman Egypt, in the 1st century.[8] Distilled water was described in the 2nd century AD by Alexander of Aphrodisias.[9] Alchemists in Roman Egypt were using a distillation alembic or still device in the 3rd century.

Distillation was known in the ancient Indian subcontinent, evident from baked clay retorts and receivers found at Taxila and Charsadda in modern Pakistan, dating back to the early centuries of the Christian era. These "Gandhara stills" were capable of producing only very weak liquor, as there was no efficient means of collecting the vapors at low heat.[10]

Distillation in China could have begun during the Eastern Han dynasty (1st–2nd centuries), but the distillation of beverages began in the Jin (12th–13th centuries) and Southern Song (10th–13th centuries) dynasties according to archaeological evidence.[11]

Freeze distillation involves freezing the alcoholic beverage and then removing the ice. The freezing technique had limitations in geography and implementation limiting how widely this method was put to use.

Distillation of wine[edit]

An illustration of brewing and distilling industry methods in England, 1858

The inflammable nature of the exhalations of wine was already known to ancient natural philosophers such as Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Theophrastus (c. 371–287 BCE), and Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 CE).[12] However, this did not immediately lead to the isolation of alcohol, even despite the development of more advanced distillation techniques in second- and third-century Roman Egypt.[13] An important recognition, first found in one of the writings attributed to Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (ninth century CE), was that by adding salt to boiling wine, which increases the wine's relative volatility, the flammability of the resulting vapors may be enhanced.[14] The distillation of wine is attested in Arabic works attributed to al-Kindī (c. 801–873 CE) and to al-Fārābī (c. 872–950), and in the 28th book of al-Zahrāwī's (Latin: Abulcasis, 936–1013) Kitāb al-Taṣrīf (later translated into Latin as Liber servatoris).[15] In the twelfth century, recipes for the production of aqua ardens ("burning water", i.e., alcohol) by distilling wine with salt started to appear in a number of Latin works, and by the end of the thirteenth century it had become a widely known substance among Western European chemists.[16] Its medicinal properties were studied by Arnald of Villanova (1240–1311 CE) and John of Rupescissa (c. 1310–1366), the latter of whom regarded it as a life-preserving substance able to prevent all diseases (the aqua vitae or "water of life", also called by John the quintessence of wine).[17]

In China, archaeological evidence indicates that the true distillation of alcohol began during the 12th century Jin or Southern Song dynasties.[11] A still has been found at an archaeological site in Qinglong, Hebei, dating to the 12th century.[11]

In India, the true distillation of alcohol was introduced from the Middle East, and was in wide use in the Delhi Sultanate by the 14th century.[10]

The works of Taddeo Alderotti (1223–1296) describe a method for concentrating alcohol involving repeated fractional distillation through a water-cooled still, by which an alcohol purity of 90% could be obtained.[18]

In 1437, "burned water" (brandy) was mentioned in the records of the County of Katzenelnbogen in Germany.[19] It was served in a tall, narrow glass called a Goderulffe.

Government regulation[edit]


It is legal to distill beverage alcohol as a hobby for personal use in some countries, including New Zealand[20] and the Netherlands.[citation needed]

In the United States, it is illegal to distill beverage alcohol without a license. In some parts of the U.S., it is also illegal to sell a still without a license. However, all states allow unlicensed individuals to make their own beer, and some also allow unlicensed individuals to make their own wine (although making beer and wine is also prohibited in some local jurisdictions).


Some countries and sub-national jurisdictions limit or prohibit the sale of certain very high-percentage alcohol, commonly known as neutral spirit.

Due to its flammability (see below) alcoholic beverage with alcohol content above 70% by volume is not permitted to be transported in aircraft.[21]


Microdistilling (also known as craft distilling) began to re-emerge as a trend in the United States following the microbrewing and craft beer movement in the last decades of the 20th century. In contrast, large-scale distillation facilities were never as dominant in Scotland, so the tradition of small-scale distillation was never really lost in the Scotch whisky market.


These flaming cocktails illustrate that some liquors will readily catch fire and burn.

Liquor that contains 40% ABV (80 US proof) will catch fire if heated to about 26 °C (79 °F) and if an ignition source is applied to it. This temperature is called its flash point.[22] The flash point of pure alcohol is 16.6 °C (61.9 °F), less than average room temperature.[23]

The flammability of liquor is applied in the cooking technique flambé.

The flash points of alcohol concentrations from 10% ABV to 96% ABV are:[24]


A row of alcoholic beverages – in this case, spirits – in a bar

Liquor can be served:

  • Neat — at room temperature without any additional ingredient(s)[26]
  • Up — shaken or stirred with ice, strained, and served in a stemmed glass
  • Down — shaken or stirred with ice, strained, and served in a rocks glass
  • On the rocks — over ice cubes
  • Blended or frozen — blended with ice
  • With a simple mixer, such as club soda, tonic water, juice, or cola
  • As an ingredient of a cocktail
  • As an ingredient of a shooter
  • With water
  • With water poured over sugar (as with absinthe)

Alcohol consumption by country[edit]

Map of Europe with individual countries grouped into three regions by dominant patterns of alcohol consumption and traditionally preferred types of alcoholic drink
  Wine-drinking countries[27][28]/Mediterranean pattern[29][30])
  Beer-drinking countries[27][28]/Central European pattern[29][30])
  Spirit-drinking countries[27][28]/Eastern/Northern European pattern[29][30])
Both Denmark and Slovakia are categorized either as beer-drinking countries or as spirit-drinking countries.

The World Health Organization measures and publishes alcohol consumption patterns in different countries. The WHO measures alcohol consumed by persons 15 years of age or older and reports it on the basis of liters of pure alcohol consumed per capita in a given year in a country.[31]

In Europe, spirits (especially vodka) are more popular towards the north and east of the continent.

Health effects[edit]

Short-term effects[edit]

Distilled spirits contain ethyl alcohol, the same chemical that is present in beer and wine and as such, spirit consumption has short-term psychological and physiological effects on the user. Different concentrations of alcohol in the human body have different effects on a person. The effects of alcohol depend on the amount an individual has drunk, the percentage of alcohol in the spirits and the timespan that the consumption took place, the amount of food eaten and whether an individual has taken other prescription, over-the-counter or street drugs, among other factors.

Drinking enough to cause a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.03%-0.12% typically causes an overall improvement in mood and possible euphoria, increased self-confidence, and sociability, decreased anxiety, a flushed, red appearance in the face and impaired judgment and fine muscle coordination. A BAC of 0.09% to 0.25% causes lethargy, sedation, balance problems and blurred vision. A BAC from 0.18% to 0.30% causes profound confusion, impaired speech (e.g., slurred speech), staggering, dizziness and vomiting. A BAC from 0.25% to 0.40% causes stupor, unconsciousness, anterograde amnesia, vomiting, and respiratory depression (potentially life-threatening). Death may occur due to inhalation of vomit (pulmonary aspiration) while unconscious. A BAC from 0.35% to 0.80% causes a coma (unconsciousness), life-threatening respiratory depression and possibly fatal alcohol poisoning.

Heavy consumption of liquor leads to bloating, gassiness, diarrhea, painful stools, or fullness in the abdomen.[32] High quantity consumption of liquor leads to cancer risk, namely mouth cancer, throat cancer, esophagus cancer, colon cancer, or liver cancer.

As with all alcoholic beverages, driving under the influence, operating an aircraft or heavy machinery increases the risk of an accident; as such many countries have penalties for drunk driving.

Long-term effects[edit]

The main active ingredient of distilled spirits is alcohol, and therefore, the health effects of alcohol apply to spirits. Drinking more than 1-2 drinks a day increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, and stroke.[33] The risk is greater in younger people due to binge drinking which may result in violence or accidents.[33] About 3.3 million deaths (5.9% of all deaths) are believed to be due to alcohol each year.[34] Unlike for wine and perhaps beer, there is no evidence for a J-shaped health effect for the consumption of distilled alcohol.[2]

Alcoholism, also known as "alcohol use disorder", is a broad term for any drinking of alcohol that results in problems.[35] Alcoholism reduces a person's life expectancy by around ten years[36] and alcohol use is the third-leading cause of early death in the United States.[33]


Consumption of distilled alcohol is the most important single factor behind variation on mortality rates and life expectancy for men in Europe. For example, in heavily Islamic regions of the Caucases (Islam forbids alcohol consumption) the life expectancy gap between women and men is five years; in nearby Christian areas it is ten years, and in the Czech Republic (where beer predominates) the chance of a man dying between the ages of 15 and 60 is less than half that of nearby Ukraine.[2][37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "distilled spirit - alcoholic beverage". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  2. ^ a b c Korotayev, Andrey; Khaltourina, Daria; Meshcherina, Kira; Zamiatnina, Elena (2018). "Distilled Spirits Overconsumption as the Most Important Factor of Excessive Adult Male Mortality in Europe". Alcohol and Alcoholism. 53 (6): 742–752. doi:10.1093/alcalc/agy054. PMID 30113627.
  3. ^ Klatsky, A. L. (2003-09-15). "Wine, Liquor, Beer, and Mortality". American Journal of Epidemiology. Oxford University Press (OUP). 158 (6): 585–595. doi:10.1093/aje/kwg184. ISSN 0002-9262. PMID 12965884.
  4. ^ E. Gildemeister and Fr. Hoffman, translated by Edward Kremers (1913). The Volatile Oils. 1. New York: Wiley. p. 203.
  5. ^ Bryan H. Bunch and Alexander Hellemans (2004). The History of Science and Technology. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 88. ISBN 0-618-22123-9.
  6. ^ Marcelin Berthelot Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (3 vol., Paris, 1887–1888, v. 1, p. 161)
  7. ^ Levey, Martin (1959). Chemistry and Chemical Technology in Ancient Mesopotamia. Elsevier. p. 36. As already mentioned, the textual evidence for Sumero-Babylonian distillation is disclosed in a group of Akkadian tablets describing perfumery operations, dated ca. 1200 B.C.
  8. ^ Forbes, Robert James (1970). A short history of the art of distillation: from the beginnings up to the death of Cellier Blumenthal. BRILL. pp. 57, 89. ISBN 978-90-04-00617-1. Archived from the original on 20 December 2011. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
  9. ^ Taylor, F. Sherwood (1945). "The Evolution of the Still". Annals of Science. 5 (3): 186. doi:10.1080/00033794500201451. ISSN 0003-3790.
  10. ^ a b Irfan Habib (2011), Economic History of Medieval India, 1200-1500, page 55, Pearson Education
  11. ^ a b c Haw, Stephen G. (2006). "Wine, women and poison". Marco Polo in China. Routledge. pp. 147–148. ISBN 978-1-134-27542-7. Retrieved 2016-07-10. The earliest possible period seems to be the Eastern Han dynasty... the most likely period for the beginning of true distillation of spirits for drinking in China is during the Jin and Southern Song dynasties
  12. ^ Berthelot, Marcellin; Houdas, Octave V. (1893). La Chimie au Moyen Âge. Vol. I–III. Paris: Imprimerie nationale. |volume= has extra text (help) vol. I, p. 137.
  13. ^ Berthelot & Houdas 1893, vol. I, pp. 138-139.
  14. ^ al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. (2009). "Alcohol and the Distillation of Wine in Arabic Sources from the 8th Century". Studies in al-Kimya': Critical Issues in Latin and Arabic Alchemy and Chemistry. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag. pp. 283–298. (same content also available on the author's website).
  15. ^ al-Hassan 2009 (same content also available on the author's website); cf. Berthelot & Houdas 1893, vol. I, pp. 141, 143. Sometimes, sulfur was also added to the wine (see Berthelot & Houdas 1893, vol. I, p. 143).
  16. ^ Multhauf, Robert P. (1966). The Origins of Chemistry. London: Oldbourne. ISBN 9782881245947. pp. 204-206.
  17. ^ Principe, Lawrence M. (2013). The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226103792. pp. 69-71.
  18. ^ Holmyard, Eric John (1957). Alchemy. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-486-26298-7. pp. 51–52.
  19. ^, see entry at Trinkglas.
  20. ^ Austin, Kim (16 September 2011). "Distilling your own spirits: A drop of the easier stuff". Retrieved 20 May 2020.
  21. ^ "App-1 Appendix on DANGEROUS GOODS" (PDF). ICAO. Retrieved 20 May 2020.
  22. ^ "Flash Point and Fire Point". Archived from the original on December 14, 2010. Retrieved March 6, 2011.
  23. ^ "Material Safety Data Sheet, Section 5". Retrieved March 7, 2011.
  24. ^ "Flash points of ethanol-based water solutions". Retrieved June 23, 2011.
  25. ^ Robert L. Wolke (5 July 2006). "Combustible Combination". Washington Post. Retrieved 27 January 2011.
  26. ^ Walkart, C.G. (2002). National Bartending Center Instruction Manual. Oceanside, California: Bartenders America, Inc. p. 104.  ASIN: B000F1U6HG.
  27. ^ a b c Karlsson, Thomas; Simpura, Jussi (2001). "Changes in living conditions and their links to alcohol consumption and drinking patterns in 16 European countries, 1950 to 2000" (PDF). Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 18 (1): 82–99. doi:10.1177/145507250101801S03. ISSN 1455-0725. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 August 2017. Retrieved 8 July 2017.
  28. ^ a b c Shield, Kevin D.; Kehoe, Tara; Gmel, Gerrit; Rehm, Maximilien X.; Rehm, Jürgen (2012). "Societal burden of alcohol" (PDF). In Anderson, Peter; Møller, Lars; Galea, Gauden (eds.). Alcohol in the European Union: Consumption, harm and policy approaches. Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe. pp. 10–28. ISBN 978-92-890-0264-6. Retrieved 8 July 2017.
  29. ^ a b c Iontchev, Atanas (1998). "Central and Eastern Europe". In Grant, Marcus (ed.). Alcohol And Emerging Markets: Patterns, Problems, And Responses. Taylor & Francis. pp. 177–202. ISBN 978-0-87630-978-0.
  30. ^ a b c Popova, Svetlana; Rehm, Jürgen; Patra, Jayadeep; Zatonski, Witold (6 February 2007). "Comparing alcohol consumption in Central and Eastern Europe to other European countries". Alcohol and Alcoholism. 42 (5): 465–473. doi:10.1093/alcalc/agl124. PMID 17287207.
  31. ^
  32. ^ "23 Effects of Alcohol on Your Body". Healthline. 2014-06-30. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  33. ^ a b c O'Keefe, JH; Bhatti, SK; Bajwa, A; DiNicolantonio, JJ; Lavie, CJ (March 2014). "Alcohol and cardiovascular health: the dose makes the poison...or the remedy". Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 89 (3): 382–93. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.11.005. PMID 24582196.
  34. ^ "Alcohol Facts and Statistics". Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  35. ^ Jill Littrell (2014). Understanding and Treating Alcoholism Volume I: An Empirically Based Clinician's Handbook for the Treatment of Alcoholism: Volume II: Biological, Psychological, and Social Aspects of Alcohol Consumption and Abuse. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. p. 55. ISBN 9781317783145. The World Health Organization defines alcoholism as any drinking which results in problems
  36. ^ Schuckit, MA (27 November 2014). "Recognition and management of withdrawal delirium (delirium tremens)". The New England Journal of Medicine. 371 (22): 2109–13. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1407298. PMID 25427113.
  37. ^ Yakovlev, Evgeny (1 July 2015). "Alcoholism and mortality in Eastern Europe". IZA World of Labor. doi:10.15185/izawol.168. Retrieved 29 August 2020.


  • Blue, Anthony Dias (2004). The Complete Book of Spirits: A Guide to Their History, Production, and Enjoyment. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-054218-7.
  • Forbes, Robert (1997). Short History of the Art of Distillation from the Beginnings up to the Death of Cellier Blumenthal. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-04-00617-6.
  • Multhauf, Robert (1993). The Origins of Chemistry. Gordon & Breach Science Publishers. ISBN 2-88124-594-3.

External links[edit]