Ever wonder why we call alcohol “spirits”? After all, “spirit” can refer to:
- the human soul, either in whole or in part;
- an intelligent creature with no material body (angels and demons, or if you are getting fanciful, sprites, nymphs, and so forth);
- the Third Person in the Holy Trinity;
- courage or gumption;
- a defining quality, such as “the spirit of a place.”
And when spirit is associated with anything physical, it is usually not something wet like alcohol but something dry. Indeed, “spirit” is derived from the Latin spiritus (meaning breath, air, or gentle wind), and in the early Church it was used to translate the Greek pneuma and the Hebrew ruah, both of which also mean wind, breath, or spirit.
How, then, did air become hooch? One theory popular on the Internet is that “alcohol” comes from the Arabic al-kuhl, a “body-eating spirit.” The problem is that al-kuḥl actually means “eye cosmetic,” which was once made in a way that loosely resembled the distillation of alcohol.[i]
In the English language the first instances of “spirit” were derived from passages in the Vulgate translation of the Bible mentioning spiritus and were therefore in conformity with biblical usage. “Spirit,” in other words, had a largely spiritual meaning, something in contradistinction to worldliness, materiality, literalness, etc. Tied to this usage were other qualities of the soul, such as courage, mental vigor, or liveliness.
But there were two exceptions to this rule. Starting in the late fourteenth century, “spirit” in medical terminology came to designate an alleged fluid that permeated the blood and chief organs of the body. There were supposedly three kinds: natural spirits (responsible for growth and nutrition), animal spirits (responsible for sensation and movement), and vital spirits (responsible for life itself). Similarly, medieval alchemists identified four substances as spirits: quicksilver, orpiment (arsenic trisulfide), sal ammoniac, and brimstone.[ii]
It was in this manner that the realm of air passed into oceans of liquid. From there it was only a short jump to identifying spirits with distilled alcoholic beverages, as we see in Ben Jonson’s 1612 Alchemist and John Bunyan’s 1684 Pilgrim’s Progress. In the latter, Mr. Interpreter (the Holy Spirit) offers the protagonist Christiana some honeycomb and “a little Bottle of Spirits.” Interestingly, the first alcoholic meaning of spirits in English religious literature comes to us from a Baptist, and as a gift from the Holy Ghost!
But the question still remains: why did early English authors apply an aerial word to fluids? The answer again may go back to the Bible. There are five main images for the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, the first four of which are fairly well-known: a dove, tongues, fire, and wind. But the fifth image of the Holy Spirit is water, as when our Lord calls the Spirit “rivers of living water” that will flow out of the believer (Jn. 7:38). Later on, St. Paul uses liquid imagery for the Holy Spirit when he writes that “in one Spirit we have all been made to drink” (I Cor. 12:13). Separately, during the first Pentecost bystanders mistook the effects of the Holy Spirit on the disciples as intoxication from too much new wine (Acts 2:13).
The combination of these two Scriptural elements makes it almost irresistible to associate the Holy Spirit with strong drink. St. Paul himself endorses the link, at least by way of contrast, in his admonition: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is luxury, but be ye filled with the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). To the untrained eye, being inspired by the Spirit can resemble being inebriated by the Bottle. St. Augustine of Hippo is even more explicit. Drunkenness does three things: it overthrows the mind, gives one a “high” (literally, “snatches the mind upward”), and makes one forgetful. Being “drunk” on the Holy Spirit does not overthrow the mind, but it does have the other two qualities, for it carries the mind heavenward and makes one forgetful of “all earthly things.”[iii]
Another mystery is why the term “spirits” does not designate all alcoholic beverages but only distilled liquors, specifically those with at least 20% alcohol by volume and no added sugar (unlike liqueurs, which are sweet). After all, the juxtaposition in the New Testament is between the Holy Spirit and wine (a product of fermentation), not the Holy Spirit and gin.
I suspect—and this is only a guess—that the answer has to do with the nature of distillation which, in separating the alcohol of a fermented beverage from the wash, isolates its most powerful, “lively” element. The distillate, in other words, is the freed “spirit” of the formerly diluted liquid. Another plausible theory is that the vapors rising from the distillation process reminded folks of spirits floating up. To this day, the part of the whiskey lost to evaporation during aging in oak barrels is known as “the Angels’ share.”
And perhaps “spirits” is typically used in the plural to signify the different effects that the powerful potation can have, effects that vary according to the amount of liquor consumed as well as the temperament of the drinker. There is an old Talmudic legend that after Noah planted the first vineyard the Devil snuck in and sacrificed four animals: an ape, a pig, a sheep, and a lion. Subsequently, wine and all strong drink can induce four kinds of drunkenness that correspond to the four temperaments or humors of ancient psychology: “ape drunk” refers to the happy sanguine, “swine drunk” to the melancholic crying in his beer, “mutton drunk” to the couch-potato phlegmatic, and “lion drunk” to the brawling choleric. With their high proof, distilled liquors are particularly adept at eliciting the spirits of these animals.
In any event, for the Catholic imbiber the term “spirits” is a sober reminder to exercise caution when releasing these genies from the bottle, lest they cause flood damage to the temple of the Holy Spirit.
[i] See OED, “alcohol, n.”
[ii] My historic claims here and following are based on the OED entry for “spirit, n.”
[iii] On Christian Struggle 9.10.