Ever wonder why people name their daughters Brandybut not Whiskey or Slivovitz?

Well, I don’t know either.  But anyway…

As you probably know, there was a time when European rulers would hire British or Irish expats so that they’d have someone at court who could read and write, while the Arab world harbored practitioners of cutting-edge astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry (or alchemy, which is the same word).  For example, they learned how to purify antimony ore into a powder that made excellent eye makeup (the fact that they figured this out may or may not tell us something about the night-life of alchemists in 9th-century Baghdad).  They called this powder kuhul, or al-kuhull, from a verb meaning ‘to paint’ or ‘to stain,’ and we derived the word kohl from it.

By extension, the same term could be applied to any purified substance, such as those obtained by distillation (partially evaporating a liquid and collecting the condensate); the alchemists learned that by heating wine and running it through several cycles of evaporation and condensation, you could get an extra-strong drink, which was of course used for medicinal purposes only.  News of this ‘alcohol of wine’ eventually spread to Europe, where various doctors gravely extolled its health-bringing and life-extending properties.  With excellent PR sense, they renamed it the water of life, or aqua vitae.

By the 1300s, the water of life was coming into widespread recreational use.  The matter-of-fact Germans just called it burnt wine, ‘Branntwein,’ thus brandywine in English, or brandy for short.

In the far north, the ‘water of life’ brand stuck, but they had no wine to burn, so they went with grain beverages, essentially distilled beer.  In Scandinavia they still call their hard liquor aquavit, while the Gaels translated  the term into their own language, coming up with something that sounded like whiskey baugh, later shortened to whiskey (this is, despite the spelling difference, close in pronunciation to the modern  Irish for water, ‘uisce’).  The Russians also call their aqua vitae ‘little water’ (vodka is a diminutive of ‘voda,’ water), but I don’t know if this is coincidence or if it too started out as water of life.  One wonders if this pattern of name-shortening has anything to do with drunk people’s inability to handle polysyllables.

The Europeans who traveled to the Americas learned that, by combining tropical sunshine, slave labor, and limitless greed, they could transform sugar from a rare Arabian spice to a ubiquitous condiment.  They also learned to distill one of the waste by-products of the refining process, molasses, into a strong liquor called kill-devil or rumbullion (an English slang word meaning a fracas or commotion).  The latter was shortened (surprise) to rum.

Now, the enterprising businessmen of New England were sensitive to the many advantages of the rum industry; apart from the enthusiasm for domestic consumption, it was a very compact form of alcohol, and thus ideal for shipping abroad.  In particular, it was greatly favored as a currency with which to buy yet more African slaves.  Of course, as the sugar moguls of Jamaica and Barbados recognized the possibilities of molasses, they started jacking up the price.  The New Englanders naturally responded by heading to cheaper markets in the French colonies, especially Saint Domingue (now Haiti).  The French brandy lobby had used its muscle to have have the production of rum outlawed, so the colonials were happy to unload their molasses at reasonable rates.

But of course the lords of the British West Indies were not going to stand idly by while their profits were sapped away; they ran off to London, where they had a lot more clout than the New Englanders, and got a punitive tariff  on molasses enacted.  The New England distillers, a group which by now included a big chunk of Ye Olde Chamber of Commerce, would be forced to buy their molasses at whatever price the Barbadians decided to set…or to become smugglers and continue with business as usual. 

And that is how smuggling and tax evasion became standard practice among pillars of the New England merchant community.  Being very respectable and well-read smugglers, they elaborated a whole ideology to legitimize their way of life, so that when the big crunch came over who should pay for the French and Indian War, they were armed both habits and arguments that supported their response of   (depending on your perspective) civil disobedience or terrorism.

Thus, if the brandy distillers of France had had less power, then Haitian molasses would have been dearer, Westminster might not have imposed prohibitive taxes on it, New England distillers might have remained law-abiding citizens, Massachusetts might have remained as loyal as Upper Canada, and we might still be worshipping the Queen.  Well, most Americans do seem to worship the Queen, but at least it’s a hobby rather than a duty.


Much of the material above is to be found in Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, which I recommend if this kind of thing interests you.  Other drinks discussed are ancient Near Eastern beer, Greco-Roman wine, coffee, tea, and Coke.



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5 Responses to Ever wonder why people name their daughters Brandybut not Whiskey or Slivovitz?

  1. Megan Kasten says:

    Fascinating. I usually just get out the corkscrew and don’t think about the history of a drink beyond its bottling. Great fodder for a road trip. if there is an audio book version!

    • Roy says:

      Books like this are often pretty half-assed, but this guy, who is apparently the tech editor for the Economist, does a good job. I may end up doing a another post about some of the other topics in the book, but if you can find an audio version, enjoy!

  2. beth mchugh says:

    Great post, Roy! Like Megan, I usually just open the bottle and imbibe…this was truly interesting and fun reading…loved the bit about worship of the Queen!

  3. Mary says:

    One wonders if this pattern of name-shortening has anything to do with drunk people’s inability to handle polysyllables. – my favorite line, but I was so entertained by this post.

    • Roy says:

      Thanks. I’ve been struggling with a couple of posts since this one, and may have to give up on being clever just so I can put something up and move on.

      On Sun, Oct 27, 2013 at 9:41 AM, lippenheimer

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