Words by Simon Difford
A spirit or liquor is a strong alcoholic beverage produced by distilling an already alcoholic liquid ('wash') produced by fermentation, most commonly wine or beer.
The term 'spirit' has numerous meanings but in reference to alcohol, the word originates from Middle Eastern alchemy where the vapour generated by distillation and collected after condensation was referred to as a spirit of the original substance.
'Liquor', and indeed 'liquid' come from the Latin verb liquere, meaning to be fluid. The use of the word 'liquor' as a term for an alcoholic drink dates back to the 16th century.
Beer, wine and other fermented beverages are limited to a maximum alcohol content of around 18% alc./vol. as the yeasts which produce alcohol during fermentation cannot survive in alcohol strengths much above this. Distillation can be used to concentrate the alcohol in the fermented beverage to produce a spirit.
Distillation separates the alcohol from water and other substances in the fermented beverage via evaporation due to Ethanol alcohol boiling at a lower temperature than water. Distillation also has the benefit of separating the Ethanol alcohol from toxins in the fermented beverage such as methanol and fusel oils due to their also boiling at different temperatures.
It's worth noting that a primitive form of distillation can be achieved by freezing the alcoholic beverage and then removing the ice. Unlike vapour distillation this has the negative effect of concentrating the levels of toxins rather than reducing/removing them.
The term spirits is generally used for beverages with an alcohol content over 18% alc./vol. containing no sugar or low amounts of sugar. Alcoholic beverages with more than 100 grams per litre of sugar are termed 'liqueurs' rather than spirits.
Regulation (EC) No 110/2008 of the European Parliament and the Council dated 15 January 2008 defines 'spirit drinks' as "alcoholic drinks intended for human consumption. By definition, spirit drinks possess particular organoleptic qualities and have a minimum alcoholic strength of 15 % vol. Spirit drinks are produced either directly by distillation, by maceration or by the addition of flavourings, or by mixing a spirit drink with another drink, ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin or certain distillates."