The life and times of aqua vitae

Photography by Theodora Sutcliffe

The life and times of aqua vitae image 1

“Its glory is inestimable; it is the parent and lord of all medicines, and its effects are marvelous,” raved the 13th century Italian doctor-scholar-alchemist, Taddeo Alderotti.

What was he talking about? Why, booze. AKA, aqua vitae. Or, as he wrote it "aqua vite", a strong spirit he fractionally distilled from wine. The "water of life" (also, as Taddeo spelled it, the "water of the grape vine") was truly an extraordinary medicine, whether compounded with other ingredients, or on its own.

And it wasn't just Taddeo who praised it. A couple of hundred years later, another alchemist, Savanarola, was remarking approvingly that men had lived for a long time by drinking aqua vitae.

On June 1 1495, one Friar John Cor is recorded as receiving 8 bolls of malt to make aqua vitae for King James IV, at Lindores Abbey. The date and place are enshrined in Scotch whisky lore as the first written evidence of distillation in Scotland.
And, not least because the word "whisky" apparently comes from the Gaelic "uisce/uisge beatha", which, like "aqua vitae" means "water of life", it's natural to assume that Friar Cor was making something quite like whisky, and that James would be drinking it.
But was he?


What was "aqua vitae"? And why was it so amazing? Why would anyone think that strong alcohol was the "the water of life"?

The art of the medieval alchemists was a weird mixture of magic, mysticism, astrology, chemistry, pharmacy, philosophy and medicine - science with a hefty dose of voodoo. Records are complicated by the fact that many alchemists, whether in fear of persecution by the religious authorities or protecting trade secrets, wrote in code.

But everyone lived in a world where death came suddenly, either violently or mysteriously, and usually early. Life expectancy at birth for a boy in the Britain of Taddeo's time was roughly 30 - although if he survived to age 20, he could expect to make it to the ripe old age of 45. Around 1350, the Black Death, a terrifying, incurable plague, wiped out as much as one-third of the population of Europe. Most died horribly within a couple of days of first getting sick, and the plague returned for centuries after that.

Unsurprisingly, in a world so full of danger, many alchemists in Europe, like their counterparts around the world, went looking for (among other things) an elixir of life, a potion that could delay ageing, delay death, stave off sickness - or even produce immortality. As an ingredient, strong alcohol seemed highly promising. It could preserve herbs, fruit, flowers and meat, so why could it not also help preserve the human body?

The alchemists distilled pretty much everything that could be distilled, from dew (distilled dew was a central ingredient in many elixirs) to human blood (also very popular), as well as solids. And they often distilled their ingredients many, many times.

But it wasn't just its preservative qualities that made distilled alcohol seem special, whether you called it aqua vitae, aqua ardens (burning water) or aqua ignea (fiery water). It came from fire - and many alchemists believed distillation actually put fire into the base liquid, making alcohol a combination of two elements, fire and water. It appeared from a coloured liquid, as a transparent vapour coiling through tubes like smoke, a "spirit".

Medical thought at the time was dominated by the Ancient Greek idea of balancing "humours" in the body - the hot and the cold, the wet and the dry. Aqua vitae was cold but produced a warming feeling; it was wet but had a drying effect on the "humours"; and, of course, it affected both mind and body extremely quickly.

It was, in fact, pretty darn close to magic.


Confusingly, from the very beginning, the term "aqua vitae" meant not only a distilled spirit but complex mixtures, the forerunners of liqueurs, based on, umm, aqua vitae.

One German recipe, created by a noble female distiller and shared by Anne of Saxony, a Danish princess from a couple of generations after James IV, makes Chartreuse's famously complex recipe look simple. Her recipe required 387 ingredients and nine separate distillations spaced over two years to make the white aqua vitae; 28 more ingredients and six more months were needed to complete the yellow aqua vitae.
While this and many other recipes were prized for their medicinal value, it didn't take folk long to realise that aqua vitae got them drunk. The Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise record that in 1405, "Richard Magrannell, Chieftain of Moyntyreolas, died at Christmas, by taking a surfeit of aqua vitae," and goes on to editorialise, "Mine author sayeth that it was not aqua vitae to him, but aqua mortis [water of death]".

Although we don't know whether Magrannell was drinking aqua vitae for health or pleasure, Shakespeare had a character make a joke about Irishmen's fondness for aqua vitae a couple of centuries later. More soberly, Fynes Moryson, an Elizabethan travel writer, observed that Irish aqua vitae, "vulgarly called usquebagh", was better than English aqua vitae for drying up the body without inflaming it.

What was Irish aqua vitae? Well, like akvavit today and many traditional vodkas, Irish aqua vitae seems to have been flavoured. According to an English recipe from 1651, "usque-bath, or Irish Aqua vitae" included not only aqua vitae but sherry, raisins, dates, cinnamon, nutmeg and liquorice. A later (1725) recipe for "Fine usquebaugh" includes mace, cloves, cinnamon and coriander, as well as aqua vitae.


What about James IV's Scottish aqua vitae, which Friar John Cor was making for him in Scotland, much earlier - enough for 1500 bottles at a standard whisky proof, or rather less at a higher proof, or a lot less with the wastage levels alchemical texts recommend? Was James IV drinking the stuff neat? Serving it up to his guests? Using it as a base for aqua vitae or other cordials? Or.... something else altogether? We can safely assume he wasn't laying it down in warehouses to be carefully matured in wood and sea air.

James IV of Scotland was a true Renaissance man - the famous intellectual Erasmus commented approvingly on "his wonderful powers of mind". Half Danish, he spoke Latin, Gaelic, French, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish. He was, further, "temperate in eating and drinking", although he did maintain an impressive stable of mistresses.

According to the Chronicles of Scotland James IV was "well-learned in the Art of Medicine, and also a cunning Chirurgener [surgeon] that none in his realm, who used that craft, but would take his Counsel in all their Proceedings". He conducted at least one experiment on language acquisition - sending two babies to be raised in isolation by a deaf and dumb nurse to see whether language was innate, or acquired. He paid people to allow him to dress their wounds and draw their teeth; and he instituted pioneering public health measures to protect against the plague.

And, like Isaac Newton later, James IV had an active interest in alchemy. He hired an in-house alchemist, John Damian, and funded an entire laboratory for him, as well as lengthy research trips to Europe. One of his key supplies? Aqua vitae, obviously. In fact, James wasn't even put off John Damian after the man made a bold attempt at human-powered flight, and fractured his thigh falling from Stirling Castle on his feathered wings.

James IV also helped to set up the body that later became the Royal College of Surgeons: barber-surgeons, like midwives, used aqua vitae as an anaesthetic. In 1505, he gave this organisation, then the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh, an exclusive license to manufacture aqua vitae - effectively banning the production of both raw spirit aqua vitae and the rather more consumable flavoured aqua vitae for anything but medicinal purposes. He is on record as buying (almost certainly flavoured and possibly grape-based) aqua "vite" from a barber in Inverness in 1506.

It isn't known what James IV did with Friar Cor's aqua vitae. It's nice, though unrealistic, to picture him mixing up his own secret combinations of medicinal herbs, perhaps adapting his Danish mother's recipes. It's easy to imagine him concocting new medical experiments, or wiping down his patients' wounds before surgery, or giving a hefty slug to a patient before his first attempt at drawing teeth. It would be lovely to think that he'd even begun some of his first explorations into alchemy, and the quest for the quintessence.

One thing, however, is pretty damn certain. He wouldn't have been drinking the stuff neat.

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