Why we use the term Aguardiente for our Spirits?
The word Aguardiente derives from the Latin “aqua ardens”, the oldest western term to describe the alcohol obtained by means of distillation. But, why did it receive this name in the West, with all the evidence pointing out that the Arabic alchemists, where the first ones to formalize the use of the alembic to obtain alcohol from the wine, and they had named the resulting product as al-koh’l?
In arabic, Al-Koh’l means “the spirit or the essence of a substance”. However, the term alcohol was not part of the western vocabulary until the 16th Century, and much more later than the adoption of the “aqua ardens” term as aguardiente in Spanish. The reason why the alcohol term wasn’t used in the West from the very beginning will probably remain a mystery, but is a fact. Now I invite you to let your imagination run and get on board of our magic carpet to pay a visit to the then called “House of Wisdom” in Bagdad during the Abbasid Caliphate, around the 8th and 9th centuries.
The “House of Wisdom” was a major intellectual hub, a centralized translation center for Greek and Latin texts as well as an experimental site to generate new knowledge. An alchemist named Gener was probably one of the most remarkable experimentalist that tenure in that institution and the one that assembled the first alembics. Now imagine what a bunch of experimentalist will do with these original stills, would we be surprised that him, his disciples, and colleagues would devoted themselves to use the device for experimenting with the distillation of all kinds of liquids, including wine. Historical records document that that is exactly what they did.
The origin of the term aguardiente (Ardent Spirit)
To verify whether the product obtained from wine distillation contained al-koh’l or not, they used to dampen a cloth with the distilled product and light it on fire. If the flame completely burnt out without burning the cloth they had created al-koh’l. I presume that when the first Europeans observed this phenomenon they described the alembic as a device that yields a “aqua ardens” (water that burns), term that finally changed into “aguardiente”when it arrived in Spain, into“Iaue (Eau) ardent” in France and “Ardent Spirit” in England.
In Europe, the technology transfer to produce “aqua ardens” from wine distillation was a very slow process, during which different experiences and skills were incorporated in different cultures/countries/traditions and different names appeared for the different products obtained from the distillation process. At the end of the Middle Age, the Latin term “aqua ardens” was used to refer to the fraction containing enough alcohol to light a flame. If the “aqua ardens” fraction suffers successive distillations it yields “aqua ardens rectificata”, then “aqua ignea rectificata” and finally “aqua vitae rectificata”, which was higher in alcohol and at that time used for medical purposes. The “aqua vitae” term spread to a lot of places in Europe to name a great number of distilled fruit and grains.
Aguardiente, together with its methods used to produce it, arrived in America in the 16th Century. The agave/maguey must with a low-alcohol content (similar to the grape must) that the indigenous peoples used to prepare before the arrival of the Spaniards turned out to be the perfect raw material to produce local aguardientes, and nowadays these aguardientes represent the ancestors of our national drinks with or without appellation of origin. In Onilikan, Artisanal Liqueurs of Mazatlan, we are maintaining the original tradition and we call our product “aguardiente”. We produce a Blue Agave and a Mango Aguardiente spirit, both made from regional raw materials. Now you can see why we proudly call them “aguardientes”.
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