Since the process of fermentation is so straightforward, alcohol can and does frequently occur in nature all by itself, without the meddlesome help of human beings. It is well known that the toddy palm of Southeast Asia produces a form of drinkable alcohol straight from the tree, although I’ve heard it’s none too palatable. Rotting fruit, under the right conditions, can do the same and many animals deliberately search for and consume the results.


The botanist Terrence Mckenna has written: “Field teams have investigated dozens of cases, from Sumatra to the Sudan, involving creatures from bumblebees to bull elephants. The results? In natural habitats, most animals seek alcohol-laden food for the smells, tastes, calories or nutrients they provide. The intoxications are side effects but not serious enough to deter further use.” Mckenna goes on to describe how a bird called the North American sapsucker drills little holes into the sides of trees which then become filled with sap. True to its name the sapsucker, a close cousin of the woodpecker, drinks some of the collected sap and feeds on the insects that are attracted to it. When it has had its fill it flies away and eventually, when it feels hungry again, it will drill another hole into another tree for the same purpose. Meanwhile the sap in the first hole, if the temperature is right, will ferment and produce alcohol. “The drinking of fermented sap has been held responsible for an array of abnormal behaviours observed in hummingbirds, squirrels and unsuspecting sapsuckers,” comments McKenna.


Almost as if by design, nature, in her bountiful wisdom, has firmly put a cap on the strength of alcohol that can be produced by fermentation. Fermented liquids, which human beings have been brewing systematically since 10,000 BC when they first began to plant crops, can never contain an alcohol content of more than 14% since at this concentration further formation of alcohol is inhibited. Only in relatively recent human history has man successfully begun to tamper with this natural safety cap, by means of a process called distillation. Distillation let the genie of hard alcohol, commonly known as spirits, out of the bottle and society has been simultaneously celebrating this technological breakthrough and paying the price for it ever since.


With the use of a simple water cooled condenser alcohol vapour can be captured and returned to liquid form. This is the underlying principle of distillation as many rakshi making households in villages and towns across Nepal well know. The process can in theory isolate the sought after molecule and produce pure alcohol and this method of recapturing alcohol from its vaporous state is what gave rise to the practice of referring to distilled drinks as spirits.


The earliest mention of spirits in writing was made by the Chinese alchemist Ko Hung who lived in the fourth century AD. While discussing different methods for the preparation of cinnabar, Ko Hung wrote, “They are like wine that has been fermented once; it cannot be compared with the pure, clear wine that has been fermented nine times.” The statement, as McKenna has observed, “seems to imply the knowledge of methods for the preparation of very strong clear alcohols, perhaps by the capture of alcohol vapour in wool from which could be wrung a relatively pure liquid alcohol.”


In Europe the process of distillation was discovered by a mysterious Spaniard called Ramon Llull who lived on the island of Majorca in the thirteenth century. Although we know very little about Llull’s life what we do know is that he created a distilled spirit which he called ‘aqua vini’ by fermenting wine in a double boiler of horse dung for twenty days before distilling it with a crude cold water condenser. Llull was extremely exited about his finished product, sharing his discovery with the scientific community, and writing that, “The taste of it exeedeth all other tastes and the smell all other smells,” and also that it was, “of marvelous use and commodity a little before the joining in battle to encourage the soldiers’ minds”. Like Ko Hung in China, Llull was an alchemist and as such one of the aims of his esoteric experiments was to discover the elixir of life, rumoured amongst alchemists to bestow immortality on whoever drank it. It remains unclear whether or not, in distilling aqua vini, Llull believed that his search had come to end but one thing does remain clear: by discovering a means of purifying alcohol Llull was responsible for ushering in a whole new era in the history of drinking: a small step for man, a giant leap for mankind. So, the next time you wake up with a sore head after downing shots of tequila the night before, don’t just blame yourself, blame Ramon Llull. !