The Mysterious Names of Alcohols, Part One

Alcohol has a long history, and while today people like to consume it anywhere from once in a while to everyday, there is an interesting background that you might not know about. It comes in many shapes, sizes, flavors and colors; rum, vodka, wine, bourbon, beer and more; it’s used in religions, on birthdays, holidays, business events, and sometimes just due to the day of the week. Let’s have a closer look at where it came from, in particular, the names and histories of different varieties.

Alcohol occurs through the process of sugar fermentation, this is how we’ve come to get wine, beer and cider, and has been around for thousands of years; then through distillation we arrive at our spirits, a process a little more recent, starting around the 12th century. The word ‘alcohol’ comes from Arabic ‘Al-kuhl,’ al being the Arabic definitive article, just as ‘the’ is in English, and kuhl being a powder that’s used as an eyeliner. Yes, an eyeliner. The word was first used after the sublimation of the natural mineral stibnite, thus producing ‘alcohol’ to be used in eyeliner, antiseptic and cosmetics.


Let’s start with a look at beer, one of the oldest beverages known to humankind. Did you know the Vikings believed a colossal goat would provide them with all the mead they could ever want in Valhalla? Or that Cenosillicaphobia is the fear of having an empty glass? Let’s hope none of you need to worry about that. ‘Beer’ is a cognate with the German and Dutch ‘Bier,’ Old Frisian ‘Biar,’ and Old High German ‘Bior.’ Tracking back we find the roots in the Old English ‘Beor,’ which comes from the Monastic Latin ‘Biber,’ meaning a drink, which came from the Latin ‘bibere,’ to drink. The Spanish call beer ‘cerveza,’ this word came from the Medieval French word ‘cervoise,’ — which interestingly was dropped from their usage in favor of biere, at the same time the Spanish were picking it up — ‘Cervoise’ came from the Gallo-Roman word ‘Cerevisia,’ the Roman goddess of the harvest.

red_wineAre you a winebibber? A wine-o? An oenophile? Let’s look at that last term. Oenophile is a term used to refer to a connoisseur of wines, why? Well it comes from the word ‘oinos,’ the Greek word for wine, and which came from ‘Dionysus’, the Greek God of wine. Related to oinos is the Latin ‘vinum,’ which went on to the German ‘wein,’ and then on to the ‘wine’ we know it as now. If we take the Latin ‘vinum’ and combine it with the Latin ‘acer,’ meaning sour, we get the Old French ‘vyn egre,’ can you guess where this is going? From there we arrive at ‘vinegar,’ sour wine. Lastly, if you enjoy your wine, you should know that when describing it, there are two common terms that need distinction. ‘Aroma’ and ‘bouquet’ are two popular terms in wine tasting; aroma is the smell that’s unique to the grape variety, whereas bouquet refers to the chemical reactions among acids, sugars, alcohols and phenolic compounds. Aroma is from the Greek ‘arōma,’ meaning spice, while bouquet oddly comes from Old French meaning ‘little wood.’

Phew, I might need a drink after that. In Part Two we’ll take a look at the spirit world,  such as the Irish Whiskies and Russian Vodkas; but in the meantime, can you think of any other drinks with interesting histories?