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What is the strongest alcoholic drink that was drank within the European nations during the Middle Ages (5th to the 15th century)?

  • This question is also placed on the Beer, Wine & Spirits SE site and can be viewed here. – Ken Graham May 6 '17 at 11:57
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While chemical distiallation as a process was known since Aristotle's time in the Mediterranean world and Middle East, the process was not generallay applied to alcoholic beverages until much later. The earliest (sure) evidence of beverage distillation is in the 10th (North, Jin dynasty) to 12th century (Southern Song dynasty) China and 12 century Italy.

Bench scale distillation of alcoholic beverages might have been practiced for private use by nobility and senior clergy (think monastery abbots), but these beverages would not have been available to other than privileged guests. They would also have been very rough compared to the liquors of today, as aging was not practiced until much later after industrial-scale distillation of beverages began in the 15th Century.

Note that beverages produced strictly by fermentation are naturally limited to about 14% Alcohol By Volume (ABV) as the yeasts die of alcohol poisoning at that point. Wines are readily produced to that strength if the pressed juice contains sufficient sugar, but the final ABV is generally determined from the juice as it is near impossible to stop fermentation once it starts. Brewmasters control the sugar content more directly and readily brew to a variety of strengths.

Beer during the Middle Ages was naturally produced in a wide range of alcohol concentrations, generally classed as strong beers of 8-14% ABV; medium beers of about 4-8% ABV, and weak beers of 1-3% ABV. The latter would have been the everyday drink of the common man and even children into the late 19th century, when water supply quality became reliable.

It is important to note that Medieval beer was nearly always a spiced beer, not a hopped beer, as the flavour and preservation qualities of adding hops to beer was not commonly recognized until the 13th century, and even then spread slowly from Bavaria. (See also What actually happened with beer and Leeuwarden in 1487?) While these various strengths of beer would have been available from the tap in Medieval public houses, one would likely have watered one's own wine to taste after the bottle arrived, in consequence of the different fermentation constraint.

  • In northern areas, freeze distillation could have been used to concentrate the alcohol in beer, wine, and cider. I don't know if it actually was used in medieval times, but it was common in the colonial US to produce applejack from cider. – jamesqf May 6 '17 at 17:17
  • @jamesqf: Winters are much colder in the North Eastern U.S. than they are in Europe south of Scandinavia. It is unlikely that the temperature range would have been low enough to make freeze distillation reliably available until the little ice age starts in the 14th century. Note that because of the anti-freeze effect of mixing alcohol with water, freeze distillation requires temperatures much colder than 0 C in order to obtain significant enrichment of the beverage. – Pieter Geerkens May 6 '17 at 17:20
  • @jamesqf: Research suggest that eisbeers and eisbocks are actually a 19th Century discovery (or invention, if you prefer): notestream.com/streams/544d9284352a6 and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bock#Eisbock and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_beer. – Pieter Geerkens May 6 '17 at 17:34
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    See my answer over in alcohol.stackexchange.com where there is ample evidence that distilled spirits were widely available in the late 1300s and most definitely spread across Europe in the 1400s. alcohol.stackexchange.com/questions/6827/… – farmersteve May 9 '17 at 20:16
  • @SteveS.: Those "1400's" would be the same "15th Century" mentioned in my answer, would they not? – Pieter Geerkens May 9 '17 at 21:04
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Distillation of alcohol was known since the late antiquity, at least. (Invention sometimes credited to Mary the Jewess, considered by some the inventor of alchemy, 3-d century AD, but Aristoteles already knew the principle). It was practiced in the Eastern Roman empire and then by the Arabs, and penetrated back to Western Europe from the Muslims, as other achievements of ancient science. Originally the product was not a common beverage, but a substance which (al)chemists and later medics used. Gradually it was realized that this medicine not only helps ill people, but to healthy people as well. The earliest beverage was called Aqua Vita, and it spread in the West in 13th century from Italy. There were attempts to ban it, for example, in Muscovy.

It is possible that the distillation process was invented independently in several places. Recently I saw a movie about an African tribe, essentially untouched by civilization which practices this process. It is unclear from the movie whether it was adopted from some more advanced culture or it was an indigenous invention.

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    This answer could use some sources. – justCal May 6 '17 at 14:37
  • Most of this info can be found in Wikipedia. – Alex May 6 '17 at 20:09

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