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My understanding is that there was a historical process, or more likely a collection of historical processes, from the Greco-Roman world where unwatered wine had an ABV of around 4% and was usually only consumed watered (Why did Greeks and Romans dilute their wine?), to wine increasing strength to its prior standard strength of 12%, to liquors at 40%, to much stronger liquors, up until absinthe was near absolute alcohol with added ingredients.

Assuming the above is correct (or correcting anything in it that was wrong), what were the maximum alcohol levels over time that were available in wine? How did distillation to 40% (or more) develop?

--EXPANSION / CLARIFICATION--

In years past I've read Sally Fanlon's Nourinhing Traditions, and one of the things it discusses is "lacto-fermentation" versus "yeast fermentation." The difference is present today in that sourdough breads are lacto-fermented while most other breads are yeast fermented.

I have tried making some of the water kefirs and other drinks outlined in the book, and my understanding is that a water kefir fermented with more sugar than it needs will produce a drink that is about 2% alcohol, and is more filling; it's much easier to stop at one five ounce glass than with modern commercial use. When I visited France, I noticed that there was both "doux" (mild, 2%) and "brut" (strong, 5%) cider, and I've missed being able to get a bottle of doux cider in liquor stores here even at stores boasting a huge selection of beers and ciders. The text, among many literary references, quotes Shakespeare referring to "small beer" as a humble creature, and talks about how someone privileged talked about small beer as appropriate to their social class, and leaving "strong beer" to the miserable poor, "strong beer" being the kind of drink we call beer today. The impression I get under the book, which admittedly grinds an axe against stronger alcoholic beverages that I cannot account for on the author's stated premises, is that lacto-fermentation is common and beverages that topped out at 1-2% ABV undiluted were a considerable fixture.

(The recent popularity of kombucha reflects a fermentation that does not reach 5% or 12% ABV if fermented with more sugar than will be consumed by the culture, although I do not know the relation between kombucha and classic lacto-fermented beverages; guesswork might suggest that it is a re-introduction in modern culture of a traditional lacto-fermented beverage, but that is only a guess.)

To the best of my knowledge the comments here and the Wikipedia article on wine do not reflect a familiarity with lacto-fermented beverages with a substantially different drinking experience (one is less tempted to drink and drink and drink lacto-fermented beverages while with modern alcoholic beverages you more enforce a limit that does not impose itself on your consumption of alcohol). I remember in France hearing at a Champagne museum historical references to the process of raising the alcohol content in wine; I do not recall numbers quoted, but it is consistent with my knowledge of lacto-fermented beverages that 4% is a believable ABV for wine lacto-fermented where the culture is allowed to have its run. And I am under the strong impression based on Nourishing Tradition's that there were a number of traditionally used fermented beverages that were at 1-2% alcohol, and that for some a bottle of the lacto-fermented bottle was used like Gatorade and its competitors today.

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    This seems somewhat broad at the moment. Have you checked the Wikipedia pages on liquor and distillation and the history of wine?
    – Steve Bird
    Sep 15, 2022 at 19:44
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    There's also the Beer, Wine, and Spirits site that might be able to answer this question.
    – cmw
    Sep 15, 2022 at 21:41
  • What exactly in the linked topic convinced you that ancient wine was 4% alcohol? Probably the increasing strength of alcoholic beverages is real and related to technical development (although here Wikipedia mentions rather old strong alcohol.) Old Greece, China, Egypt, Middle East and the Caucasus all used various types of wines and distilled beverages and we cannot say they were all weaker than our wines, although strong alcohol is probably more recent.
    – cipricus
    Sep 16, 2022 at 1:12
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    When was distilling invented? Isn't distilling required to get the ABV above a certain threshold?
    – MCW
    Sep 19, 2022 at 17:09
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    Isn't "doux" sweet and brut "dry" and not "mild" and "strong"?
    – Bartors
    Sep 20, 2022 at 9:27

2 Answers 2

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Strength of drink was always a matter of choice.

All distilled beverages are produced by taking distilled alcohol and adding more things - usually water, sugar, and/or herbs. The technology to produce more or less pure alcohol to which these things would be added significantly predates absinthe, and choosing to bottle it at a high proof is a matter of taste. The relevant Wikipedia page discusses how distillation techniques evolved over time.

Neither did the Romans have such weak wine as you claim - while it is difficult to determine exactly how strong it was, 4% is probably the number after dilution rather than before, given that Romans had the technology for mead clocking in at 12% ABV. 3-5% is in the ballpark for strength of early beers, as well, which were not drunk diluted.

Note that distilled alcohol was initially the domain of alchemists and medicines, and would only be consumed as a beverage later on. High-ABV alcohols are a relatively modern taste. Whisky or brandy as a beverage only became common around the late 15th or early 16th centuries, although unaged brandy would have been added to wine to produce fortified wine (which would then spoil more slowly) even before it was consumed on its own. Explaining why people started drinking high ABV beverages would be a whole separate answer - if I had to speculate I would say that purification technology made it more palatable as you could remove the impurities entirely rather than merely dilute them.

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When people invent something - like boats - they experiment with them - like making them larger and larger - into eventually ships. Hence, likewise with alcoholic drinks like wine. It's easy to imagine that Romans could well have distilled ever stronger wines.

In fact, a friend of mine reported an immensely strong drink from South America. I forget how strong. But if memory serves around 80%. This is the higher limit of absinthe, being between 45-75%. I doubt that was an invention of the indigenous Indians but probably of the Latinos that settled in Chile.

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