Today, we learn about burnt wine and frozen wine.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Some years ago I sang with
the Patriarch's choir in the Cathedral of the
Orthodox Church in Jugoslavia. After the Saturday
evening service the old gentlemen from the choir
went down to an austere room with a locked
cupboard. They ceremoniously opened the cupboard
and took out a bottle of peasant brandy. Each of us
got about half an ounce in a small glass. We
quietly stood and sipped the best illegal liquor in
Fermentation of a fruit, grain, or vegetable mash
yields a certain natural alcohol content. A beer
might go to six percent. A wine might go to twelve.
To get anything stronger, you have to find a way to
remove water from the natural ferment.
Medieval Europe discovered distillation in the
1100s. When you boil a ferment, the vapor is richer
in alcohol than the liquid. You condense that vapor
and get a stronger liquor than you started with.
Boil that liquid and condense it, and you'll have a
even more potent brew.
Thus whiskies and brandies entered Western Europe
in the High Middle Ages. That Jugoslav brandy was
called rakija, and it was made the
same way those medieval brandies were.
When the Chinese learned about European
distillation, they called brandy "burnt wine." That
sounds very Chinese until we discover that the word
"brandy" comes from the Dutch. They called it
brandewijn, which means precisely the
same thing -- burnt wine.
The Chinese had been making home brew themselves --
for well over a millennium -- when they learned
about distillation. But they made it in a
strikingly different way. Nomads in Western China
suffered the bitter winters of Eastern Siberia.
They found that when their wine froze, water
separated out as ice. That left behind a brandy
whose strength depended on just how cold the winter
was. They called that brandy "frozen-out wine."
Distillation can produce stronger liquors than
freezing, so the Chinese readily adopted it. But by
then they'd been making hard liquor far longer than
Europeans had. The crime of bootlegging was also an
old Chinese invention. It came into being even
before brandy. About the time of Christ, the
emperor Wang Mang nationalized wine and
beer-making. Widespread bootlegging rose up
immediately despite a death penalty.
West and East -- fire and ice. The freeze
separation of alcohol wasn't mentioned in Europe
until the alchemist Paracelsus astonished people
with the idea in 1570. Today, we use all those
separation methods in a dizzying variety of process
industries. But we're also realizing that we do
better when we ease off on distilled liquors in
favor of natural ferments.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds