The Ghostly Etymology of Six Common Cocktail Terms

Animation by Eric DeFreitas

Words and phrases like “spirits” or “angel’s share” are often used to describe alcohol, and it’s no coincidence. These terms hint at the long history of beliefs that booze blurs boundaries and bridges the gap between our world and another.

Here, we dig into the historical and cultural reasons why six boozy terms have supernatural connotations.

1. Spirits

We give alcohol credit for raising our spirits. But the reason the term is only used to describe liquor is due to 8th century Middle Eastern alchemists who mastered alembic, or pot still distillation. When experimenting with medical elixirs, they noticed an escaping vapor that condensed into a higher-quality liquid. They believed this vapor was the life essence of the material leaving, or breathing, during distillation.

The quest to create medicinal elixirs by gathering the material’s distilled “spirit” carried into the Roman Empire. These distilled products came to be known as spirare, or Latin for breathe.

By the end of the 15th century, distilled medicinal spirits became mainstream across Europe, where they eventually evolved into the drinks like brandy and whiskey that we know today.

2. Alcohol

There are several stories behind the etymology of the word alcohol. One relates to the distillation process. Ancient Egyptians used al kohl, a fine powder akin to modern eyeliner, that was made from distilled and condensed chemicals. The term shifted to al kuhul, or alcohol, and represented all distilled products.

Another theory connects the beverage to ghoulishness. Many believe that the term comes from the Arabic words al-ghol or al ghawl, ghouls and demons present in ancient Arabian mythology and historical texts.

Hajar A. Hajar, a cardiologist, literary historian, poet and former Minister of Public Health in Qatar, is often cited on this connection. In an article by a colleague, Hajar wrote a sidebar that cites two definitions for al-kol or al-ghol from old Arabic dictionaries: a shape-shifting genie or spirit in Arabic mythology, and “any drug or substance that takes the mind away or covers it.”

3. Libation

The word libation stems from the Latin word libatio, which means pouring out an offering to honor the gods.

For instance, it was common in ancient Greece to pour wine over a sacrificial flame to include the gods in a celebration. Even the weary heroes of The Iliad and The Odyssey gave a bit of wine to the other world before drinking the rest.

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4. Angel’s Share

When spirits are aged in casks, a certain percentage is lost to evaporation. The amount varies based on the climate and production factors. Without a widespread understanding of the science involved, however, for hundreds of years, bewildered distillers made peace with the most reasonable explanation: angels were taking their due of this miraculous transformation.

Cognac producers are attributed with the original phrase la part des anges, or angel’s share.

The centuries-old colloquialism started to hit marketing campaigns widely in the 1970s.

5. Devil’s Cut

Over the centuries, people have bemoaned the evils of alcohol. Pirates hanged in Boston in 1724 blamed their situation on demon rum. Later, during the American temperance movement in the 1880s, many urged people to “Say no to demon alcohol.” Even Ozzy Osbourne sang of the demon alcohol out to “consume your very soul.”

Building on that demonic history, Jim Beam coined the term “devil’s cut” in 2011, which refers to the whiskey absorbed by the wooden casks during aging. The distillery then releases this liquid to use in its blending process by sweating the barrels after they’ve been emptied.

6. Intoxication

The term intoxication originates from deadly intent and can be traced to ancient Greece. During war, archers’ arrows, together with the bow called the toxon, were dipped in poison. As the word evolved, it came to describe the poison rather than bow and arrows.

The term shifted to intoxicare in medieval Latin to describe the act of poisoning someone.

In the late 16th century, intoxicated was first recorded to describe made drunk.

Published on October 25, 2021
Topics: Drinks History