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Earliest Spirit


How to argue about something that probably doesn't really matter.  Have fun with this.

Which came first?

Which was the New World's first named distilled spirit:  rum, mescal, tequila, pisco, singani, or something else?

The question is this, not which was the first distillation to be carried out after Europeans arrived, but which was the first type of spirit to arise in the New World by name.

Pre-Colombian people fermented all sorts of things into drinkable substances that might be called "ale" or "wine" for lack of better words.  Popular fermentables were corn, hearts of palm, agave, figs, and fleshy gourds like squash.  Not used were sugar cane, barley, wheat, grapes, rye, apples or pears, as these did not exist until introduced by Spanish conquistadors.

Fermentation to an ale or wine-like substance by native peoples produces liquids in the 3% to 12% alcohol-by-volume range, useful for entertainment or divination.  There were no spirits, as the art of distillation was brought in by Europeans (who in turn learned it from Asians).  Given that, the age of spirits in America must start no earlier than  the settlement of Hispaniola.

Rum.  The settlement of Hispaniola begins in earnest about 1500.  Sugar cane was introduced with Columbus' second voyage some years earlier.  The stage is set for the distillation of cane products into something similar to rum.

Alcohol produced from sugar cane had been around for centuries in the Old World.  Most sources say that rum was initiated in the New World around 1650.  Thus, the spirit rum arises by name nearly 150 years after Spain colonized the Caribbean.  Logically, we could imagine generic firewater from molasses being produced before then, but such liquor is not distinguished by name.  Although it may have been the earliest distillation in the Americas, it can't be the first named spirit.

Tequila.  Tequila is identified all over the Internet as the New World's earliest spirit.  But it is not.  Tequila does not arise by name until the Seventeenth Century (1656), making it a contemporary of rum, 150 years after Europeans arrived.  Tequila as we know it today is actually a 19th century invention (the use of ovens, etc.).  As the distillation of mescal precedes the production of tequila, it more rightfully would be the earlier spirit.  After adoption in the Seventeenth, the name tequila did not solidify in people's minds until the Eighteenth Century, and did not become a notable market until the Nineteenth.  A search of the Web reveals that the statement of tequila being the earliest named distillate traces to a single source which in turn offers no evidence for the claim.  From this, the same sentences are copied again and again on various websites giving the imprimatur of apparent truth but no "proofy" backup.  To see what came earlier we need to turn to mescal.

Mescal.  Central American peoples living in the agave regions consumed a self-fermenting liquid collected from agaves called octli or pulque.  It would have been a straightforward matter for European settlers to distill pulque or the entire agave piña into an agave spirit.  Cortes took down Mexico City in 1521.  But Mexico was not "pacified" until 1650. The year 1535 is offered as the earliest when agave wine might have been produced.  Spirit distilled from this wine was to evolve "over the next two centuries".  In geographies at war there cannot be sufficient security to establish stable markets, and without a stable market, products don't settle into common names, but tend to be referred to as convenience dictates.  It does not look like the standalone word "mescal" for a distilled spirit could have taken root in this timeframe.  More likely, if agave was distilled, it would be refered to as "aguardiente de agave" or "aguardiente de mescal" at this time. Under Mexico's NOM regulations, this is how much agave spirit is refered to even today.

Cachaça.  The words cachaça, branquinha, zuninga, caninha etc., are simply Brazilian words for white rum.  Sugar cane distillates show up in Brazil around 1610.  The word cachaça along with all the others comes into use later.

Pisco.  Aguardiente (firewater) was first produced in Chile around 1552, but could not have been called pisco.  Pisco arises by name in what is today Peru at the earliest in the Seventeenth Century and possibly only in the Eighteenth.  The earliest recorded use of the word according to one cited source is 1764.  From there the name then spreads back to Chile.  Unlike mescal, which is made from a native plant the agave, pisco is made from grapes imported from Europe.   Various publications state that the Spanish Crown placed a ban on the private conversion of grapes into alcohol, thus we might suppose that early aguardiente along the western coast of South America was initiated by monastic orders that needed wine to celebrate mass, and who could easily go one step further and distill a spirit from that wine.

Singani.  Similar to pisco, singani arises from monastic orders who needed wine.  In what is in today's Bolivia a veritable mountain of silver was discovered, the Potosi, around 1545.  Most of the riches on the Spanish Main flowed from there.  By 1548 the future archdiocese of Mizque is founded, as well as an ArchEpiscopal See, one of only two or three in the Spanish Empire (to be near all that silver?), and wine production begins.  In that approximate timeframe, wine is distilled to singani by monks, the reasons given are various.  The name Singani comes from the locality of the mission where the spirit was first known, the name itself being derived from a pre-existing native settlement.  By 1585 singani is well known to the residents of Potosi, who unable to get liquor from Europe, take to the local spirit.  Potosi was the largest city in the world at that time, creating a stable market for singani, and thus solidifying the name among the public.

Bourbon.  Bourbon comes into being by name in the Nineteenth Century.  Enough said.

Others.  Spirits developed by New World settlers other than Spanish or Portuguese would be way too late to be considered the "earliest spirit".  In any case, most spirits in early use by colonists were European introductions which wouldn't qualify either.  Whiskey, vodka, gin, cognac and brandy, orujo, and so forth are from the Old World, as are the terms ale, beer, and wine.

And the envelope please.  If it can be definitively established that the word mescal standing alone was recognized by the general public as the definitive word for the spirit or aguardiente produced from agave sometime prior to the year 1600, then it would be the earliest spirit to arise by name in the Americas.  If the name "mescal" did not stabilize as a known spirit until sometime later, then singani would be the first spirit to arise by name in the Americas.  The cause?  Just about all of Spain's mineral wealth in those years came from Bolivia.  As a result, Spain, and allied Christian missions, had a huge presence there.  Enormous populations (largest city in the world) and the need for a stable society focused on wealth extraction created an environment where products could flourish quickly.  To be easily traded, these products needed to be known reliably by name.  The word singani would catch on fast.

Heck, we know, we're Singani USA, and we're probably biased.  But the story is good.  Bring the Singani story up with your friends next time you're lifting one.  Because, life is good.




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