The connection between our species and alcohol predates humanity. According to Robert Evans in his book A Brief History of Vice, “there have been humans drinking much longer than there have been human beings” as there were several benefits for early primates with the ability to metabolize alcohol. At the fermentation stage, fruit is often at the pinnacle of ripeness, and being able to enjoy this fruit would have allowed early humans to maximize calorie intake. By foraging for fallen fruit on the forest floor, they would also have been able to out-compete rival creatures during times of scarcity. It’s also likely that inebriated apes made bold decisions that they may not have made if sober. Some of these decisions undoubtedly would have had profound effects on the expansion of the human race.
Alcohol allowed us to spread beyond the cradle of humankind, but it also brought us back together. It has long been suggested that early nomadic humans adopted a sedentary way of life and built permanent settlements because they wanted grow grains in order to brew beer. Professor of Anthropology Brian Hayden believes that brewing was so labor intensive that warring tribes would often engage in diplomacy and cooperate with each other to create this beer that they considered to be both medicinal and magical.
This theme is reflected in multiple Indo-European myths where divine beings would put their differences aside in order to create a sacred brew. In Norse mythology, mead was originally created when the Aenir and Venir ended a dispute by creating a beverage from blood and honey that granted wisdom and strength. A similar story exists in Vedic scriptures where celestial beings known as Devas and Asuras came together in an event called the Samudra manthan in order to obtain an elixir of immortality called Amrita.
In this prehistoric spiritual relationship with brewing beer, bitter botanicals have always been involved. Typically an astringent flavor signifies toxicity, but in some cases it indicates to the human brain that a particular plant is potentially high in nutrients. Consuming bitter herbs lead to healthier humans and they were often understood as gifts from sacred plants. According to Stephen Harrod Buhner, early beers “were highly inebriating or psychotropic, and hundreds contained medicinal herbs. They were made for sacred ceremony, for attaining nonordinary states of reality, for communicating with the ancestors, as potent nutrient foods, and for healing.” Early brewers did not understand the exact science of yeast turning sugar into alcohol, and saw it as a process caused by helpful spirits. They saw the use of bitter antiseptic plants as important in keeping out unhelpful spirits that had the potential to spoil their sacred brews.
In his book Sacred Herbal and Healing Beers, Buhner describes the use of several varieties of the genus Artemisia being used in such a manner. Artemisia is a group of plants in the daisy family whose species includes wormwood, mugwort, and sagebrush. The Rarámuri of Central America would place wormwood on fermentation vessels to “frighten away the evil spirits who might want to spoil their liquor.” Records also indicate that early brewers in Norway used wormwood in “ale for medicinal purposes” as part of a broader European tradition where wormwood ales were used to treat fever. The Ainu of Japan used mugwort in the fermentation of their millet and rice beer and also ascribed to it a similar sacred belief. They would offer prayers to a hearth goddess while placing chewed mugwort into their already fermenting brew.
Wormwood is now best known for the bitter flavor that it imparts to absinthe and several popular apéritifs. Vermouth, a type of aromatized wine derives its name from the French pronunciation of the German word for wormwood, Wermut. Wormwood was also unfairly blamed for the social ills of absinthe drinkers in the early 1900s that resulted in an almost total ban of the substance across Europe.
Gentian, the backbone of most Amaros, many aperitifs, and one of the few listed ingredients of Angostura Aromatic Bitters seems to have a similar early history, and its antiseptic properties were valued alongside its digestive benefits. The earliest recorded use of this herb was in ancient Egypt, where over three thousand years ago it was considered sacred, and known for alleviating stomach ailments.
Over time, the spiritual traditions related to the creation of these bitter brews were incorporated into complex religious beliefs. Scholars have argued that the dying-and-rising deity concept, where a god emerges from a dark tomb after a miraculous resurrection is symbolic of seeds germinating or the brewing of beer or wine. Both processes involve life beginning anew in a manner that was considered magical. Egyptian God Osiris is often depicted with wheat sprouting from his partially mummy-wrapped body. It is unknown if the Canopic jars found in Egyptian tombs have any connection to the clay vessels that Egyptians used for brewing beer, but Egyptologist Sir Ernest Budge has translated hieroglyphics on one of these jars that references beer and bread.
A clearer connection with wine can be seen in Dionysus, the Greco-Roman equivalent of Osiris who was described in mythology as the inventor of wine and also part of a mystery religion that involved the consumption of intoxicating beverages. A similar tradition existed around Persephone, an agrarian deity in Greek mythology who would descend to the underworld during Winter then return to the land of the living every Spring. At the conclusion of a ceremony known as the Eleusinian Mysteries, Adherents of her cult would consume Kykeon; a beverage that supposedly simulated a decent to the underworld and inspired in the drinker an assurance of life after death. Several candidates have been proposed for the cause of kykeon’s psychoactive nature including grain infected with ergot or a poppy derived opioid.
Over the course of several centuries, polytheistic religion declined in the region while Abrahamic religion took shape and started to grow. Traditions related to fermentation, resurrection and wine existed alongside Judaism for centuries and eventually became incorporated into Christianity. In academic attempts to better understand the Last Supper, a prominent point of view is that Jesus and his disciples were celebrating a Jewish Seder. Within the context of understanding external influences on Judaism at that time, some believe that wine and bread being referred to as the blood, and the body respectively was influenced by the cult of Dionysus. Similarly, elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries once associated with Roman Gods were transferred into folk traditions related to Demetrius of Thessaloniki, an early Christian Saint. Greco Roman religion acted as a segue allowing ancient beliefs about brewing and botanicals to enter Christianity.
Against the backdrop of competing Christian theologies during the early history of the religion, missionaries would make certain concessions and embrace older theologies in order to encourage conversion, while monks would continue the holy traditions of brewing healing curatives. Sometime later, a series of edicts issued by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century would codify brewing for the benefit of the wider community, and the consumption of alcohol among monks; formally establishing beer making as a monastic tradition. The Rule of Saint Benedict is best associated today with Trappist Beers, highly carbonated ales brewed within the walls of a monastery and under the direct supervision of Trappist Monks. The more generic Abbey Ales are those made by a non-Trappist order, or at a brewery through an arrangement with a monastery.
A notable feature of both these types of beer is the historic and current use of Gruit as a bittering agent and preservative instead of the more common Hops. According to Medieval Historian Richard W. Unger, “bog myrtle was the principal component” of early gruit but the history is shrouded in obscurity. The inclusion of wormwood and mugwort in some blends hint that it directly descends from the bitter brewing tradition of the Fertile Crescent and migrated to Northern Europe alongside Christianity, but unfortunately there are no mentions of gruit from before the tenth century that can prove this. A ninth century plan of a Benedictine monastic compound referred to as the Plan of Saint Gall is the only architectural drawing from the time period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the High Middle Ages. The plan shows living quarters, chapels, cellars, a brewery, and herb gardens. The gardens provided food for the monks, opportunities for labor and contemplation, and sacred plants the healing beverages that they brewed.
Wine was widely preferred over beer as a healing beverage, and where the climate allowed grapes to thrive, monks would focus on winemaking. During the early middle ages, the Church held significant sway over wine production. From Lower France to the Levant, they owned vineyards and were the most knowledgeable on the methods of wine production. Benedictine Monks were the winemakers in Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne, areas now considered the most prestigious wine regions in the world. Gauls and Greeks made wine there long before the emergence of Christianity, but it was arguably the experimentation by monks and the association with the Eucharist that started the shift towards fine wine status. Wine-writer Jacky Rigoux credits Cistercian Monks with creating many of the concepts still used to classify and understand wine in modern times.
Although the foundations for modern wine culture were being laid during medieval times, wine consumption was actually closer to ancient traditions as it was still consumed spiced and sweetened and understood as a sacred healing beverage. Just like beer, wine was safer to drink and more nutritious than water, and the healing herbs increased the health benefits. The spices used often reflected local folk traditions and broader European views on certain botanicals. Over time, regional styles of aromatized wine would start to develop, based on whether the base bittering botanical was wormwood or gentian root, as well as what herbs were grown in the monastic gardens.
On the slopes of the Alps, Italian monasteries would use a mountain growing subspecies of wormwood known as Artemisia genipi as well as alpine flowers and the barks of coniferous trees. Nearer to the coast, they would have access to citrus as well as spices like cinnamon and clove that was shipped across the Mediterranean from Africa and Asia. Monks in the Italian Peninsula were uniquely positioned to advance the art of making aromatized wine. Due to meticulous translating and archiving in the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Benedictine Monks were the principal holders of knowledge on Greco-Roman healing curatives in all of Europe.
They were also able to capitalize on the developments coming out of the Arab world during the Golden Age of Islamic Science. More importantly, they were able to monopolize on these innovations by banning Muslim philosophy in Christian Europe. In the Eighth Century, the Umayyad Caliphate was the largest empire in the world, spanning parts of current India, France, Mauritania, and Russia. It was also among the most diverse and liberal, attracting scholars and scientists from far-flung places to study at the many state-sponsored Universities. Alchemists like Al-Kindi and Avicenna made important contributions to drug administration and classification while defining pharmacy as a distinct discipline within medicine. The Persian physician known as Rhazes experimented extensively with separating the alcohol from wine, and using it to extract the aromatic compounds of flowers, herbs, and spices.
Rhazes lived in the town of Rey, situated on the Royal Road portion of the Silk Route at a time when Venetian control of the spices from the far-east entering Europe was just beginning. The Republic of Venice, and the Duchy of Amalfa were among some of the Italian States that maintained strong connections with the East after the Byzantine presence in Italy came to an end. Merchants from Amalfi and Salerno were given permission by the Caliph of Egypt to restore a hospital in Jerusalem originally built in the year 600. This hospital was operated by Benedictine Monks and defended by Knight Hospitalliers who also protected pilgrims and spice caravans. Both the spices and science required for herbal healing beverages to grow into something more was able to easily enter Italy from the Middle East.
These developments were possibly best exemplified by the creation of the Schola Medica Salernitana, a monastic medical school in the South Italy city of Salerno. The founding legend of this school asserts that a Greek, a Latin, an Arab, and a Jew were all seeking shelter from a storm while traveling, and a discussion on different ways to treat a wound lead to a decision to start a medical school. It is generally accepted that this founding myth simply reflects the ethos of embracing knowledge from multiple schools of thought rather than a literal event. The actual foundation is likely far more complicated and has been linked to the patronage of spice merchants and proximity to the first Benedictine institution; the Monte Cassino Monastery.
Under the patronage of Monte Cassino’s abbot and the Archbishop of Salerno, a North African polyglot known as Constantine Africanus would translate much of the Arab anthology of medicine and pharmacy and make it available for monks in South Italy. These monks realized over time that the aqua vitae extracted from wine via distillation proved useful to their tradition of making healing beverages. When added to wine before fermentation was complete, it would cause some residual sugar to remain in the liquid while also allowing it to become greater in strength than naturally made wine. When used to steep sacred plants, it would better extract their essence and aromatics and give them a longer shelf life.
From the twelfth century onwards, documents show that doctors in Salerno and eventually the wider region were prescribing decoctions of distilled alcohol and strong wine infused with organic compounds like gentian root, wormwood, mint, cardamom, and fennel. These aromatized and fortified wines would have been very similar to modern Amaro, Absinth, and Vermouth and can be understood as the earliest monastic liqueurs and also the first liqueurs. Over the course of several centuries the church would decline in prominence and power. Economies and empires would rise and fall, and the age of discovery would lead to the incorporation of previously unknown botanicals into these liqueurs.
These sociopolitical shifts would lead to the decline of the monastic liqueurs, but even today they still exist. Chartreuse, the most famous of these is named for the mountain range where Bruno of Cologne established his monastery in 1084. While civilians handle much of the distillation, bottling, and marketing; Carthusian monks still prepare and blend the secret mix of over one hundred botanicals and oversee ageing in giant oak casks. Similar to Chartreuse is Stellina, a liqueur made not far away by members of the Sainte Famille brotherhood, a smaller and more recently established monastic order.
In terms of Amaro, a category of liqueur that means “bitter” in Italian, there are several brands with a connection to Catholic Monks. Amaro Averna, one of the most popular brands is based on a recipes created by Benedictine Monks at Sicily’s San Spirito Abbey. The order shared the recipe and the rights to production with a patron of the abbey as a token of gratitude in 1859. Amaro San Simon has a similar story; the original formula is credited to an order of monks from Turin who dispensed it via an adjacent pharmacy. The modern product however, was developed in the 1960s. Amaro Santa Maria al Monte was originally made by Francescan Monks in Genoa but was commercialized in 1892.
Amaro Flore di Monteoliveto is made and sold at a Benedictine Abbey in Florence that was founded in 1313. Elsewhere in Central Italy, a Roman Trappist order creates Amaro digestivo delle Tre Fontane, while Amaro tonico di Camaldoli is made by Camadolese monks just outside of San Marino.
On a hill just south of Rome there is a mountaintop abbey that makes what is possibly the most historically significant Amaro. It was here that Benedict of Nursia officially integrated the ancient culture of healing beverages into Monastic tradition in the sixth century. Centuries later, it was here that scholars amalgamated the ancient knowledge of the area with emerging Arabic chemistry to create the first Amaro. Today, the handful of monks there spend their days in solitude and silence, sorting spices to steep in spirit, or sipping from a snifter to ascertain when their Amaro is ready for bottling.
They are simply carrying on tradition, unconcerned with the contributions of their predecessors to global cocktail culture.