Why Are Some Alcohols Referred To As Spirits?

Many different types of alcoholic drinks go by some very unique names.

Why Are Some Alcohols Referred To As Spirits

There are all kinds of unique and specialized terms for different alcoholic beverages, such as liquor, booze, or even terms like firewater! 

But perhaps one of the best-known terms associated with alcoholic beverages is ‘Spirits’! But what actually are spirits? What does the word mean?

And how did it become so closely associated with alcohol? 

Suppose you’ve been pondering any number of these questions yourself.

In that case, you will definitely want to read on down below, because we are going to take a long look at the origins and etymology of ‘Spirits’, to find out why it is so closely associated with alcohol!

Why Is Alcohol Called Spirits?

This is actually a surprisingly difficult question to answer, as there have been numerous conflicting reports on the origins of the word ‘Spirit’, and its close association with alcohol!

These reports range from old distillation processes, and the names they went under, as well as even religious associations. 

Why don’t we take a look at some of these potential origin points ourselves now?

The ‘Spirit’ Of Alcohol

One commonly pointed-to origin point of ‘Spirits’ is the distillation process that goes into making spirits and other hard liquors. 

Liquor is made by distilling various sets of ingredients, including fruits, grains, and even vegetables in order to extract not only their unique flavors but also as a process of alcoholic fermentation, to create a drink that is high in alcoholic content. 

Further on in the liquor-making process, the water is extracted from the mix, which in turn dramatically increases the concentration of alcohol in the drink.

This is done by a process of evaporating much of the water content from the liquor, which leaves just the alcohol content behind. 

In a metaphorical sense, the process of distilling alcohol enhances and purifies the spirit of the alcohol, leaving you a drink made up of alcohol in its purest form!

Evaporating the water in the liquor also conjures up images of spirits in the more traditional sense, as a word used to refer to ghosts!

Biblical References

Believe it or not, the potential origin-point of the term ‘spirit’ used to refer to alcohol may actually be closely associated with the bible! It almost sounds crazy, but there is some sense to it!

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Part of the bible is the New Testament, which outlines the five key images that make up the holy spirit itself: a dove, tongues, water, fire, and wind.

In one of the bible’s passages, a number of bystanders witness the disciples that have come to understand the holy spirit, but they mistakenly believe the holy spirit to actually be the result of intoxication from having too much wine! 

This means that, to the bystanders, the effects of understanding and witnessing the holy spirit are incredibly similar to the effects of being drunk on alcohol.

Thus, the most appropriate term for alcohol became ‘Spirits’!

It’s very easy to understand how this association came about, due to how relaxed and almost spiritual alcohol consumption can make an individual feel!

Aristotle’s Possession!

This is a slightly more controversial theory for the origin point of ‘Spirit’ as a term for alcohol, but it is very interesting nonetheless, as it suggests that the term can be spotted as far back as 327 BC! 

This theory suggests that Aristotle himself once wrote about the process of distilling ingredients to create spirits!

However, various historians have expressed concern with this theory, as it seems that there is very little proof that the process of distillation was even used in the times of ancient Greece! 

It is believed that Aristotle when speaking on the process of distillation believed that the resulting alcohol would put ‘spirits’ into the person that is consuming the alcohol, as an explanation for the physical and mental changes that can temporarily occur when consuming alcohol. 

However, further research by those specializing in the ancient Greek language has poked more holes in this theory, as looking at Aristotle’s writing brings up some conflicting things.

If Aristotle truly was talking about alcohol and spirits as we understand them, he would have used the Greek term ‘Pneuma’, which refers to the spirit. 

However, this theory is still a fun and valuable one, because it takes a look at how the direct physical and mental effects of alcohol could have played a role in deciding on the name of the drink. 

A Simple Explanation

One of the last theories surrounding the origin of ‘Spirits’ takes into account the fact that spirits are made up of the ‘essence’ of the alcoholic beverage itself.

Spirits, as we know them today, are much higher in alcoholic content than other alcoholic beverages like beer or wine, which are not made via the process of distillation.

This higher alcoholic content means that only a small fraction of a spirit is needed to make a drink as strong as wine or beer.

This means that an individual can easily add some extra life or ‘Spirit’ to a drink, to make it more exciting to consume, and more powerful.

Adding more spirits to a drink in turn helps to raise the spirits of said drink!

Etymological Explanations

Another theory that is commonly pointed to concerns the etymology of the word alcohol! Etymology refers to the evolutionary path of a specific word or term and how it changes slowly over time. 

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You may be surprised to learn that much of our modern vocabulary has evolved over thousands of years, as it has spread across the world and across various cultures.

Language is an organism that continues to evolve and change as we use it and change it. 

The word ‘Alcohol’ is generally believed to have potentially originated from two distinct Arabic words: ‘al-ghawl’, and ‘al-koh’l’. 

The term ‘al-ghawl’ was actually directly used to refer to, of all things, the ‘Spirit’! The essence of the soul, and of course ghosts and demons.

The Qur’an even makes mention of a spirit that is responsible for imbuing alcoholic drinks with their intoxicating effects! 

The other term, ‘Al-Koh’l’ was used to refer to a type of eyeliner that was made by extracting a fine black powder known as stibnite.

In order to extract this material, however, it was necessary to distill the appropriate materials using a process that is very similar to how modern spirits are now made! 

It’s remarkable just how similar both terms are to our modern pronunciation of ‘alcohol’, and also how closely associated both terms have proven to be with spirits not only in name but also in how they are produced.

It’s no surprise that this is the most commonly accepted theory of how alcohol came to be known as ‘Spirits’.

What Are Some Of The Most Common Spirits? 

Now that we know some of the potential reasons why ‘Spirits’ have earned their name, why don’t we now take some time to look at some of the most common spirits available on the market, and find out what exactly makes them count as such? 


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Tequila is easily one of the most recognizable spirits on the market, perhaps partly thanks to how well it works as a mixer when making cocktails.

Tequila is known for its earthy flavor which is not too overpowering or strong to ruin any cocktail it is added to, which means that it can pretty much be added to any cocktail you could imagine. 

This has led tequila, which is made by fermenting the blue agave plant and then distilling the sugars that result from the fermentation, to become an incredibly recognizable spirit.

In terms of alcohol content, tequila generally ranges between 38 to 55% alcohol!


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Gin is another incredibly well-known spirit, and is best known for involving a mash of barley, corn, and rye in its distillation.

However, alongside those ingredients, it also commonly makes use of juniper berries, which helps to give gin its incredibly iconic flavor that it is so well known for. 

Gin is popular partly for its flavor, but also largely because of the fact that it has an incredibly high alcohol content that ranges between 40 to 47% depending on the individual gin product.

Gin is also slightly easier to produce, thanks to the fact that there is no aging involved in the process, which allows for a far quicker yield. 


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You might best know vodka from the unique ingredients involved in its distillation. Vodka is made by distilling potatoes, and even occasionally corn.

This is why it has proven such a popular and prolific spirit because it makes use of simple ingredients, which also means that it is much easier to produce.

As well as this, vodka is also easier to make than many other spirits because it is rarely aged, and there are no significant or stringent restrictions or regulations with regard to how the drink is produced.

Vodka is also known for its strong alcohol content between 40 to 50%, which results in an incredibly sharp taste that is befitting of its high alcohol content. 

Vodka is also popular as a mixer in cocktails because it has a powerful and sharp taste that can add some extra body to any drink.


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Whiskey is a little more involved in terms of what goes on in the process of its production. Whiskey is distilled using grains of varying combinations, which helps to create unique flavors. 

Whiskey is best known for its sharp taste which is often known for warming up the stomach and creating a warm sensation in the mouth with its aftertaste.

The flavor of whiskey is commonly made by aging it in oak barrels, which helps to give it a fiery taste that is complemented by earthy notes.

To Wrap Up

There we have it! Though the exact reason why alcohol is often referred to as spirits may still elude us, we can conclude that its origins are definitely far-reaching.

The most likely theory is the etymological theory, which suggests that the term ‘Spirits’ being used to refer to alcohol derives from the ancient Arabic words for the spirit, and for a specific type of makeup, made in a specific way similar to how we make alcoholic spirits. 

Regardless of which theory is most accepted, what the complicated history of ‘Spirit’s use as a term used to refer to alcohol tells us is that spirits have been in production for many years, and have proven to be a staple of human history!

Frequently Asked Questions

What Does the Bible Say About Alcohol?

The bible is largely critical of alcohol, believing that drunkenness distances a person from the Kingdom of God. As well as this, the bible also states that getting drunk on wine leads to debauchery, which in turn leads to sin. 

Why Is Alcohol Haram In Islam?

The reason that alcohol is haram in the Islamic religion is that it is an intoxicant, which means that it can technically be considered to be poison. 

Is Vodka Considered A Spirit?

Yes. Vodka is a spirit because it is distilled from the fermented sugars that are extracted from potatoes or corn, which officially makes it a type of spirit.

Mandy Winters

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