Why is Alcohol Called Spirits? Resolved (2023)

Last Updated on August 22, 2023 by Lydia Martin

Liquor is often called “Spirits,” but ever wonder why? The origin of the word “Spirit,” referring to alcoholic drinks, is just one interesting history of alcohol. 

So to answer why is alcohol called spirits, keep reading as this article will take you back to history to learn the definition and development of this intriguing topic.    

Why Alcohol Is Often Referred As Spirits 

Pouring Whiskey on a Glass

Quick throwback: From the Latin words “Spiritus” and “Spirare,” spirits means “breath,” which involves wind and respiration. During the Middle Ages, it was eventually used to refer to the divine and supernatural. 

Liquor is distilled employing heating a base alcoholic liquid or mash that undergoes a fermentation process, like fermented wine, extracting the alcohol from the liquid. 

Then the fermented liquid will undergo a distillation process to capture the essence or spirit of the distilled liquor, which the word “alcohol” means in alcoholic beverages. 

But if we refer to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest record of the term “spirit” really meant a “liquid” —not pertaining to liquor. 

Not until the 16th century that there were records using “spirit” to refer to or describe an “intoxicating alcoholic drink.”  

Reasons Why It Is Called A Spirit 

Aristotle Claims So

Any alcoholic beverages [1] referred to as “spirits” started when Aristotle claims so, based on the “BarSmarts Advanced” handbook written by authors and alcohol connoisseurs Paul Pacult, Dale DeGrodd, and David Wondrich. 

According to the book, Aristotle narrate the distillation of spirits as early as 327 BC.

But there’s very little evidence supporting the distilled spirits’ existence in Ancient Greece at that time.   

In one passage of the book, Aristotle referred to “alcohol” as “spirits,” thinking when someone is drinking alcohol or liquor, they’ve left with an invigorated “spirit.”  

Middle East Alchemists Gathered “Spirit” Upon Distillation

Liquor Bottles

The first successful distillation was performed in the Middle East by alchemists, a group of skilled artisans. 

While they’re known for searching for gold, some attempt to do mixed drinks for medicinal purposes. 

But to make the meds more effective and potent, they mix liquid, distill it, then collect the vapor. They will enhance the “spirit” of their original mixture. 

Throughout history, the first distillation process for making alcohol was carried out by a monk known as Roman Llull. 

His journals were analyzed, and it was revealed that he was the first to record the formulas for loosening the alcohol content of grape wine.

As base alcohol, liquor undergoes a distillation process wherein the water is removed. 

This process increases the concentration of alcohol, condensed once the various techniques are completed.

It’s Biblical

For those familiar with the verse from Acts 2:13 (in the New Testament), the author referred to the Holy Spirit as tongues, doves, fire, water, and wind. 

It is interpreted as referring to the bystanders’ reactions to the effects of the Holy Spirit as if they were intoxicated by the good wine drink they had consumed.  

Alcohol’s Etymology

There are claims that the term “alcohol” comes from two words from the Arabic language. So what are these terms?  


One interesting fact about alcohol’s etymology is its link to the ancient “eyeliner.” 

This may seem like a joke, but seriously, eyeliner before was made using a powdery substance called “stibnite.”

It’s a black mineral, a main ingredient of ancient eyeliners, referred to as “Al-Koh’l,” which means “to paint” in the Arab language. 

This product was created using a process known as sublimation, similar to the distillation we know today. 

This term became a more generalized term for any type of distilled substance. 

During the later periods of history, the term “alcohol” was often attached to the liquid containing “ethanol.” 

The spirit of the substance was then released throughout the distillation process. 


“Al-Ghawl” means “spirit” in the Arab language. Based on their Qur’an, verse 37:47, the term refers to a demon producing a sense of intoxication. 

Etymology Of The Term “Spirits” & What It Really Means

Whiskey Bottles

Actually, there’s no accurate information on the etymology of the term “spirits.” 

In regards to its meaning, there are several meanings behind it. 

Based on the Oxford dictionary, “spirits” can be a human soul, holy spirit, alcohol, attitude, determination/courage, and mind/character/feelings. 

But nowadays, a wide range of alcoholic drinks, such as gin, whiskey, rum, tequila, vodka, and brandy, are referred to as “spirits.”  

What’s The Difference Between The Two? 

The word “spirit” and the term “liquor” are often interchangeably used to refer to any alcoholic beverage that has been strongly distilled. 

“To alcohol! The cause of… and solution to… all of life’s problems.”

— Matthew Abram Groening, American Cartoonist/Writer/Producer/Animator

But, in some cases, some people use the term “liquor” to refer to distilled alcohol [2] that is not aged, such as gin, vodka, and tequila (silver or blanco). 

What Liquors Are Considered Spirits? 

Liquor Bottles on a Rack

The liquors considered spirits are the ones distilled to produce alcohol. 

Although liquor can be found in various types and flavors, all of it starts as a mash that undergoes the fermentation process and distillation. 

The distillation of the blends creates a high alcohol concentration. Also, some are aged in oak barrels, like whiskey, to enhance the flavors and colors of the final product. 

But aside from that, what liquors are considered spirits? 

  • Due to distillation, hard alcohol contains a large amount of alcohol. The alcohol content is classified into various types and gets its proof by doubling its ABV.
  • Rum is considered liquor and one of the spirits. Rum is made from fermented sugarcane, usually soaked in oak barrels. 
  • Gin is created by distilling grain, then adding botanicals like citrus zest, coriander, and juniper berries. 
  • Another spirit is tequila, made from pure blue agave plants and produced in Mexico. Its smooth and mellow taste comes from aging in oak barrels. 
  • Brandy is also considered one of the spirits, distilled from fruit juice or wine, then aged in oak barrels. 


What alcohol is not a spirit?

Alcohol that is not considered spirit includes wine and beer. These aren’t considered spirits as they’re not distilled. 

Though spirits have higher alcohol content, unlike beer and wine, they’re usually mixed with other components to have the same alcohol percentage.  

Can a spirit be non-alcoholic?

Yes. Spirits can be non-alcoholic. Some of the best non-alcoholic spirits are alcohol-free rum, gin, and more. 

You can make the mixed drinks you like without the booze with these beverages. 

Final Thoughts

While there are many theories about where the word “spirits” came from, and there are many meanings behind it, one thing is certain—alcohol and spirits have a close relationship with each other, even centuries ago. 

Regardless of its origin and history, what’s important is what it meant to us and how we and others understand its meaning. 



Lydia Martin

Lydia Martin hails from Redmond, Washington, where you’ll find some of the best cocktail bars and distilleries that offer a great mix of local drinks. She used to work as a bar manager in Paris and is a self-taught mixologist whose passion for crafting unique cocktails led her to create Liquor Laboratory. Lydia can whip up a mean Margarita in seconds! Contact at [email protected] or learn more about us here.

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