Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Was brandy first created as a tax dodge?

During the 15th and 16th century, alcoholic drinks were taxed by volume, since methods for assessing percentage of alcohol were relatively crude. This gave rise to a clever little corner-cutting idea: distil down wines for export, pay less tax, then add the water back in after delivery.

The process of distillation had been long known. It was usually performed in an alembic, or alchemists still apparatus, made of glass. Led by the Dutch, merchants started using these to boil down wine to between 35% and 60% abv, at which concentration they made an inferior-flavoured, very boozy concentrate.

Like all forms of preservation, the process left behind its own unique flavour, even after the concentrated drink was watered back down. The merchants accounted for this by calling the reconstituted wine brandewijn, or burnt wine to describe what they thought had happened to it. They might better have called it burning wine, for this was how they tested the concentrate – taking a portion and setting it alight, deeming the distillation adequate when their sample was entirely flammable . Often, several distillations were required, the first distillate being called the spirit of wine, and the improved distillate the spirit of wine rectified. (more…)

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