A branntwein recipe from 1582

I will be taking a break from the Königsberg MS to post this set of instructions for making aqua vitae simplex from a German distilling book of 1582. This is in honour of my apprentice Patti’s birthday. She is very good at everything related to brewing and distilling, and this is the kind of instructions that will serve her well.

If you want to distill wine and make from it a good aqua vitae simplex (a good, clean brandy [Brandwein] without any additives and cleared of its phlegm, unclean moisture and earthiness, you should no make it of stale, smelly, viscous, cloudy or sour wine and neither of wine yeast, Rappistraube, of pressing residue, but choose the finest, strongest, best-smelling, healthiest red or white wine you can find, and the older it is, the better it is for this purpose. No sharpness or vinegary flavour must be felt, and if you can get wine that is not yet clarified but still lying upon its mother [yeast culture residue] but nonetheless is clear and pure, then take the same and distill it per Vesicam, [i.e. In a copper still] (watch that the top third remains empty and all joinst are well caulked and soldered). Use the slightest fire, controlled to the right degree, so that the wine in the container does not boil, and see to a proper, sufficient cooling of the pure, gentle, pleasant-smelling, tender, very subtle, strong spirits, and a small (in flavour) brandy will come over. When you see that wateriness of phlegm which holds no more winelike virtue comes, stop distilling, take the vessel with the brandy, clean out the Vesic and distill the first distillate again per Vesicam, and catch the most subtle and strongest part that always comes over first, especially, and distribute it according to its variety into many glass beakers and rectify it of its phlegm per Alembicum in the bain marie for the second, third or fourth time, depending on how strong and volatile you want your aqua vitae, at your pleasure. But always pay attention that you keep the fire as low as you can and not drive the distillation too fast, and you will no doubt have a most delicious aqua vitae simplex.

I have not yet been able to locate a copy of the original and thus took my text from Arntz, Helmut (1975) Weinbrenner. Die Geschichte vom Geist des Weines Seewald; Stuttgart, p. 113. The book looks reliable enough to me, and the description is completely credible. What results is what Germans in the 15th and 16th century knew as branntwein, a strong, clear, probably fairly raw spirit that has little in common with what we call weinbrand today. We know from other sources that spirits distilled from actual wine were considered the best, and a lot of everyday branntwein would have come from wine marc, failed beer worts, or beer and wine that had spoiled in storage. All of it found ready buyers the way new drugs tend to, and while the impact off distilled liquor on sixteenth-century German society is hard to gauge, it was likely quite severe. There was no moral panic akin to that fuelled by the eighteenth-century ‘gin craze’, but that was most likely because the public had other things to focus on.

A cautionary note: I am usually happy to encourage readers to experiment with the recipes I translate, but please do research before you do it in this case. Most jurisdictions have some controls on alcohol distilling, and doing so without a permit can carry serious penalties. Even if it is legal where you are, consider investing in some training before you start. Still accidents are not funny at all.

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