In a Word: Unlocking the Liquor Cabinet

Discover the history behind the names of some of the most common distilled spirits.


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A well-stocked liquor cabinet holds the opportunity to explore not only mixology but history. Unlocking the legacies behind the names of common distilled spirits reveals a whole hidden world of geography, politics, and botany. It also leads to one undeniable conclusion: Drinkers don’t like their liquor names to contain too many syllables.


Brandy is traditionally made from distilled wine. Because distillation in the 16th century involved the use of flame (the alcohol evaporates and is collected and fed into a cooler container, where it condenses), the Dutch called the result brandewijn, literally “burnt wine.” The English picked this up in the early 1600s as brandy-wine, which was abbreviated to just brandy by the middle of the 17th century.

Some wines make better brandies than others. The wine from the Cognac region of France (recorded in English in the 1590s as Conniacke wine) made particularly good brandy, and by the end of the 1600s, Cognac brandy was in a class by itself for quality. So good was it that the name cognac is today sometimes used to refer to the highest-quality brandy even if it doesn’t come from French wine.


Gin is a liquor that is flavored with juniper berries. If you notice the resemblance between the pronunciation of gin and the first syllable of juniper, you’re halfway to understanding how the spirit got its name. The plant was called juniperus in Latin, which became genevre in Old French, and then genever in Dutch. To English-speakers on the island Great Britain, genever sounded almost identical to Geneva, the well-known Swiss city. The spirit flavored with juniper berries was therefore called geneva for some time, but it wasn’t long before drinkers were shortening the name to just gin.


Though modern rum — made from distilled sugarcane juice or molasses — was first created in Barbados in the 17th century, there is some historical evidence that wine and other alcohols made from distilled sugar and sugar byproducts were produced in India and Cyprus centuries earlier.

The origin of the word rum is disputed. The prevailing theory is that it comes from the word rumbullion, though the exact meaning behind this word is obscure. It’s possible that it derives from the 16th-century slang word rum, meaning “excellent, fine.” Either that slang use of rum or some other source became rumbullion (or in some texts, rumbostion), and no one is exactly sure why or what it means.

(It probably isn’t related to the English word bullion, which even then referred to a bar of precious metal.)

At any rate, it didn’t take long before the name of the liquor was shortened to just rum.


The Aztecs long ago had formulated a beverage made from the sap of the agave plant. They called it pulque, and it was a milky white substance. Jump ahead to the early 1500s and the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. Naturally, these conquerors had brought with them barrels of liquor from Europe, but those resources would eventually run out, which meant that if they wanted to continue to imbibe, they needed to distill their own spirits. They began with the local pulque but applied their more advanced techniques in the distilling, creating a new drink called mezcal, from the Aztec words metl “agave” and ixcalli “stew.”

Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo — yes, Jose Cuervo — was the first to produce this liquor commercially. He established a blue agave farm in the town of Tequila in 1758, refined the distillation process, and produced a spirit distilled primarily from blue agave sap called vino mezcal de Tequila. In 1893, the Mexican government officially dropped the mezcal link from the name, and the liquor became know just as tequila.


In Russian, the word for “water” is voda. The -ka suffix is a diminutive in that language, much like -ette in French or -ito/-ita in Spanish. Vodka is simply “little water.”


At the beginning of the 18th century, Gaelic speakers in Ireland and Scotland referred to this spirit as uisge beatha, literally “water of life.” This is probably a direct translation of aqua vitae, Medieval Latin for, again, “water of life,” and a phrase that was applied to intoxicating liquors of all types since the early 1300s.

All good Scotch and Irish whiskey was (and still is) made from malt. But when distillers plied their trade in America, their whiskeys were obtained from corn or rye. According to legend, the first such American whiskey was brewed in Bourbon County in 1789, and so — like tequila and cognac — it took its name from geography: Bourbon whiskey, or just bourbon.

To take this word history one step further back, Bourbon County, which was organized in 1785, was so named in recognition of the French royal family — specifically Louis XVI of the House of Bourbon — who had provided much-needed aid to American rebels during the American Revolution. It’s ironic that the same monarch American revolutionaries honored would be beheaded in 1793 during the French Revolution, which was itself inspired by the success of America’s fight for freedom and democracy.

Fun fact: When that first American corn and rye whiskey was distilled in 1789, Bourbon County was a part of western Virginia. Kentucky didn’t become a state until 1792, and Bourbon County fell within its territory. This means that Kentucky bourbon is about four years older than the state of Kentucky itself.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. This really interesting. Brandy actually has origins to burnt wine and the connection to Cognac. Gin seemed like a natural progression, but Rum is a lot more complicated. I think the Mexican government did the right thing in just shortening the name to Tequila. Vodka does look like water. The nose knows better if at all close to it though.

    I personally don’t ‘drink’ but did somewhat years ago. There was apple wine at one time, Kamikaze’s at another. The latter was at work (lunches at The Jolly Rodger, etc.) ) in the mid-80’s where I made decisions to tuxedo it out Falco style and lip-sync ‘Amadeous’ one year and be a Chippendale’s guy the next. The first one WAS my decision, the 2nd was too, but Cathy and Lisa put me up to it. Working out at the gym backfiring, Andy! See what can happen when you’re the only guy in your unit? No booze for me after that. Soup, yes.


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