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No. 323:

Today, we learn about burnt wine and frozen wine. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Some years ago I sang with the Patriarch's choir in the Cathedral of the Orthodox Church in Jugoslavia. After the Saturday evening service the old gentlemen from the choir went down to an austere room with a locked cupboard. They ceremoniously opened the cupboard and took out a bottle of peasant brandy. Each of us got about half an ounce in a small glass. We quietly stood and sipped the best illegal liquor in Serbia.

Fermentation of a fruit, grain, or vegetable mash yields a certain natural alcohol content. A beer might go to six percent. A wine might go to twelve. To get anything stronger, you have to find a way to remove water from the natural ferment.

Medieval Europe discovered distillation in the 1100s. When you boil a ferment, the vapor is richer in alcohol than the liquid. You condense that vapor and get a stronger liquor than you started with. Boil that liquid and condense it, and you'll have a even more potent brew.

Thus whiskies and brandies entered Western Europe in the High Middle Ages. That Jugoslav brandy was called rakija, and it was made the same way those medieval brandies were.

When the Chinese learned about European distillation, they called brandy "burnt wine." That sounds very Chinese until we discover that the word "brandy" comes from the Dutch. They called it brandewijn, which means precisely the same thing -- burnt wine.

The Chinese had been making home brew themselves -- for well over a millennium -- when they learned about distillation. But they made it in a strikingly different way. Nomads in Western China suffered the bitter winters of Eastern Siberia. They found that when their wine froze, water separated out as ice. That left behind a brandy whose strength depended on just how cold the winter was. They called that brandy "frozen-out wine."

Distillation can produce stronger liquors than freezing, so the Chinese readily adopted it. But by then they'd been making hard liquor far longer than Europeans had. The crime of bootlegging was also an old Chinese invention. It came into being even before brandy. About the time of Christ, the emperor Wang Mang nationalized wine and beer-making. Widespread bootlegging rose up immediately despite a death penalty.

West and East -- fire and ice. The freeze separation of alcohol wasn't mentioned in Europe until the alchemist Paracelsus astonished people with the idea in 1570. Today, we use all those separation methods in a dizzying variety of process industries. But we're also realizing that we do better when we ease off on distilled liquors in favor of natural ferments.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Temple, R., The Genius of China. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986, pp. 101-103.