Is it possible to know what was the most common hard liquor of the Late Middle Ages?

I am not asking for the strongest drink in the Middle Ages, but which hard liquor was the most common during the Late Medieval Period.

  • There is an answer of on Reddit that might satisfy you: reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/y15po/… Aug 3, 2017 at 18:02
  • Also, I re-read your question and you ask "is it possible to know" and or course it's possible to know. If I go by Google then the answer is Brandy, but there was also a lot of whiskey. This one needs a deep dive that I can't give with some real book research. Sep 3, 2017 at 14:48

5 Answers 5


I finally did a little digging. The Late Medieval Period is generally considered from 1300-1500. Whisky, did not become wide spread until the 1700s. The first recorded instance of Whisky production was in 1494:

The Guild of Barber Surgeons.[15] The earliest Irish mention of whisky comes from the seventeenth-century Annals of Clonmacnoise, which attributes the death of a chieftain in 1405 to "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae" at Christmas.[16] In Scotland, the first evidence of whisky production comes from an entry in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494 where malt is sent "To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae", enough to make about 500 bottles.

There is ample evidence that liquor distilled from grapes and other fermented fruit well before the 1300's and Brandy was widespread by 1500. Neither Brandy or Whisky was drunk as much as wine or beer during this period, but just from the time line it looks like Brandy was a) easier to make since you start with wine and no cooking involved until distillation b) had a several hundred year head start on Whisky.

There were distilled beverages in Asia, but again not as widespread as Brandy in Europe.

Just based on the fact that the first mention of Whisky production isn't until 1494, only 6 years before the end of the Late Medieval Period and Brandy production is mentioned many times in The History and Taxonomy of Distilled Spirits before 1500, I think we can safely assume that Brandy was the most widespread distilled beverage in this time frame.


I would imagine it would be either whiskey or wine brandy came from Brandywine (excuse spelling or similar pronunciation) meaning burnt wine also cider was probably popular due to the fact that the water quality was poor

  • 1
    References for your claims would be beneficial.
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 15, 2017 at 12:16

What was the most common hard liquor of the Late Middle Ages?

When were the Middle Ages?

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or Medieval Period lasted from the 5th to the late 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

The distillation process was little known and used in Europe during the Middle Ages. Wine was was distilled into brandy as early as 1313 but it was prepared only as a medicine and was considered as possessing such marvelous strengthening and sanitary powers that the physicians named it “the water of life,” (l’eau de vie) a name it still retains.

The Late Medieval Period is generally considered from 1300-1500.

The first years of the 14th century were marked by famines, culminating in the Great Famine of 1315–17. The causes of the Great Famine included the slow transition from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age, which left the population vulnerable when bad weather caused crop failures

These troubles were followed in 1347 by the Black Death, a pandemic that spread throughout Europe during the following three years. The death toll was probably about 35 million people in Europe, about one-third of the population. Towns were especially hard-hit because of their crowded conditions. - Late Middle Ages

Thus bringing everything into perspective, it is easy to see how distilled wine (brandy) would naturally have been used as a medicine back in the day, rather than an outright popular drink.

Brandy began to be distilled in France circa 1313, but it was prepared only as a medicine and was considered as possessing such marvelous strengthening and sanitary powers that the physicians named it “the water of life,” (l’eau de vie) a name it still retains.

In the young America Colonies, George Washington began commercial distilling in 1797 at the urging of his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, who had experience distilling grain in Scotland. With this experienced help, Washington became one of the largest distillers in young America with five copper stills operating 12 months a year. However, a few years earlier, Laird’s America had opened (making it the oldest apple brandy producer) and began distilling applejack and brandy in 1780. The abundance of naturally available fruits for processing as compared to the labor-intensive planting and harvesting of grains resulted in young America’s practical adaptation of the readily available harvest of local fruits.

The first recorded account for whiskey was in 1495. Certainly, it had been around before then.

It seems logical to presume that brandy was the most common hard liquor in the Late Middle Ages. It was in any case more widespread throughout Europe during this time frame.


It would depend on the crop the region had plenty of. Corn and rye would lean towards bourbon and wheat and potatoes towards vodka but it's all shine in the end.

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    I don't think corn and potatoes were known in Europe in the late middle ages, so I doubt they were producing alcohol from them. Aug 11, 2017 at 23:26

It depends on the region. Most produced ales at the time were barley wines and meads, all reaching anywhere from 7% to 12% ABV. (Roughly, I am not an academic in this by any means.) As for liquor, I don't think liquors came around until later.

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