On a stormy night sometime in the mid-9th century, as the legend goes, a Greek pilgrim named Pontus sought refuge underneath a Roman aqueduct in Salerno, some 50 kilometers south of Naples along the Amalfi Coast.
With rain pounding down on the town and debris flying everywhere, Pontus took a terrible blow to his arm and found himself gravely wounded. Just as he sought treatment for his wound, Pontus noticed that a fellow Italian traveler called Salernus was also wounded, but applying seemingly innovative dressings to his injury. Fighting back superstitions and embracing his medical curiosity, Pontus approached Salernus to inspect his bandaging technique. As Salernus explained his methods to the Greek, two additional travelers, Helinus, a Jew, and Abela, an Arab, passed under the same aqueducts.
Observing the two wounded travelers, they offered their assistance. With their collective knowledge of medicine, the four men treated each other’s wounds later to discover that all were aspiring doctors. To celebrate the combined medical heritages of the Latin, Greek, Jewish and Arab communities, the men decided to open a school dedicated to teaching future medical students: the Scuola Medica Salernitana, or the Medical School of Salerno.
Legends aside, it was here that instrument sterilization techniques, anesthesia and early invasive surgery were invented and practiced. But surprisingly, the school would also end up making a lasting contribution to bars, clubs, fraternities, casinos, Cancun spring-breakers and bachelorette parties the world over. For it was at the Medical School of Salerno that the modern process of alcohol distillation was invented, forever changing how the world gets drunk.
Prior to the invention of distillation, alcoholic beverages gained their special punch as a result of the fermentation process. As early as 7,000 BC and throughout the Stone Age, Chinese peasants in Henan made an early precursor to wine out of fermented grapes, honey and berries. Later it was budding Henanese vintners that would develop rice wine, which was then imbibed as a spiritual rite of passage. Traces of fermented beverages have also been found across Egypt, Sudan, Georgia and Pre-Hispanic Mexico. The Book of Proverbs even notably recommends providing fermented alcoholic juices to the dying and depressed to ease their misery.
By the time of Christ, nearly the entire world was producing fermented alcoholic beverages out of just about any organic matter containing natural sugars: barley, wheat, cassava, cow dung, honey, grapes and more. As Jesus famously transformed water into wine, our ancestors were getting drunk. A lot. Fermentation, as opposed to distillation, was a fairly straightforward and ubiquitous natural process that resulted simply from pounding together a mash of organic matter (such as grapes), storing it in vats and allowing trapped yeast to eventually consume the organic matter fermenting away. The natural byproduct is ethanol, and swill or not, after it’s filtered you get your wine, your beer, your mead – your fermented sauce of choice.
Distillation, on the other hand, requires several extra steps, involving boiling different liquids at different temperatures and finally extracting the distilled alcohol. This alcohol also happens to be a lot stronger than fermented alcohols. Wine averages 13 percent alcohol. Vodka is, on average, 40 percent alcohol but can be as high as 95 percent. As a result of these extra chemical complications, humans were both very slow to discover distillation and also very secretive about how they distilled alcohol when they finally discovered these new methods.
Tellingly, the origins of the word and the process for creating alcohol are forever entwined with the world of alchemy. Medieval-era Middle Eastern alchemists began chemically experimenting with distillation as early as the 9th century. Jabir ibn Hayyan, the father of modern chemistry, invented the alembic still to isolate and separate distinct chemical properties. While they may not have mastered how to create gold out of copper, these early alchemists managed to create powerfully potent spirits through the proper application of heat and use of an alembic still, a process so preciously guarded that Middle Eastern alchemists wrote in highly secret code to document their alcoholic discovery.
The various secret recipes for distilling alcohol remained tightly guarded until the 11th century. Very little is known as to how the Medical School of Salerno became the institution to perfect and promulgate the process of alcohol distillation. At the time, the Duchy of Amalfi, seated in the neighboring town of Amalfi, was a thriving maritime state whose success was due in large part to the intellectual and commercial mixing of the best minds of the Latin, Greek, Jewish and Arab worlds – each making lasting contributions to the literary, architectural and scientific spheres of the day.
Perhaps the alchemy of such varied cultural scientific influences created an air of excitement and discovery at the Medical School. Whatever the exact reason for it, the diverse community at the Medical School in Salerno came together and ultimately had a powerful lasting impact on medicine and alcohol consumption for centuries to come. And thank God for that, because the world was about to get a little crazy and in dire need of distilled spirits very soon.
Doctors at the School of Salerno began distilling wine to use the alcohol as medicine known as aqua vitae, or the water of life. The uses of aqua vitae included sterilization and anesthetization. By the 14th century, however, with the bubonic plague ravaging Europe, use of distilled spirits would radically and permanently change the drinking habits of human civilization. What started out as physicians using alcohol to treat and sterilize dying patients, turned into a full-on alcohol-infused frenzy in the coming years.
With water unsafe to drink, and fermented and distilled spirits taking the edge off for an understandably spooked community of survivors, it only made sense that leisurely consumption of hard liquor increased around this time. As Roger Bacon, the Medieval philosopher and alchemist observed in his 13th-century work The Cure of Old Age and Preservation of Youth, “Distilled spirits preserve the stomach, strengthen the natural heat, help digestion, defend the body from corruption, concoct the food till it be turned into very blood.” He also, perhaps in light of increasingly recreational consumption, felt the need to add, “If it be over-much guzzled, it will on the contrary do a great deal of harm: For it will darken the understanding, ill-affect the brain… beget shaking of the limbs and bleareyedness.”
Distilled alcohol, thanks to the discoveries at the Medical School of Salerno, had begun to be used tentatively as a medicinal therapy, but following the Black Death it was sold for almost exclusively commercial purposes. By the time the plague was finally winding down, the collective citizenry of Europe was likely very drunk and had developed a lasting penchant for the consumption of sprits.
It wouldn’t take long for southern Italians to invent another spirit under the guise of its ostensible health benefits. The Renaissance launched a period of growth, discovery and renewal throughout all of Europe, and the Amalfi Coast was no exception. Peasants of the region began to experiment with steeping local produce, both wild and cultivated, in distilled alcohol to create liquors, which would aid digestion. With the horrors of the plague behind them, southern Italians could get back to what they really cared about – cultivating food, preparing food, eating food and digesting food.
Eventually they mixed walnuts and cinnamon with grappa to make nocino, and foraged fennel weed to steep in spirits, making finocchietto. And perhaps most famously, someone got the grand idea to soak lemon peels in a mix of boiled sugar and alcohol for forty days to make limoncello. Across southern Italy, any number of local ingredients are steeped in alcohol to create a rainbow-colored array of digestifs that can aid not only in digestion but also relieve constipation, stomach pain, headaches, cramps, heartburn, depression and tonsillitis. Chances are if your baby cried in the wrong (or right?) village at the wrong (or right?) time, he would alternately be prescribed fennel, walnut, blueberry, apple or even seaweed liquor. All the while, the visiting sorority sister and spring breaker seems to delight in self-medicating with the beloved limoncello. Whatever ails you, there’s a digestif-based cure in southern Italy.
While nearly any decent restaurant in and around Naples features a sizable menu of after-dinner digestifs, a proper tasting of their many forms is in order. Head to Enoteca Yuppi in the Pignasecca market neighborhood and ask for Gennaro. He will serve you a flight of artisanal digestifs including the violet-shaded mirtillo (blueberry liquor) the fluorescent Mountain-Dew-hewed finochietto and the medicinal nocino. A word of advice: heed Gennaro’s instructions and don’t go drinking limoncello spritzes. Limoncello is a digestif and should be enjoyed accordingly – after dinner!
It almost sounds like the beginning of a tired joke – a Greek, an Italian, a Jew and an Arab walk into bar… and opened the world’s first medical school, inadvertently leading to thousands of limoncello-induced hangovers up and down the Amalfi Coast every year. The joke must be on all of us. At the very least, we are spirited away by the discoveries of those four fellows who fatefully met under an aqueduct one stormy night about a millennium ago in Salerno. Cheers to Pontus, Salernus, Helinus and Abela. Theirs is a legacy we will not soon forget.