What is Aqua Vitae?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2019
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Aqua vitae is a general, somewhat archaic term, for various types of alcoholic spirits, though it has other distinct meanings as well. Though the term is little used today, it was commonly used in ancient times and spread throughout the entirety of the Roman Empire, so that the term “aqua vitae” entered into a number of different languages and formed the basis for the names of numerous alcoholic distillations. If aqua vitae is requested in most English-speaking countries, such as the United Kingdom, then it is typically used in an idiomatic manner and often intended to specifically refer to French brandy.

Translated from Latin, aqua vitae literally means “water of life,” and once the term spread throughout various regions of the Western world, it commonly came to be used in reference to a particular alcoholic beverage important to that region. Though the phrase was used, at least colloquially, to refer to baptismal waters as well, it has typically been regarded as a reference to various forms of distilled alcoholic drinks. The traditional form of aqua vitae came from distilling wine into a stronger alcoholic beverage and was sometimes referred to in various English texts as “spirits of wine” as well.


This technique — the distillation of wine or similar spirit into a stronger alcohol — is still used in the making of drinks such as brandy. The term spread throughout the Roman Empire, and most regions the Romans conquered used their own variations on the Latin phrase as the basis for drinks that have survived to this day. For example, aqua vitae translated into both Irish and Gaelic led to the native words that were the foundation for the modern word “whiskey,” which is still used to describe distilled alcoholic drinks that remain iconic and important to those regions.

Eau-de-vie, a colorless form of brandy produced in France, is the French term for “water of life” and finds its etymological roots in the ancient Latin term for the distilled liquor. Similarly, vodka is a form of distilled liquor that is extremely popular throughout the world and finds its origins in Eastern European regions such as Russia and Poland. The name “vodka” comes from the Slavic word voda, meaning “little water.” While the exact intention of this use of water is somewhat disputed, it is possible that it comes from a source such as the water of life, aqua vitae.


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