The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Alcohol (Distilled)


Other Names


Alcohol, alk, aqua vitae, bourbon, brandy, branntwein, cañaza, dharu, ethanol, ethyl alcohol, gola, moonshine, pox, rakshi, schnapps, schnaps, spirits, spiritus, sprit, soju, whiskey, whisky

Since humans first became acquainted with sweet substances and the various sugars, we have been making them into alcohol by using yeast as a fermenting agent (Bush 1974). The resulting products can be either consumed as wineor distilled into alcoholic spirits. Because alcohol evaporates more readily than water, it can be distilled from a fermented product by heating it with care. And because alcohol is strongly hydroscopic, i.e., it attracts water, a portion of the water in which it is contained will be carried into the distillate during distillation. The final distillate product contains approximately 38% alcohol, along with the water and the essential oils that are also distilled during the process.




“You can easily take this literally. Alcoholic thrushes really do exist. So do other animal drinkers, who are absolutely wild about alcohol and other drugs. They are all of them all too human: it appears that inebriation also produces feelings of happiness in animals.”






(1995, 14)



The medieval distillation of alcoholic spirits. (Woodcut from Von allen geprannten wassern [Of All Distilled Waters], 1498)



An apparatus for distilling palm wine on Amboina Island. (From Hartwich, Die menschlichen Genußmittel, 1911)




The origin of the distilling arts lies far back in the mists of time. Distilling equipment has been discovered at the temple of Memphis. The ancient Egyptians had allegedly been distilling wine and apple wine since around 4000 B.C.E. (Bosi 1994, 11). Distilling alcohol to manufacture cosmetics has been practiced in Egypt since the eighth century B.C.E. Whether or not a distillate with a high percentage of alcohol was also being distilled during this period, however, remains uncertain. In Wales, various distillation procedures were experimented with during the fourth century C.E. The Saracens brought the Arabian art of distillation to Spain in the eighth century C.E., and from there it quickly spread across Europe (Höschen n.d.). The word alcohol is derived from Arabic (cf. Catha edulisCoffea arabica). The Arabs believed that the distillate of wine was a “medicine that could soothe both physical and spiritual pain” (Bosi 1995, 13). The Arabian art of distillation exerted a powerful influence on the alchemical practices of medieval Europe. In Germany and Italy, a rich tradition emerged in which not only fermented alcohol but also practically every herb and every animal was distilled (Braunschweig 1610). For these reasons, distilled alcohol also became known by the names spiritual drinkspirits, and alchemical elixir.


The root of yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea), which grows in the Alps, is used to distill a schnapps known locally as enzian (= gentian). Unfortunately, the plant is sometimes confused with white hellebore (Veratrum album), a plant capable of producing a powerful and toxic state of inebriation.



The starchy root-balls of the yucca plant are used to distill alcohol. (Yucca sp. from North America)



The sugarcane plant (Saccharum officinarum L.) is originally from Melanesia. From there, humans have carried it to all the tropical regions of the world. The freshly pressed juice of the plant can be used to brew beerlike beverages and can also be distilled into potent alcoholic beverages (firewater).



Distilling equipment from the early modern era. (Woodcut from Lonicerus, Kreuterbuch, 1679)


The number of plants that contain starch or sugar constituents that can be mashed and fermented with yeast is beyond count. Numerous other ingredients may be combined with these plants before, during, or after the fermentation period. Most of these additives are aromatic plants whose active constituents are distilled along with the alcohol. For this reason, herbs such as wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and juniper are often added to the mash. During the production of some palm alcohols (arrack, kolwater), the bitter bark of the large muna-mal or mukalai tree (Mimusops elengi L.) may be added to the palm wine either before or during the distillation process (Macmillan 1991, 424*).

Alcohol is a very effective solvent for herbs. The active constituents or extracts not only are absorbed into the solution but also are simultaneously preserved by the high alcohol content (cf. theriac). Many different kinds of alcohol can be aromatized by adding either herbal extracts or essential oils (Mayr 1984). For example, Scandinavian aquavit,“the water of life,” is actually a grain alcohol to which the essential oil of caraway (Carum carvi L.) has been added. An absinthe substitute can be made by adding worm-wood (Artemisia absinthium) to alcohol:


Place the upper parts of the flowering herb in alcohol and allow the mixture to sit in a sunny location for two weeks. Shake often. Allow to sit undisturbed for another two weeks, strain, and store for a long time before drinking. (Mayr 1984, 96)


Many psychoactive plants are suitable for adding to alcohol. Cannabis may be added to tequila, Mandragora officinarum to brandy, Ephedra to brandy, Brugmansia to light rum, Datura innoxia to tequila, peyote (Lophophora williamsii) to mescal, and fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) to vodka.


This traditional rakshi container features the face of Bhairab, the god responsible for alcohol inebriation. (Nepal, twentieth century)



A Mexican bottle of cheap sugarcane alcohol. Shamans drink copious quantities of this during their healing ceremonies.


Ritual Use


Like all other alcoholic beverages (beerbalche’palm winewine, pulque [cf. Agave spp.]), distilled alcohol is used throughout the world for ritual purposes (Babor 1988). Surprisingly, some kinds of alcohol are used as shamanic drugs to induce trance and are offered to mountain spirits, gods, and Mama Coca (cf. Erythroxylum coca). Alcohol is also consumed ritually in many modern societies, such as when one shares a drink with a guest. Similar modern rituals are initiating communal drinking by clinking glasses or proposing a toast, the drinking binges of fraternities, et cetera.

In Nepal, Parvati, the divine wife and shakti of the Hindu god Shiva, is usually regarded as the creator of rakshi (a distilled alcohol typically made from a mash of millet). Rakshi, which is typically made at home, is both offered and drunk at the Buddhist sacrificial rites of the Newari and other Nepalese ethnic groups. The Newari say that it is good to drink some rakshi, but never so much that one becomes drunk.

Shiva, in his terrifying form as Bhairab, is a great lover of beer and alcohol. Because of this, his followers often drink (great amounts of) alcohol so that they may better identify with him (Fouce and Tomecko 1990, 19). In Darjeeling and Sikkim, millet alcohol is sometimes made more potent by adding the seeds of Datura metel, a plant that is also sacred to Shiva/Bhairab (Biswas 1956, 70*).

The Aghoris, Tantrists who follow the left-hand path, are able to consume enormous amounts of distilled alcohol without becoming drunk. They use the alcohol to train and sharpen their minds, which they can then use to transform the inebriating effects of the alcohol (Svoboda 1993, 173; cf. Aconitum feroxCannabis indica).

The North American Iroquois have long allowed unusual dreams to guide them in their lives. In later times, they used the “firewater” that the Europeans introduced to produce such dream states (Carpenter 1959).

The Indians of Mexico offer and drink great amounts of alcohol (aguardiente, refino, yolixpa, pox) during many of their rituals and prayer ceremonies. They frequently consume such large quantities that the sacred events often culminate in a state of collective drunkenness (cf. Knab 1995, 160*; Loyola 1986).

The shamans (nahualli) of the modern Nahuat offer aguardiente to the soul eaters of Talocan, the underworld, who hold captive the lost soul-parts (tonalli) of humans. The aguardiente is intended to make these otherworldly beings drunk, as it is then easier for the shamans to pull the lost tonal away from the soul eaters (Knab 1995*). A close connection between alcohol and witchcraft is found in other Mexican Indian cultures as well (Viqueira and Palerm 1954).

In the highlands of Chiapas, aguardiente is one of the most important shamanic drugs (Siverts 1973). In Zinacatán (Chiapas), a special pox prepared for the feast of San Lorenzo consists of sugarcane alcohol, sugarcane, pineapple juice, and an extract of Ipomoea violacea (Dawn Delo, pers. comm., 1996). The renowned shamans (healers) of the village of Masao, near Cuzco (Peru), drink large quantities of cañazo (homemade sugarcane alcohol) during their healing rituals, offering ceremonies (t’inkupas), and coca oracles. They usually also ingest equally substantial amounts of coca (cf. Erythroxylum coca).


Postcard, Ireland, ca. 1993


A nineteenth-century observer provided the following description of the use of alcohol by the Siberian Samoyed and eastern Yakut shamans:


The shaman is familiar with his own kind, and yet he lives in enmity with the evil shamans. The shaman practices his art without compensation. Shamanism is passed down from father to son, although there are also female shamans. All of these shamans have their own specialty. One may be able to find lost objects, while another knows how to find the best places to fish. Others know how to reveal the site where a disease is located in the human body (worms on the heart for example!) or to locate stolen property. The shaman requires a glass of cognac, a knife, and a cross for this purpose. The latter object is needed especially by Christian, i.e., baptized shamans, for the power of the shaman has in no way been limited by Christianity and the cross. During the conjuration, the thief is struck in the eye with the knife. (Brutsgi 1987, 215)


When the Siberian people were forbidden to use the fly agaric mushroom for shamanic and hedonistic purposes during the Soviet era, many turned to vodka as a substitute. The shamans were able to utilize the alcohol, but many others became alcoholics.

Alcohol, and especially the associated problem of addiction, has been the subject of numerous autobiographical novels (famous examples include John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs, by Jack London, andDer Trinker [The Drinker], by Hans Fallada).

The Effects of Alcohol


The euphoric effects of certain amounts of alcohol may result from the release of endorphins or the activation of the endorphinergic system induced by alcohol (Verebey and Blum 1979). It has been speculated that acetaldehyde, the initial metabolite of alcohol, reacts with dopamine and enzymes to produce morphinelike substances, and that it is these that lead to alcoholism (Davis and Walsh 1970). It is possible that alcohol consumption may cause psychoactive β-carbolines (tetrahydroharmane, harmane; cf. harmaline and harmine) to be created in the body, and that these in turn are responsible for certain euphoric effects of the alcohol. Recent experiments have demonstrated that acetaldehyde and tryptamine are converted in vivo into tetrahydroharmane via an enzymatic process (Callaway et al. 1996). Elevated concentrations of harmane have been detected in the bodies of alcoholics (Susilo 1994).

The effects of alcohol can be changed, suppressed, or intensified by combining it with other substances. The effects may be suppressed by coca (Erythroxylum cocaErythroxylum novogranatense),Ephedra species, ephedrinemescalinecocaine, henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), nicotine, LSD, and psilocybin. Both Ledum palustre and Piper methysticum can potentiate the effects of alcohol. Synergistic effects (interactions) can result when alcohol is used in combination with MAO inhibitors (β-carbolines), diazepam, and numerous medicines (psychopharmaceuticals).

Hallucinogenic Salamander Brandy


In the mountains northwest of Ljubljana, Slovenia, a distinctly hallucinogenic alcohol is still being distilled today according to ancient (alchemical) recipes. Following the distillation of a fruit mash, living European fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) are placed in the distillation vessel. The salamanders are then slowly heated to a very high temperature. It is said that the more the animals suffer, the more the desired alkaloids are exuded into the distillate. The salamanders’ skin contains the psychoactive steroidal alkaloids samandarin388 and samandaridin. Samandenon is also present. The effects of salamander brandy are said to be similar to those of ibogaine or strychnine. In Slovenia, it is legal to distill live salamanders (Ogorevc 1995). An alternative method consists of simply adding living salamanders to high-percentage spirits (Valenčič 1998).

“I would say that the drug that gets you knocked up, blindly and unconsciously, is alcohol. Alcohol does reduce inhibitions—people become aggressive, indiscriminately loving or hostile, weeply self-pitying or self-expansive. Alcohol stimulates the social emotions.”






(1998, 213*)


“Salamanders have been known to be poisonous since the most ancient of times. Like toads, for thousands of years salamanders have played an important role as animals with magical powers. In ancient Persian mythology, the salamander was the animal that extinguishes fire, just as it did for the alchemists of the Middle Ages.”






(1987, 123)



A Chinese illustration of an alcoholic, who can be recognized by his red drinker’s nose.




Babor, Thomas. 1988. Alcohol: Customs and rituals. London: Burke Publishing.


Bosi, Roberto. 1995. I Distillati—Edle Brände: Von der Kunst des Destillierens. Edition Spangenberg. Munich: Droemer Knaur.


Bourke, John G. 1893. Primitive distillation among the Tarascos. American Anthropologist, o.s., 6:65–69.


———. 1894. Distillation by early American Indians. American Anthropologist, o.s., 7:297–302.


Braun, Stephen. 1996. Buzz. New York: Oxford University Press.


Braunschweig, Hieronymus. 1610. Ars destillandi oder die rechte Kunst zu destillieren. Strasbourg.


Brutsgi, Franz Georg, ed. 1987. Forschungsreisen des Grafen Karl von Waldburg-Zeil nach Spitzbergen und Sibirien 1870, 1876, 1881. Constance: Rosengarten Verlag.


Bunzel, Ruth. 1940. The role of alcoholism in two Central American cultures. Psychiatry Journal of the Biology and Pathology of Interpersonal Relations 3:361–87.


Carpenter, E. S. 1959. Alcohol in the Iroquois dream quest. American Journal of Psychiatry 116:148–51.


Callaway, James C., Malmo M. Airaksinen, Katja S. Salmela, and Mikko Salaspuro. 1996. Formation of tetrahydroharman (1-methyl-1,2,3,4-tetrahydro-beta-carboline) by Helicobacter pylori in the presence of ethanol and tryptamine. Life Sciences 58 (21): 1817–21.


Davis, Virginia, and Michael J. Walsh. 1970. Alcohol, amines, and alkaloids: A possible biochemical basis for alcohol addiction. Science 167:1005–7.


Dennis, P. A. 1975. The role of the drunk in an Oaxacan village. American Anthropologist, n.s., 77 (4): 856–63.


Douglas, Mary, ed. 1987. Constructive drinking: Perspectives on drink from anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Fallada, Hans. 1959. Der Trinker. Hamburg: Rowohlt.


Fouce, Paula, and Denise Tomecko. 1990. Shiva. Bangkok: The Tamarind Press.


Frence, Lothar. 1995. Die größten Trunkenbolde des Tierreichs. Das Tier 2/95:14–17.


Gast, Arbo. 1986. Liköre, Schnäpse und Wein selbstgemacht aus Früchten, Beeren und Kräutern. Munich: Heyne.


Habermehl, Gerhard G. 1987. Gift-Tiere und ihre Waffen. 4th ed. Berlin: Springer Verlag.


Höschen, Ulrich. n.d.. Das große Buch der feinen Spirituosen. Cologne: Naumann und Göbel.


Lall, Kesar. 1993. The origin of alcohol and other stories. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar.


London, Jack. 1981. John Barleycorn: Alcoholic memoirs. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Western Tanager Press. (Orig. pub. 1913.)


Loyola, Luis J. 1986. The use of alcohol among Indians and Ladinos in Chiapas, Mexico. In Drugs in Latin America, ed. Edmundo Morales, 125–48. Studies in Third World Societies, no. 37. Williamsburg, Va.: College of William and Mary.


Marshall, Mac, ed. 1979. Beliefs, behaviors, and alcoholic beverages: A cross-cultural survey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Marsteller, Phyllis, and Karen Karnchanapee. 1980. The use of women in the advertising of distilled spirits. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 12 (1): 1–12.


Mayr, Christoph. 1984. Schnapsfibel: Kräutergeist für Gesunde und Kranke. Bozen: Athesia.


McKenna, Terence, and Werner Pieper. [1993]. Die süßeste Sucht. Ist Zucker eine Killer-Droge? Löhrbach: Werner Pieper’s MedienXperimente; Solothurn: Nachtschatten Verlag.


McDonald, Maryon, ed. 1994. Gender, drink and drugs. Oxford: Berg Publisher.


Ogorevc, Blaž. 1995. Halluzinogene Droge, gemacht in Slovenia: Salamander brandy. Mladina 23:26–32. (In Slovakian.)


Pischl, Josef. 1996. Schnapsbrennen. Munich: Heyne.


Rose, A. H., ed. 1977. Alcoholic beverages. New York: Academic Press.


Siverts, Henning, ed. 1973. Drinking patterns in highland Chiapas. Bergen, Oslo, and Trom: Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities.


Spode, Hasso. 1993. Die Macht der Trunkenheit: Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte des Alkohols in Deutschland. Opladen: Leske + Budrich.


———. 1994. Vom Archaischen des Gelages. NZZFolio (August): 18–21.


Susilo, Rudy. 1994. Metaboliten der Indolaminneurotransmitter: Schlüsselsubstanzen zum Alkoholismus? Pharmazie in unserer Zeit 23 (5): 303–11.


Svoboda, Robert E. 1993. Aghora: At the left hand of God. New Delhi: Rupa.


Valenčič, Ivan. 1998. Salamander brandy: A psychedelic drink made in Slovenia. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1996 (5): 213–25. Berlin: VWB.


Verebey, Karl, and Kenneth Blum. 1979. Alcohol euphoria: Possible mediation via endorphinergic mechanisms. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 11 (4): 305–11.


Viqueira, C., and Angel Palerm. 1954. Alcoholismo, brujería y homicidio en dos communidades rurales de México. América Indígena 14 (1): 7–36.


“The other type of drinker has imagination, vision. Even when most pleasantly jingled he walks straight and naturally, never staggers nor falls, and knows just where he is and what he is doing. It is not his body but his brain that is drunken. He may bubble with wit, or expand with good fellowship. Or he may see intellectual specters and phantoms that are cosmic and logical and that take the forms of syllogisms. It is when in this condition that he strips away the husks of life’s healthiest illusions and gravely considers the iron collar of necessity to be welded about the neck of his soul. This is the hour of John Barleycorn’s subtlest power.”






(1981, 12)