The origins of alcohol distillation are still somewhat obscure. Greeks in Alexandria had already developed the distillation of plant essences for medicinal purposes by the fourth century c.e. The technique was further developed by Arab chemists for the extraction of essential oils for perfumes, and it probably was passed back to Europe during the medieval period, perhaps through Spain. The distillation of alcohol from wine seems to have emerged in the medical schools of Salerno and/or Montpellier during the twelfth century (although see Allchin 1979). Distilled alcohol remained primarily for medicinal uses until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although some recreational consumption seems to have begun as early as the fifteenth century, especially in Germany. During the sixteenth century, production began to shift from apothecaries and monasteries to merchants and commercial distillers. By the seventeenth century, consumption was widespread and production increased dramatically, especially once cheaper sugar- and grain-based alcohols began to be produced in northern Europe (Braudel 1979, pp. 241–49; Forbes 1970; Matthee 1995).
Michael Dietler, “Alcohol: Anthropological/Archaeological Perspectives”, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 35 (2006), 234.