How did alcoholic drinks get their names?

painting showing various bottles in different colours and sizes.

The European etymology of alcoholic spirits

Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Alcoholic drinks are part of European life, part of how we celebrate good times on special occasions. The alcoholic drinks industry is a substantial multi-million pound industry in Europe, with many major manufacturers.

Did you know that many of these drinks get their name from European languages? This blog looks at the etymology of some of the most popular alcoholic spirits.

Where does the word brandy come from?

a colour photograph of a glass of brandy being held in a hand.

Brandy is a shortened form of an older English word 'brandywine', which itself derived from a Dutch word brandewijn, meaning 'burnt wine'.

This term refers to the process of distilling wine to increase its alcohol content, which results in the creation of brandy.

a green bottle of brandy with a red and gold label.

Brandy is believed to have originated in wine-producing regions of France in the 12th century.

Over time, brandy production spread across Europe, with various countries - such as Spain, Italy and Portugal - developing their own unique styles and methods.

Where does gin come from?

Gin has its origins in the Dutch word jenever or genever, which means juniper.

a photograph of a gin bottle, cans and glasses and a lemon on a tray.

This word reflects gin's distinctive flavour, which is primarily derived from juniper berries during the distillation process.

Originally developed in the Netherlands in the 17th century, gin is now produced all across Europe with many varieties and flavours.

colour advertisement for jenever, with a bottle and two glasses on the corner of a glass table.

What is the meaning of the word rum?

Rum is a spirit that is drunk across the globe. It is associated with parts of the world where sugarcane grows.

However, there is no consensus as to where the name rum comes from. Some sources suggest it derives its name from the Latin word saccharum, a species of sugarcane. Others suggest that it is related to 'rumbullion', a beverage made from boiling sugar cane stalks.

brown bottle with a label showing the word 'Rum' and a tropical landscape.

Both of these theories reflects the historical association of rum with sugar production, as it was originally distilled from sugar cane by-products.

What is the etymology of vodka?

The etymology of the word 'vodka' is rooted in Slavic languages.

photograph of vodka in a pink glass with a blue bottle in the background.

The word 'vodka' is derived from the Slavic word voda, meaning water. The addition of the diminutive -ka makes the name 'little water'.

green and white label for a vodka bottle.

Historians do not agree on the origins of vodka as a drink. The first written mention of the word was in Polish, as the word wódka. This was in court documents from 1405.

Vodka production is associated with Poland, Russia and many other countries across eastern Europe, as well as Sweden.

How did whiskey get its name?

a photograph of a circular glass of whiskey on a striped red and white tablecloth.

Depending on the geographic origin of the drink, the word whiskey is spelled differently. Whiskey - with an e - is the word for whiskey from Ireland and the United States. Meanwhile, whisky from Scotland and other countries is spelled without the letter e.

a colour close-up photograph of Jameson whiskey bottles.
label from a Highland Whisky bottle which features an illustration of a rooster.

The name 'whiskey' derives from the Gaelic word uisce which means 'water'. In Irish, this is now written as uisce, while in Scottish Gaelic it's written as uisge.

The phrase uisce beathe or uisge beatha mean 'water of life', which come from the Latin phrase 'aqua vitae' which applied to all distilled alcohol.

The Gaelic term was anglicised to uskebeaghe, usquebaugh and eventually shortened to simply 'whiskey'.