Wood Vinegar
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Basic Information

Wood Vinegar or Wood Acid is a reddish or yellowish smoky-flavored liquid used for at least 2,000 years as a flavor-enhancing substance and preservative. In the modern day it is more commonly known as Liquid Smoke, and in the 1700s was known as Pyroligneous Acid. Unlike true vinegar, it contains acetone and methanol as well as acetic acid, but not to any toxic degree.

It is made of the condensates from burning wood, and could be gathered in the course of charcoal-production by the charcoalburners of pre-industrial eras. Today you can buy it in a bottle at your grocery store.

It traditionally had several other uses in addition to providing a delicious smoky flavor to food. It was one of the oldest methods of food preservation, next to salting and/or direct smoking of meat, but not as effective as either of those. Not just food for humans was treated with it, as it could be used to prevent microbial degradation of animal feed, and Pliny the Elder described its use in embalming in the 1st Century.

Various medicinal uses were implemented over the centuries as well, using it as a topical treatment for wounds, skin conditions, disinfection and dental treatment - much the same as regular vinegar. It was even applied to the ground to improve soil quality and nutrients for agriculture.


Game and Story Use

  • A fun little bit of world-building verisimilitude to help anchor the little scenes of daily life in older historical eras. It's called "wood vinegar" because it was used in cooking in the same ways you would other vinegars. In a time when spices had to be brought great distances, this was a flavor additive that could originate closer to home.
  • That smoky flavor or scent might be a clue, if a charcoalburner were at the scene of a crime. They may have spilled some liquid that leaves their "fingerprints" in everyone's nose.
    • Or, instead of the charcoal-burner, the culprit or witness might be:
      • a healer or cunning man, with a large supply of medicinal wood vinegar,
      • an alchemist conducting experiments that produce pyroligneous acid,
      • or someone with a skin or mouth condition that's being treated with daily application or wood acid.
    • If a Woodward or charcoalburner had a monopoly by royal decree, the illegally-produced wood vinegar from their unlicensed competitors would be a tasty form of contraband.
      • There might also be a monopoly clash between the vintner's right to sell wine vinegar or the ale seller's right to sell alegar, against this alternative product from the charcoal burners. You could easily see a cultural dispute between the hill people with their wood-vinegar against the lowlanders with their crop based products.
  • Could be a common healing balm for a setting utilizing traditional medicine.
    • It's a healing potion you rub in, and it leaves you smoky-scented for a few hours. You gain HP, but the trade-off is a -1 to your stealth checks for a short time (or an even bigger penalty if the opposition can track by scent).
    • Could be an ingredient in a healing potion, or other potion or alchemical recipe.
  • It's not as good or reliable as salt or modern preservatives, so it might fail to protect the food supply. This could lead to ergot poisoning, contamination, etc.
  • If used to embalm, you could have a smoky mummy or undead variant. Smoke is essentially unburnt fuel (that's why chimney sweeps exist), so it's probably more flammable, but may also have firey magic to unleash.
  • Could be popular with the mountain-man - regular vinegar and salt are probably hard to catch compared to something that can be cooked out of wood.
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