While I mostly write about wine, the synonymous liquor and spirits are an important part of professional drinking and it’s worth knowing the basics. I am just going to cover a few of the major ones, but there are dozens I am not covering including variations of the ones in this article. Apologies if I missed your favorite.
Spirits are made from anything that has sugar in it or even starches that can be converted into sugars and fermented. Humans have been very creative in finding things to turn into liquor from their surroundings and the regional variations come from these different raw materials. Some of the popular raw materials that are fermented include corn, sugar cane, wheat, potatoes, agave and various fruits.
One of the limitations of a fermentation process is that the yeast can’t take very high levels of alcohol. In fact, they die at around 10-15%, depending on the strain of yeast. This range is the maximum of wine, which is simply single fermented grape juice.
If we want a beverage with a higher alcohol content, we have to take the output of the fermentation and concentrate it a bit. Distillation is what is typically used. That means the liquid is boiled and the relatively volatile alcohol boils first and goes into a vapor. A cooling coil is used to turn the alcohol vapor into a liquid which is captured. Once other items in the mash start to boil, we stop the process so the alcohol doesn’t become contaminated. The alcohol captured is pretty pure and usually has to be diluted down to the target levels for bottling.
Some spirits are made with a single pot and a single distillation and retain much of the original flavor, but others have multiple stages and lose much of the original nature of the mash.
People will generally talk about spirts in terms of proof, which is simply two times the alcohol by volume (ABV). So, 80 Proof is equal to 40% ABV. Proof comes from sailors that had a daily ration of rum and in order to ensure the captain didn’t dilute the rum to make it go further, they would make the Doctor (who usually doled out the rum rations) light it on fire. The minimum to light is around 80 proof, but higher alcohol contents will as well. Once the Doctor lit the rum, it had been “Proofed”.
Let’s hit the major ones:
Vodka: One of the popular clear sprits, Vodka can be made from any raw material and still considered Vodka. That’s why we see vodka from lots of different countries because distillers will use wheat, rye, potato, corn, or barley to make their brew. After the primary fermentation, they will distill the sprit, generally to a higher alcohol level than needed and then dilute to the target 40% alcohol by volume (ABV). The problem with distilling higher and dilution is that much of the original flavor is lost. Many European and craft vodka producers use a more precise distillation approach to retain the original flavors.
Traditional vodka has no flavors added. A number of more modern vodkas have been fancied up with all sorts of citrus and other flavors.
Gin: Gin is similar to vodka in that it is alcohol that is from a fermented agricultural product (pretty broad definition). What makes Gin unique is a secondary distillation with a combination of botanicals which are placed in a gin basket inside the still. The alcohol in the distillation extracts the flavor elements of the botanicals into the gin. Traditional gin has juniper as the primary flavor element, but all distillers have their own approach. More modern gins have a variety of flavors with some largely eliminating the traditional juniper.
Whiskey: Whisky (equivalent to Whiskey) is the most generic amber spirit and can be made from a variety of malted grains including corn, wheat, rye and barley. The malting process germinates the grain and then dries it which turns the starches into fermentable sugars. The malt is then fermented and then distilled, usually in a copper still or a distillation column with copper innards to remove the nasty sulfur compounds.
After distillation, the spirit is placed in oak barrels, similar to wine. The oak imparts a wonderful smoothness and vanilla elements into the whiskey. The more aging, the smoother the product. Unfortunately, as the whisky ages, it evaporates at a rate of about 4% a year, so it is expensive to age whiskey due to cumulative losses.
If the whiskey is made from a single batch of malt, it is called a single malt. If the distiller doesn’t want that variation, they will blend multiple batches to get a more uniform flavor profile, called a blended whiskey. One interesting variant is Irish Whisky, which is triple filtered to give it unusual smoothness.
Bourbon: Bourbon is really a subset of Whisky. It is made from at least 51% corn as the raw material and uses a similar production process to traditional whisky. America is the king of corn and so Bourbon is considered a largely American product.
Scotch: Scotch or Scotch Whiskey is a subset of whiskey with the product coming from Scotland. The unique peaty and smoky flavors come from burning peat to dry the malt in the production process. Scotch Whisky is normally double distilled, but they can do many more. The best scotches are single malts that exhibit a tremendous amount of local flavor. Mass production products are blended.
Rum: The raw material used for rum is sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice. It is fermented and distilled and then aged in oak to give it color and smooth the flavor. Rum is available in lighter and darker colors. The darker rums are aged in heavily charred barrels to imbibe the color. Most quality rums come from the Caribbean due to the abundance of sugarcane, they are available from other regions as well.
Tequila: Tequila follows a similar process but the raw ingredient is the Blue Agave plant. Tequila is a distinctly Mexican product, coming from near the town of Tequila. In fact, like Champagne, if it isn’t Blue Agave from the designated area in Mexico – it isn’t Tequila.
The Blue Agave is harvested and the central “Pina” is cut out and baked to break down the sugars at the factory. These are then mashed and the juice is sent to be fermented. The product is usually double distilled and then stored in oak barrels to add flavor and mellow the spirit. As we move from Blanco to Reposado to Anejo to Extra Anejo, there will be more oak aging, mellowing and a darker color from the oak.
In almost all cases, conventional spirits are designed to be consumed with a mixer and make some great cocktails. As we head to the more expensive and aged versions, they are consumed neat (all by themselves) or perhaps just with a little water to open the flavor.
What ever your preference, remember these sprits start at 40% ABV – so watch how many you have!