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Spirits FAQ


Spirits are classified by their fermentation and distillation, process and their high alcohol content. There are five major groups of spirits:

Grain: distilled from wheat, barley, rye and corn as the base for making whiskey, vodka and gin. Beer and sake are also made from grain.

Plant: distilled from fermented plants, such as sugar cane used for rum and blue agave for tequila.

Fruit: distilled from fermented fruit, such as grapes. Brandy is a common fruit spirit.

Liqueurs/Cordials: sweetened and flavor-infused with nuts, plants, fruits, etc,

Bitters: unsweetened and flavored with herbs, roots, fruits or spices; often used to flavor cocktails.

Fermentation begins after the grain, plant, or fruit used as the spirit’s base is ground or crushed. Hot water is then added to the crushed base, forming a mash. This mashing results in the conversion of plant starches to sugars. When yeast is added to the mash, the yeast consumes the sugar, converting it to alcohol. Distillation is the process of separating alcohol from the fermented liquid. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so when the fermented liquid is heated at one hundred and seventy-three degrees Fahrenheit in a still its alcohol particles vaporize and rise, leaving water particles behind. From the still, the alcohol vapor is guided to a condenser, where it is cooled enough to become liquid droplets—or distilled spirits.

Proof is the alcohol content in distilled liquor. A higher proof means purer alcohol with less water and congeners. The proof measurement varies among countries but in the United States, proof is always twice the alcohol content, thus one hundred proof means fifty percent alcohol.

Gin was first developed as a medicine by a Dutch doctor in the seventeenth century. Its main ingredient, juniper berries, was thought to have medicinal value. By the nineteenth century, British soldiers and travelers had brought it to England where it was produced with less of a juniper taste. The result was a type of gin, still popular today called “London dry”. The name gin is derived from the French word genièvre (juniper), the original herb used by the ancient distillers to make their medicines. Gin is almost never aged because its flavor is intended to be sharp.

In making “London dry” gin, the distiller begins as they would in making any neutral grain spirit. The better distillers begin with a ratio of 3:1 corn to barley malt that is distilled in a Column still to roughly ninety percent alcohol. Once this high grade neutral spirit has been produced, it is reduced to sixty percent alcohol and then put into a modified pot still called a “gin still”. It is then redistilled along with botanicals such as juniper berries, orange peel, angelica root, coriander, and cassla bark. The most obvious uses for “London dry” gin is in making martinis. Genever gin is made in Holland. Its process differs from the lighter “London dry”. In making Genever gin, equal proportions of barley malt, corn or rye are mashed and fermented into beer that is the distilled in a pot still. The resulting spirit, “malt wine”, is distilled off at a lower degree of alcohol, usually between fifty percent and fifty-five percent. This is then redistilled with juniper berries and only a few other botanicals, far fewer than are used in making “London dry”. This gives the resulting product a rich, full-bodied malty flavor that would tend to overwhelm anything that is mixed with. It is therefore generally consumed straight or over ice.

Rum is the drink of legends. It brings pirates, tropical islands, and long voyages on the open seas to mind. Rum was first produced in the seventeenth century from sugar cane grown in the West Indies by British settlers. British soldiers drank it to keep warm in the winter. Rum is made of fermented sugar can and molasses. Juice is boiled to concentrate the sugar from the sugar can and evaporate water. The molasses/sugar is the distilled. Golden rums get their color from the barrels in which they are aged. Premium rums are aged in barrels for at least two years. Dark rums have congeners added for flavor.

Mezcal is the type of tequila that contains a worm. The worm is bred to bottle and eaten. Mezcal was the first name for tequila, but it is now, no longer the same beverage as mescal. Mezcal is made in regions of Oaxaca, Mexico from the pulp of the agave plant, whereas tequila is made from the carefully cultivated blue agave of the arid Jalisco region. Mezcal is drinkable after one distillation, whereas tequila goes through two to remove impurities and create a smoother flavor.

Blanco (White)—Clear, unaged tequila, that is normally bottled right after distillation. Blanco tequila products are also called “Silver” or Plata.

Reposado (Rested)—Aged in wood a least sixty days. Typically aged in large wooden tanks between three and nine months. The wood imparts color and flavorings to the tequila. Reposado tequila products are commonly referred to and labeled as “Gold” tequilas.

Anejo (Aged)—Tequila that is aged a minimum of one year in government approved barrels that are no larger than six hundred liters in capacity. American whiskey barrels, French oak casks, or cognac barrels are commonly used to age tequila. Anejos are typically aged between one and three years. They are darker in color, more complex and smoother than reposado tequilas.

The correct spelling of this spirit is whiskey. Canadian and Scottish (Scotch) whiskies however are spelled without the e—whisky.

Whiskeys are produced in various parts of the world and their tastes vary accordingly. There are Irish, Bourbon (from the United States), Scotch and Canadian whiskies. Canadian whisky is the mildest, and Scotch and Irish, the most pungent.

Canadian whisky is characterized by a delicate flavor and light body. Unlike government standards used for U.S whiskey, Canadian distillers are given much latitude in producing their products. There are no specifications for grain proportions, proofs or aging. Canadian whisky is made from cereal grain only, predominantly corn with rye, barley and wheat. Individuality in Canadian whisky comes from blending whiskies made from different grains, strengths and ages. The whisky must be aged at least two years before it can enter the U.S market, though most are aged six years or more. The whisky is imported to the U.S. in bulk or bottles. Bulk Canadian whisky, which is bottled in the United States, allows consumers to get an imported whisky at the price of a domestic blend.

No, they do not mean the same thing. If the whisky comes from the cask only, it frequently is referred to as a Single Cask. Whisky in the cask, depending on the age and the initial filling strength, can exceed sixty per cent alcohol by volume. Most whiskies are bottled between forty per cent, the legal minimum, and forty-six per cent alcohol by volume. If the whisky is not watered down or is slightly watered down but kept at a relatively high strength, it is frequently labeled Cask Strength. Cask Strength Scotch does not have to be from a single cask.

By law, bourbon must be made from a mash of grain with a minimum of fifty one percent corn, aged for a minimum of two years in new white oak barrels that have been charged and between eighty to one hundred sixty proof. Bottling bourbon at eighty-six, ninety, or one hundred is one way of creating a distinctive product. No two barrels of bourbon are the same. The way in which the batch reacts to the aging barrel, weather conditions during its aging process, and where that barrel was positioned in the rack house are all variables that can change the nature of the final product. Usually when a distiller bottles a bourbon, seven hundred barrels are collected which are combined, chilled, filtered, cut with water, and then bottled, resulting in a uniform whiskey.

Bourbon County, Kentucky was named for the French Royal family which was known in those days (1785) as the House of Bourbon. Today ninety percent of bourbon is made in Kentucky; although that is by tradition, not law. An important ingredient in bourbon is the limestone water found in Kentucky.

Single barrel bourbon: The distillers samples bourbons from barrels in better parts of the warehouse, and when discovering an unusually fine spirit, will allow it to mature in for years far beyond the average bourbon. When the barrel reaches the peak of perfection it is bottled and sold as a single barrel bourbon.

Small batch bourbon: Some distillers feel that single barrels are too idiosyncratic to market under their brand name. In creating small batch bourbon, the choicest barrels are selected and combined. To make small batch unique from other bourbon, distillers may combine a variety of grain formulas, differently aged barrels, bottling proofs or use different filtering techniques.

Rye whiskey is made from a fermented mash containing at least fifty-one percent rye. It must be produced at no more than one hundred sixty proof and aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years before its designated “straight”.

According to Federal regulations, for an American whiskey to be labeled as bourbon it must be made from a mash containing between fifty-one percent and seventy-nine percent corn. If the corn content is higher, the product must be designated as corn whiskey. Bourbon is a straight whiskey and, according to the law, must be distilled at one hundred and sixty proof (eighty percent alcohol) or less and must be aged a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. As a practical matter, though, most bourbon is aged at lease four years or longer. Although its grain content need only be comprised of at least fifty-one percent of any grain, corn is usually used in making Tennessee whiskey. It is made in a similar manner to sour mash bourbon but Tennessee whiskey also includes an extra step in its production process—the distilled spirit is filtered through maple charcoal in large, wooden vats before aging in order to remove impurities.

Barley is the key grain in Irish whiskey. In traditional Irish whiskey production, the barley is heated in closed ovens, giving the drink a clean, smooth taste, unlike the smokiness of Scotch, which uses malted barley heated over fire. The smooth flavor is further ensured by running the whiskey through three distillations, which is required by Irish law. Irish law also requires that spirits labeled “Irish whiskey” must have been distilled in Ireland and bottled at no less than forty percent alcohol by volume, or eighty proof. Irish whiskies are aged for a legal minimum of three years, but many are aged longer, The Irish share with the Scots the tradition of flavoring whiskey by aging it in oak barrels previously used for aging bourbon or sherry. Some Irish distillers have advanced the art of “wood finishing” in which the spirits are aged in a careful mix of used and new charred.

Single Malt Whiskey: One hundred percent barley malt distilled in pot still.

Grain Whiskey: A light whiskey which is a blend of malt and grain distilled in a column still.

Pure Pot Still Whiskey: One hundred percent barley, both malted and unmalted, distilled in a pot still.

Single malt scotch is the product of one distillery, made from one hundred percent malted barley. It is not blended with other grains, or with whiskey from other distillers. Each malt scotch is notable for the region of Scotland and the distillery in which it is produced.

More than ninety percent of the Scotch consumption in the U.S. can be attributed to brands of blended whisky. The object of blending has always been to “soften” the harsher characteristics of the individual malt whiskies with the intention of creating a whisky with widespread appeal. Blends are the result of mixing different whiskies together, including both single malts and grain whiskies. Numerous variables determine the ultimate character of a blended Scotch, such as the quality of the barley, the amount of peat used, the length of the second distillation, and decisions about when each particular cask is ready to be added to the blend. Each Scotch house has its own closely guarded blend. Usually there is twenty to twenty-five different single malt whiskies used in a blend, and although the exact proportions are not known, anywhere from twenty to fifty percent malt whisky will be used in a blend, with the rest being grain whisky.

Speyside: located in the highlands on the River Spey, in the northeast of Scotland.

Highlands: the largest region for scotch production. The single malts made in the western highlands have a sweet, but peppery finish.

Lowlands: from Dundee in the east to Greenock in the west. Produces a lighter, mellower scotch; very popular with the English. Also a good scotch for beginners.

Islay: a small island off the east coast. The heaviest strongest, smokiest single malts. Strong sea winds and salty spray are said to contribute to the flavor.

Campbeltown: single malts from this region in the southwest of Scotland have a briny character and are very distinctive.

No, brandy is not the same as whiskey. Brandies are produced all over the world. What they all have in common is a fruit base and aging. Brandy has medical origins in Greece and Rome where “spirits of wine” were used as early antiseptic. Today its use is versatile—from a cake ingredient to the most prestigious liquors. Brandy is an ancient drink distilled from fermented fruit such as grapes, blackberries, apricots, plums or cherries. Brandy is basically distilled wine. It is usually aged about three to eight years and bottled at eighty to eighty-four proof.

Cognac has a specific reputation. It must come from the Cognac region of France where it is doubled distilled in copper pot stills and aged in French oak barrels made from the oak of trees from the Troncais and Limousin forest.

These letters are used to define the different varieties of Brandy: V- very special; S- special; O- old; P- pale; F- fine; X- extra and C- cognac.

Cognac connoisseurs suggest sipping Cognac at room temperature from a snifter that has been heated with steam.

Armagnac is a brandy that is made in a fabled region in France that was once rich and famous. It was a land of the three Musketeers where the witches bring you luck or curse your enemies. This region was known as the Gascony, located in the southwestern part of France just below the famous region of Bordeaux. The Armagnac reflects the people who live there; strong and heady. The making of Armagnac date back to 1440s. Unlike the Cognac region, most Armagnac firms are small and because of this, after the harvesting of the grapes, to share the cost of distillation amongst each other, you can see portable stills travel around to all the different growers. Armagnac is almost always distilled once, unlike its more famous counterpart, Cognac, which is distilled twice. Armagnac is a drink to be savored much like Cognac; because it is only distilled once, its characteristics are a bit more rustic and full of flavor and character.

Rum is made not from a grain but from a grass. Sugar cane is essentially a tall, coarse, grained grass that grows particularly well in black mud and tropical heat. Like so many other spirits, rum is made from leftovers. When sugar cane is refined into white sugar, fresh cane is brought to the sugar mills where it is crushed and the juices are collected. The juice is then boiled to concentrate the sugar by evaporating the water. The result, a thick, heavy syrup, is pumped into a apparatus where the sugar in the syrup is crystallized and separated from the other solids. What is left behind is a thick, black residue called molasses. When put back into the solution, the molasses can be quickly fermented and distilled into what we know as rum. Rum generally falls into three categories; light-boiled rums, medium-boiled rums and full-boiled rums.

Schnapps refer to clear liqueurs that come from northern European countries. The blend of flavoring in liqueurs is a secret that producers guard very closely. Once the base spirit has been infused with the flavoring, liqueurs are typically not aged. Anise-flavored liqueurs are popular. The anise plant varies from country to country, so now two liqueurs flavors with anise will taste the same.

Vodka is a clear spirit that was first documented in the fourteenth century. Like many spirits, vodka was originally a local spirit made from whatever surplus grain or starch-based material was available. Legend has it that vodka was originally made with potatoes, but it is now produced almost entirely with the cheapest grain available. Vodka is one of the easiest spirits to make. Vodka in general is the perfect mixer, and therein lies the appeal. Vodka as a category has been growing in North America at a tremendous rate.

Wheat is the primary ingredient in vodka, but almost any agricultural product can and has been used for this purpose, most notably, beets, corn, rye and sugar beets. Despite the common conception, few types of vodka are made from potatoes, though that seems to be changing. Potato vodkas are a good choice for those who are allergic to grain. There is no difference in the way that potato mash and grain mash are distilled. There are differences in the preparations for fermentation. The time the fermentation process takes is uniform and short, so it has no effect on the alcohol’s smell or taste qualities. The quality and purity of the raw materials, the manner in which they are prepared for fermentation and proper control of the course of fermentation and distillation can affect the final outcome and flavor of the spirit.

Grappa is bandy traditionally made from distilling stems and seeds left from the wine making progress. It started as a peasant drink but has acquired fame due to its improved quality and beautiful packaging. Almost all wine makers in Italy make grappa. Good Italian wines are only pressed sixty percent leaving the remaining forty percent for grappa. Grappa is crisp and intense, and most of the flavors remain on the finish. Barrel aging makes grappa smooth and soft.

To get the most out of sake, it should be served at room temperature or slightly chilled. Some sake may be served slightly warm to the touch, but do not overdue it. Drinking sake piper hot is a holdover from an era when sake was frequently of lower grade.