What are alcoholic spirits? There is nothing complex here, they are all alcoholic beverages that are made by fermenting a variety of sugary brew into ethanol and carbon dioxide and distilled to get higher alcohol concentrations. As a result, the alcohol percentage can vary anywhere from 20% to 80% and even 90%. Luckily, most spirits fall somewhere in the middle.
There are thousands of distilled spirits available today, so even the pickiest ones will find something for themselves. Some alcoholic beverages, like Amaretto or Peach Schnapps, are also included in the category despite not really being spirits, due to the fact that they have sugar, herbs and various spices added to them. Luckily, you don’t need to keep guessing what’s in the bottle, thanks to the laws that make distilleries clearly state the liquor type on the label.
Despite the huge numbers of different spirits you find at every liquor store, there are just six base liquors that act as a foundation of the majority of cocktails and liqueurs on the market, whiskey, tequila, brandy, gin, rum and vodka.
With thousands of distilleries all across the globe, in Scotland, Ireland, Japan, America, and other countries, it’s easier than ever to find the whisky you like. Distilled from malted grains, corn, rye, wheat, barley, or any combination of them, whiskey is a favourite drink of many people.
The prices start at around $20 and climb their way into hundreds of thousands for an aged premium bottle of scotch. They are typically 40 to 50% alcohol, with a few climbing even higher. Every country has its own laws and regulations regarding the spirit, with most whiskeys aged in charred oak, but not all of them. Depending on whether they’ve been mixed or not, they’d be labeled either blended or single malt.
Tequila is an alcoholic beverage that’s distilled from agave. Despite popular belief, agave isn’t actually a cactus, though both agave and cactus are technically classified as succulents.
The spirit is made only in Mexico, with 90% of it made in the state of Jalisco. It’s also tightly regulated by the Tequila Regulatory Council since 1978. If an agave spirit is made outside of Mexico, it simply can’t be labeled “tequila.” Instead, there are spirits like Mezcal, Raicilla, Bacanora, Sotol and Pulque, which are also made from agave, but with a twist!
Tequila is produced in various styles which include Blanco, Reposado, Anejo and Extra-Anejo. Blanco tequila is un-aged and packaged pretty much right after being distilled. Extra Anejo, on the other hand, has to be aged for at least three years. Different styles bring up and subdue certain qualities, flavours, and aromas of the spirit, and it’s up to you to try them and find the one you enjoy the most.
You’ll often hear brandy referred to as “burned wine.” It’s essentially a liquor that’s distilled from wine. It doesn’t have to be the grape wine, as brandy can also be distilled from the wine of various fruits like apples and pears. The most popular brandy is Cognac named Hennessy. Cognac is a brandy made in the Cognac region of France, similar to Champagne being sparkling wine grown in the Champagne region.
Age is the most crucial variable when it comes to brandy. VS (or Very Special) means that brandy has been aged for at least two years. VSOP (or Very Special Old Pale) brandy is aged for about four years, and XO (or Extra Old) is supposed to be aged for at least six and a half years to qualify. Of course, there are some exquisite batches of vintage brandy that are aged for a decade or longer.
Let’s go back to cognac for a bit. It’s incredibly popular all over the world and is distilled only in the Cognac region. What about Armagnac? Surprisingly, it’s also a brandy from France. The only difference is that it’s produced in the Armagnac region. The reason why it’s not as famous is the area where it’s distilled was because it didn’t have a river or sea access, so it was really hard to reach foreign merchants.
Gin is a neutral grain spirit that derives its flavour from juniper berries. The spirit is one of the broadest categories of liquors, all of the different styles, origins, and flavour profiles. Oftentimes, the only common denominator is juniper. Did you know that back in the days, it was considered an herbal medicine rather than an alcoholic beverage? It’s become widely popular in England in the 17th century after William III has introduced import restrictions on brandy. Since then, it’s spread all over the globe.
Nowadays, you can find gin made in various ways, with many different herbs. Usually, each brand will have its own distinct style of flavour. After adding the fundamental juniper base, the spirit is often flavoured with herbs and spices, flowers and fruits. More often than not, gin is also used as a base for gin based liqueurs that are produced by adding even more flavouring and sugar and often lowering the alcohol amount.
There are four main styles of the spirit, which are London Dry Gin, Dutch Genever, Old Tom, and Compound Gin.
Rum is an alcoholic beverage produced by fermenting and distilling sugarcane molasses or freshly pressed sugarcane juice. Due to the base material, rum liquors are generally on the sweeter side, with tropical or spicy notes. The most famous rum is made by sugar cane producing countries such as those in the Caribbean. However, it’s also made in Canada, Colombia, France, India, and other non-Caribbean as well.
The most popular rums are white, gold, dark and spiced, but it can also be overproof, blackstrap, Cachaca and Rhum Agricole.
White Rum - also called “silver” rum, generally light-bodied and neutral, and used mostly for cocktails.
Gold Rum - also called “amber” rum, usually medium-bodied, aged in wooden barrels. It can have caramel added to it for colour.
Dark Rum - also called “aged” rum, often matured longer in charred barrels. As a result, flavours of caramel and spices intensify.
Spiced Rum - often infused with spices to add a specific character. More expensive ones are made with gold and dark rums, and cheaper ones - with white rum.
Overproof Rum - much higher in proof than a regular rum, the popular 151 rum’s alcohol percentage is 75.5% as opposed to 40%. It’s mostly used in cocktails.
Blackstrap Rum - distilled from blackstrap molasses. As a result, you get a very dark and flavourful rum.
Rhum Agricole - made in the French West Indies, known for its grassy and herbal notes.
Cachaca - made in Brazil, used in Brazil’s signature Caipirinha. It can be un-aged, aged and yellow.
Vodka is a clear distilled alcoholic beverage that originated in Russia and Poland. Traditionally, it’s composed of water and ethanol, with traces of flavouring here and there. At first, it’s been distilled solely from potatoes and cereal grains, though now some brands also use fruits and sugar as well.
While it’s traditionally enjoyed “straight,” it can also be an essential part of many cocktails such as a Bloody Mary, Cosmopolitan, Moscow Mule, just to name a few. Despite originally distilled primarily in Eastern Europe, it’s now produced all over the world.
The spirit is known for lacking a specific taste. Depending on the brand, country of origin, and grain characteristics, vodka can be anything from silky and almost sweet to clean and watery.
There are generally two terms that are used to describe Vodka, flavour and heat.
The flavour of vodka is hard to distinguish. If you try a variety, you’ll pick up the differences between different distilling methods and primary grains used.
The heat of vodka is a term that indicates how much “burning sensation” you get on your tongue and back of your throat when drinking the liquor straight. This factor depends on the number of distillations and filtering methods used in the process of producing the spirit. As a rule of thumb, less expensive brands burn more, while the premium ones tend me a lot more smooth and subtle.
If you are looking into diving into the world of liquor, you can buy a bottle of whiskey, tequila, brandy, gin, rum, vodka, and other spirits in our liquor store in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, or shop online at ZYN.ca!