5 Misconceptions about Spirits

Alcohol is weird and it affects us weirdly. So it’s only natural that some ideas would pop up among those of us less nerdy about it that are… questionable, to say the least. Misconceptions usually spring from misunderstandings and conclusions to which someone once jumped.

Here are just five of them.

5. Moonshine is illegal

I get that the mason jars are a callback to the illegal stuff, but it's impossible to pour!

I get that the mason jars are a callback to the illegal stuff, but it’s impossible to pour!

This one is partially true. Moonshine has multiple definitions. It can be the name for a very vague category of spirits dominated by unaged corn whiskey. It can also be made with other grains. It’s often flavored with infusion. It’s very a wishy-washy definition, but basically, it’s liquor distilled to be liquor, not to be a specific liquor, usually made with corn.

The other definition of moonshine is illegally produced liquor.

By one definition, it’s absolutely true that moonshine is illegal. It’s a tautology.

By the other definition, moonshine is only illegal when it’s made illegally. It’s literally the same thing sitting licensed on your liquor store shelves, overseen by experienced and vetted distillers, as you would find made in the hills. It’s usually diluted to a more palatable proof, and it’s safer in terms of methanol taint risk, but it’s made through the same process and with the same ingredients.

It’s the same thing.

Having talked about it with Carolinians who have experience with truly illegal moonshine, you’d think they had been transported to Valhalla. It’s fascinating how highly they hold it in esteem.

I understand that. I once had a rather ordinary beer that I just couldn’t possibly have enjoyed any more. It felt like a transcendent experience!

It didn’t taste any better than any other hefeweizen, but I had made it. Home brewing and home distilling are very similar, except that one is illegal and quite a bit more dangerous (hint: it’s the second one). When you sip a beer you made yourself, it tastes a billion times better than anything you can get in a store or a bar. Not because it actually tastes better (though it may), but because you made it: that’s exciting, and that excitement comes through in the taste.

Considering all the quality controls on the licensed stuff, I say just buy it in the liquor store.

4. Dark spirits are dark because they’re aged

Case in point... basically a blanco mixto (with some reposado mixed in) with food coloring.

Case in point: basically a blanco mixto (with some reposado mixed in) with food coloring.

This one is also mostly true. Where the misconception comes in is in thinking that they’re always aged or that the darker the spirit is, the more aged it is.

Artificial coloring is distressingly common, especially in middle and lower-shelf spirits, but in the top as well.

It’s not so bad in and of itself; it’s the idea of it. I feel that a spirit, especially an aged spirit, which isn’t intentionally neon-colored, is supposed to tell the story of where it came from through the way you sense it. And that includes sight. If it appears darker, it should be older (though there are other factors: is the barrel new or used? In what climate was it aged? etc.), but that’s not always the case.

The problem isn’t that the artificial coloring is there, or that it affects the flavor. The problem is that it is a lie. It tells the consumer that aging has happened which hasn’t.

The excuse is that it creates more consistent coloring, so that one bottle looks like another. They say if the bottles were different colors, consumers would be put off. I can’t disagree with that, because I know many of them would be.

The savorers who come here are smarter than that. I think you would agree that an honest whiskey is a better whiskey, even if it looks clear as a vodka.

3. Old spirits are strong

"Wow, that must be, like, all alcohol by now!"

“Wow, that must be, like, all alcohol by now!”

I know my audience doesn’t hold to this strange misconception (but if you do, congratulations, you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000!), but aging isn’t done to strengthen the alcoholic effects of the spirit. It’s done to mellow out the spirit (counterproductive if you’re aiming to make it more intense) and give it a more complex flavor.

“That twenty-three hundred dollar bottle contains brandies as old as 100 years, and nothing younger than 40!”

“Wow, that must really knock you right on your ass!”

“No, it’s bottled at 40% just like that vodka over there for $3.25. It’s cool because it’s got an elegant flavor and a century of history, not because it’s strong”

This is a belief that is alive and well.

2. Vodka contains gluten because it’s made with wheat.

Can you tell this one gets to me?

Can you tell this one gets to me?

We’ve had long discussion on this topic. Suffice it to say, vodka is very different from the mash from which it is distilled.

It has been pointed out to me that contamination by equipment can’t be ruled out. One would hope that vodka wouldn’t come in contact with the mash equipment anyway, so for any decent vodka, this shouldn’t be a problem, as long as nothing supremely stupid happens in the distillery.

Either way, you should only take any concern at all if you actually have celiac disease. You really shouldn’t have an issue, and if you do, you can sue.

1. Liquor is medicine.

It aint.

It aint.

During Prohibition, Walgreens capitalized on its ability to sell alcohol as medicine, much the same way medical marijuana is sold today despite that slowly-crumbling prohibition. But while medical marijuana shows promise, alcohol is very bad as medicine.

People continue to head to the liquor store even today, instead of the pharmacy, looking for something to “knock out this cold.”

The truth is there’s nothing so far that can actually knock out a cold in either place, but you’ll do less damage at the pharmacy.

Liquor can dull your senses a little while, but it also weakens your immune system. This lengthens your cold; it doesn’t knock it out.

These are by no means all! There are dozens upon dozens of commonly-held misconceptions about alcohol. We’ll revisit this topic later with five more misconceptions.

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