Spirits Basics

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The dictionary definition of a liquor is an alcoholic drink, with special mention of distilled spirits. Really, people rarely talk about beer or wine with the term “liquor,” and the same word can be used to describe brewed tea, so for our purposes, let’s define liquor as a high-alcohol distilled spirit.

Liquors are created by distilling lower-alcohol mashes. Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, when the mash is heated in a large, closed pot called a still, the alcohol becomes gaseous and rises into a long, twisting pipe at the top. There, it is cooled, so that it becomes liquid again. It is collected, along with some of the water and flavor from the mash.

The Top Six

In western drinking culture, there are six base liquors that most drinks are built on:


Vodka is the simplest spirit. Ideally (by some thinking) only ethanol and water, vodka is defined by labeling authorities as a neutral spirit. It can be distilled from any fermented mash. Historically, it has been distilled from potatoes or grain, though today there are an enormous variety of vodka sources.


Gin is very similar to vodka, but it is infused with juniper and other botanicals. These give a vegetal, piney flavor to the spirit. Aside from juniper, the botanicals used are at the discretion of the gin producer, which creates a large variety of different, specific flavors. This makes gin a very interesting topic for tasting notes!


Rum is distilled from sugar cane products, usually molasses. There is a huge variety of different types of rum: white, aged, spiced, Systema Solera, blackstrap, cachaça, and more. Most come from the caribbean, but rum is produced all over the world.


Tequila is made from the hearts of the Weber Blue Agave plant, grown in certain regions of Mexico. Only blue agave spirits made in those regions, with at least 51% of the final product being made from blue agave,  may be called tequila.

Tequila comes in two main types: mixto and puroMixto means that there are other, less costly spirits (cheap vodka) and possibly sugar, food coloring, and other ingredients mixed in. Puro tequilas are always labeled with some variation of “100% Blue Agave,” and they cannot be mixed with anything before bottling, except the water used to get the alcohol content right. Every variation on this label uses “100%”.


Arguably the oldest distilled spirit, brandy is traditionally distilled from grapes, though some come from apricots, apples, or other fruits. It can be sold unaged or aged in barrels for various lengths of time to add color and flavor. Some brandies, made in the Cognac region in France, are known as cognacs. These must have to adhere to specific regulations during distillation and age for at least two years before bottling.


Whisky is distilled from various grains and aged in oak barrels to take on flavor and color for several years. The spelling is mainly a geographic choice. Scotland and Canada make whisky. Ireland and the United States make whiskey (though there are some American whiskies that go without an e). There are many varieties of whisky, but we’re only going to focus on the ones that are part of the Canon*:


Scotch whisky is made in Scotland and aged at least three years. Most is made from malted barley, and if it’s made from no other grains and bottled from a single distillery, it’s called a “single malt,” the most coveted of scotch whiskies. Other scotch whiskies are blended from several distilleries, sometimes with a mix of malted barley and other grains.


Bourbon must be distilled from a mash of at least 51% corn. Barley, wheat, and rye can also be used in varied amounts, as long as the majority ingredient is corn. It must then be aged in new, white oak barrels that have been charred on the inside. Like cognac and tequila, bourbon can only be produced in one place: The United States. The vast majority is made in Kentucky.

“Straight” bourbons must also be aged a minimum of two years, and cannot be blended with anything except distilled water (for adjusting alcohol content) or another straight bourbon from the same producer.


Rye whiskies made in America are subject to the same rules as bourbon, except with rye as the prominent ingredient, rather than corn.


Ireland used to have many distilleries, but at the time of writing, there are only nine. Two of which have not had the time to age their whiskies to market, and a third is blending and finishing other distilleries’ spirits until their own is ready in 2016. The number got as low as only two active distilleries before production began to pick up!


Most Canadian whiskies are blends. Historically, Canadian whisky has mostly been made with rye, but today it’s more varied. Some brands actually say rye on the label without even being made with any rye!


Liqueurs, or cordials, are sweet, usually syrupy, flavored spirits. Many use vodka as a base and add sugar and artificial flavoring, while others use infuse the vodka with fruits or other natural flavors before adding sugar. Cordials are primarily used for cocktails, but most can be enjoyed straight.






*That is to say, not bottom-shelf blended whiskey, and not relative newbies to the market.