By definition, whiskey (or whisky, in Scotland) is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash — grain varieties include wheat, rye, barley, and corn — and then aged in wooden barrels. Typically whiskies are distilled in pot stills rather than column stills to keep more of the flavor and texture in the final distillate. The most popular styles include Scotch, Bourbon, Irish whiskey, and Canadian whisky along with Japan making an entry in recent years. So why the two spellings? A good rule of thumb is to spell the country of origin. If the country doesn’t have an ‘E’ neither does the spelling of its whiskey. Of course, there are exceptions with Maker’s Mark and George Dickel being examples.
Vodka is known as the cleanest, most pure spirit in the world. Typically made in column stills to ensure the cleanest finished product, vodka is distilled from a fermented grain or potato mash. The most popular grains used are wheat, corn or rye but vodka can essentially be made from any plant matter with a high starch or sugar content. Soy, pineapples, grapes and barley are some of the more unique base ingredients.
Vodka producers often try to make their product more desirable by listing the number of distillations and/or filtrations the vodka goes through. Though higher end vodka producers simply use the most premium grains and distilling equipment. Flavored vodkas have really flooded the market in the last ten years as well. Typical fruit flavors such as lemon, orange, raspberry lead the way with confectioner flavors following. Things as far fetched as whipped cream, peachberry cobbler and even bacon!
Gin is a spirit which derives its predominant flavor from juniper berries among other botanicals which include: lemon peel, lime peel, orange peel, coriander, angelica root, orris root, cassia bark, licorice, star anise, cardamom, etc. From its earliest origins in the Middle Ages, gin has evolved over the course of a millennium from a herbal medicine to a main player in the spirits industry. Popular types of gin include: London Dry Gin, Jenever, Old Tom Gin and American Gin.
Tequila is a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, 40 miles northwest of Guadalajara in the highlands of the north western Mexican state of Jalisco. The Aztec people had previously made a fermented beverage from the agave plant, long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill agave to produce one of North America’s first indigenous distilled spirits.
Tequila production begins with a fully matured blue agave plant (usually around 10 years old) that is cut from the ground and the leaves removed. The remaining heart of the plant, or piña, is then transported to ovens where they are slowly baked to break down the plant material into fructose. The roasted piñas are then shredded or mashed under a large stone wheel called a tahona. The juice that is pressed out of the piñas is then fermented and distilled into tequila.
- Blanco: sometimes known plata, silver or crystal is Blue Agave spirit in its purest form. It is clear and typically un-aged, where the true flavors and the intensity of the Agave are present, as well as the natural sweetness. Though most are un-aged some are aged as much as two months to provide a smoother spirit.
- Reposado: meaning “rested ” is the first stage of aging. The Tequila is aged in wood barrels or storage tanks between 2 months and 11 months. The spirit takes on a golden hue and the taste becomes a good balance between the Agave and wood flavors. Many different types of wood barrels are used for aging, with the most common being American or French oak. Some Tequilas are aged in used bourbon, cognac or wine barrels. These will inherit unique flavors from the previous spirit.
- Anejo: meaing “aged” are aged for at least one year, Tequila can then be classified as an “Añejo”. The distillers are required to age Añejo Tequila in barrels that do not exceed 600 liters. This aging process darkens the Tequila to an Amber color, and the flavor can become smoother, richer, and more complex. Tequilas aged over three years are then classified as “Extra-Anejo”.
Brandy is a spirit produced by distilling wine. Brandy generally contains 35–60% alcohol by volume (70–120 proof) and is typically taken as an after-dinner drink. Some brandies are aged in wooden casks, some are colored with caramel coloring to imitate the effect of aging, and some brandies are produced using a combination of both aging and coloring. Though standard brandy is made from distilling grapes many forms of fruit brandies exist as well. Such fruits as cherries, pears and apples are common practice. Many fruit brandies change name based on origin such as applejack (America) and Calvados (France) which are both distilled from apples.
Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane byproducts, such as molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice, by a process of fermentation and distillation. The distillate, a clear liquid, is then usually aged in oak barrels. The majority of the world’s rum production occurs in the Caribbean and Latin America. Rum is also produced in Austria, Spain, Australia, Hawaii, the Philippines, India, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, the United States and Canada. Like tequila rum can either distilled and bottled immediately or barrel aged to produce a smoother spirit. Light rums are typically used for rum based cocktails where as barrel aged rums are typically drank neat or on the rocks like high end whiskies.
Cordials, or liqueurs as they are often referred to as, are alcoholic beverages made from a distilled spirit that has been flavored with fruit, cream, herbs, spices, flowers or nuts and bottled with added sugar or other sweeteners. Liqueurs are typically quite sweet; they are usually not aged for long after the ingredients are mixed, but may have resting periods during their production to allow flavors to marry.