Vodka, tequilla, rum, whiskey, whisky, bourbon, scotch, gin, sake, wine, brandy, cognac, beer, grappa, cachaca….. this can just keep going on and on and on! Why are there so many types of alcohol and what do they all mean?
An alcoholic beverage is categorized based on the steps it takes to produce it. Differences in ingredients and production methods result in different flavors and bodies.
The Three Main Steps of Producing Spirits
A spirit, or liquor, is a specialized category of alcoholic beverage that meets special requirements. Like how all thumbs are fingers but not all fingers are thumb.
Let’s break it down. There are 3 main steps to the production of a spirit that creates the different categories.
- Plant Source: This is the initial ingredient that all spirits in each category have in common. For example, all tequilas are made from the agave plant.
- Fermentation: Yeast is added to the initial plant source where it breaks down the sugars in the source, creating alcohol.
- Distillation: Alcohols created during fermentation have a lower boiling point than water. The mixture of water, solids, and alcohol is boiled to separate the alcohol out. The alcohol vaporizes and goes to the top of the still where there is a condenser that turns the vapors back into a liquid.* A distilled liquor has significantly higher alcohol content than non-distilled.
* Beer and wine do not undergo distillation and are therefore not spirits.
Additional Optional Steps
- Aging: This is when a liquor is stored, typically in oak barrels, to add flavor and coloring to the spirit. For example, if a tequila is aged in an oak barrel dictates if it is silver or gold in appearance.
- Flavoring: This involves introducing additional flavors to the spirit. For example, the most common way to make gin is to add juniper berries and other botanicals to vodka. This added step creates a new category of spirit.
- Filtration: This is when all of the solids are removed from the resulting liquid. While most alcoholic beverages are filtered, not all are!
Examples of Spirits
Whiskey/Whisky: (including bourbon and scotch) Made from grains that are fermented, distilled, and aged.
Tequila: Made from blue agave plants that are fermented, distilled, and sometimes aged.
Vodka: Made from any starchy or sugar-rich plants (typically grains but may include potatoes, grapes, rice, etc) that are fermented and distilled. Most vodkas are cut with water due to the higher alcohol content.
Gin: Made from any starchy or sugar-rich plants (the same as vodka) that are fermented, distilled, and flavored with the juniper berry and other botanicals.
Rum: Made from sugarcane or molasses that is then fermented and distilled.
Brandy: (includes cognac) Usually made from grapes (although sometimes other fruits are used) that are fermented and distilled. Brandy is commonly aged and flavored. This is basically distilled wine.
Cordials/Liqueurs: These are spirits that have added sweeteners and flavors. Common examples are Fireball, Amaretto, and Baileys.
Beer: Made from fermented grains. Hops are commonly added as well. Beer can be naturally or forcefully carbonated.
Cider: Made from fermented apples. Some ciders incorporate other fruits for flavoring.
Wine: Made from fermented grapes, then aged.
Champagne: Wine that is carbonated and made in the Champagne region of France. If a wine is carbonated but not made in that region, it is a sparkling wine.
Sake: Made from fermented rice.