History & Production
The History of Spirits
The ancient practice of alchemy was half science, half mysticism. Alchemists believed that through the practical application of scientific knowledge, they could fundamentally alter the nature of earthly elements. They thought that they could turn lead into gold, or failing that, at least unlock the secret to eternal life. What they actually discovered was even better: how to distill liquor.
These first-century alchemists weren’t particularly interested in alcohol, and neither were the Persian alchemists who took up the mantle after the fall of the Roman empire. But they mastered distilling techniques and designed the alembic, the cucurbit, the retort, and the ambix; the crude glass-and-copper predecessors of the recognizable pot still. The first legitimate use of distillation, i.e. the creation of spirited beverages for recreational consumption, didn’t occur for another thousand years.
In the 12th century, with the black plague right around the corner, medical scholars at the School of Salerno in Italy began distilling wine in order to use the alcohol as medicine. They called it aqua vitae, or the water of life, and it quickly became as popular then as alcohol is today. By the 13th century, Christian monasteries were mass producing aqua vitae, and by the 15th century enterprising citizens were discovering that private stills could be set up in their own homes. Over time, the generic aqua vitae serum gave rise to spirits of more particular distinction. New ingredients and means of fermentation were incorporated, and the distillation technology grew more refined. Brandy, whiskey, and vodka all emerged as regional specialties in the 1400s, and provided the necessary lubrication for the next few hundred years of social and technological progress.
Surprisingly little has changed since the early days of spirits. They are now made and sold on a much larger scale - spirits are a ~50 billion dollar global industry - but many of the styles, the flavors, and even some of the name brands all harken back hundreds of years. And with the modern craft movement, a renewed focus on traditional methods and old-school recipes has helped turn back the clock even further.
There are two things required to make alcohol: sugar and yeast. Introduce yeast to a sugary environment, and the tiny microorganisms devour the glucose/fructose/maltose/sucrose and release it as carbon dioxide and ethanol, which is the drinkable form of alcohol. This metabolic reaction - aka fermentation - is the key to all liquor, beer, wine, liqueur, prison hooch, bathtub moonshine, and all other intoxicating beverages. Fermentation also requires a container that allows the carbon dioxide to escape and prevents outside air from entering; exposure to oxygen disrupts the process, and not releasing the CO2 leads to explosions.
Some spirits, particularly grain-based spirits such as whiskey or scotch, require extra preparation before fermentation can occur. Grains are soaked in water until they begin to germinate, then quickly dried before they actually begin to grow. These germinated grains are called malt, which are again dunked in water and boiled in a process called mashing. Mashing releases enzymes in the grains that convert starch to sugar, which can then be fermented.
Distillation is a process by which liquids are vaporized and condensed in order to separate their component substances. There are countless industrial and scientific applications for distillation, but in liquor terms, distilling means removing excess water from a fermented mixture to harness the flavors and alcohol in a more concentrated form. There are two types of stills used to make spirits: pot stills and column stills.
Pot stills are simple, consisting of a large copper chamber with a pipe branching off from the top. The fermented ingredients are put into the chamber, which is heated until they evaporate. The vapors, containing the flavor and alcohol, rise up and out through the pipe, which leads to a coil, which is cooled with water until the vapors condense back into liquid. The use of pot stills is called batch distillation, as it can only be done one batch at a time and the still must be cleaned between uses.
Column stills, aka continuous stills, aka Coffey stills (after Aeneas Coffey, one of several progenitors), are more complex and much more efficient. They consist of two columns, each filled with superheated steam, each comprised of many different chambers separated by perforated plates. The fermented ingredients enter one column, where they evaporate and rise from chamber to chamber through the holes in the plates, with each chamber acting in-effect as a miniature pot still. The vapors then travel to the bottom of the other column where the process is repeated until they reach a condenser. Because of this multiple-chamber approach, spirits made in column stills are essentially distilled many times over before they are finished. Unlike the pot still, column stills can be run continuously and the alcohol content adjusted to whatever level the distiller chooses.
Most types of spirits are aged after distillation, often for several years. This aging almost always occurs inside of wooden barrels, which are just porous enough to allow trace oxygen to enter and mingle with the spirit contained inside. This oxygen enrichment subtly alters the chemistry, imparting flavors and textural compounds called tannins from the wood, and allowing the spirit’s natural flavors to develop in desirable ways. Aging a spirit in wooden barrels generally has the effect of smoothing out some of the inherent roughness of a substance with high alcohol content while removing none of its potency. Typically, the longer a spirit is aged the smoother it becomes, although there are diminishing returns; most of the effects of aging occur in the first year.
Almost all barrels used for aging are made from white oak, sourced from either France or America for slightly different tastes; French oak allegedly leads to a more subtle, reserved taste, while the American wood tastes bolder. Barrels are typically used many times before being retired, and high-quality used barrels fetching high prices on the resale market. When a barrel is first used it absorbs flavors from its contents, and reusing the barrel can impart those flavors - very good flavors, mind you - into whatever spirits the barrel holds next. For some types of whiskey, the inside of the barrel is carefully charred with flame before the spirit is added to give it varying degrees of smokiness.
History of Cocktails
Nobody can really say who was the first person to dilute a spirit with other ingredients to enhance the taste. Liquor has existed for thousands of years, and human ingenuity for even longer. But the era of the modern cocktail began around the year 1800, when oblique references to a beverage called a ‘cock-tail’ began appearing in newspapers in London and New York. In 1806, the Hudson, NY newspaper The Balance and Columbian Repository nailed down the word’s definition as “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water and bitters.” In 1862, an American bartender named Jerry Thomas wrote a book called Bar-Tender’s Guide. This book was a compendium of cocktail recipes, putting into print what had previously been a primarily oral tradition, and securing “Professor” Thomas’ place in cocktail history. The definition of a cocktail broadened as the 20th century approached, coming to mean any drink made from spirits and one or more mixers, but there was a consistent focus on select ingredients and handcrafted presentation.
From the outset, cocktails were considered an American thing, but they became popular in Europe at so-called American bars. The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London opened in the 1890s, and is still open over a century later.
In 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, putting Prohibition into effect and forcing cocktails into underground speakeasies and clandestine home cocktail parties. Cocktails remained popular after Prohibition ended, but in the post-war era of the 50s and 60s, creativity began to wane. Consumers preferred modern convenience to traditional methods, and the art of cocktail-making was all but abandoned. Only in recent years have people begun to rediscover the lost joys of craft spirits, and the resurgence in popularity means that we might now be enjoying a second golden age of cocktails.
Shaking & Stirring
Cocktail shakers entered the scene in the mid-19th century as bartenders began taking advantage of the burgeoning availability of refrigerated ice. Prior to the shaker, cocktails were either stirred or haphazardly mixed by pouring them between glass tumblers. With the advent of the shaker, cocktails not only became tastier but their preparation became fun to watch as well. There are rules of thumb for shaking that should be observed: you should shake any cocktail made with fruit juice, egg whites, or dairy. The point is to mix in ice crystals and tiny air bubbles for a light, frothy texture. Cocktails made only from spirits should never be shaken, as dilution from the ice fragments would spoil the taste.
Garnishes, either edible or purely decorative, are used to give a cocktail a touch of character beyond that of a liquid in a glass. They have long been a bartending tradition, but it’s hard to say for how long. Famed cocktail pioneer Jerry Thomas suggests adding twists of lemon peel to drinks in his 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide, but it’s unlikely that he invented the practice. Regardless, garnishes are now a cocktail-making staple; no bar is fully stocked without olives, cherries, orange, lemon, lime, salt, and a whole garden of vegetables for stuffing into a Bloody Mary.
Types of Cocktails
A highball is a cocktail made from one (1) spirit combined with one (1) non-alcoholic mixer. Highballs are the most basic form of cocktail, and often take the form of tried-and-true combinations like gin and tonic, vodka and soda, and rum and coke.
A sour cocktail is one made with liquor, lemon or lime juice, and a sweetener such as grenadine or simple syrup. Some of the more popular types of sour are the margarita, the daiquiri, the sidecar, and the whiskey sour.
A fizz cocktail is basically a variation of the sour made with carbonated water for a refreshing, effervescent taste. The gin fizz is the most famous variety, of which the Tom Collins is a variation made specifically with Old Tom gin.
Punches come in many forms, but the original 17th century Indian recipe called for alcohol, water, sugar, lemon, and tea that acted as flavoring. Nowadays, punch is a generic term used to describe alcoholic beverages made from any combination of spirits, liqueurs, fruit juices, and other mixers and served out of a large communal “punch bowl.”
Tiki drinks are tropical-themed cocktails that were originally concocted during a mid-century Polynesian fad that swept across America. They often are served in outlandish novelty glasses with exotic fruit garnishes. Some of the most popular versions are the mai tai, the pina colada, and the zombie.
An old fashioned cocktail is made by muddling a cube of sugar in a glass, adding a few dashes of Angostura bitters, a lump of ice, a twist of lemon peel, and a jigger of whiskey. It’s an enduring recipe, and is the quintessential cocktail by the word’s original definition: a mixture of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar.