The 6 Basic Spirit Types
As the definitive clear spirit, good vodka is like natural spring water: light, pure, and clean. It figures, since the word ‘vodka’ comes from ‘voda,’ the Russian word for water.
In northeastern Europe, vodka is traditionally served chilled and neat in a small glass, and sipped like a fine wine along with dinner. But outside of quaint villages in Eastern Europe, you’re more likely to find it accompanied by a mixer - anything from soda water to fruit juice.
Vodka has extensive history throughout Europe’s ‘vodka belt,’ which consists of Scandinavia, the Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. But its true origins are surprisingly difficult to pin down. We know the first vodka was made hundreds of years ago, but, depending on who you ask, this occurred in either Russia or Poland. The argument has raged for generations. Both sides make compelling cases to stake their claim, but neither has enough evidence to definitively be declared the winner. Russians are, however, the biggest per-capita consumers of vodka (by an impressively large margin), making it a de facto Russian liquor.
The recipe for vodka is as simple as it gets: ferment something with starch and sugar (typically a grain such as wheat or rye, but sometimes grapes, corn, or potatoes), then distill it. That’s it.
With such a simple recipe, the secret to making great vodka is in the technique. The distillation process is often repeated upwards of 3x, with each round removing more and more impurities. This can be supplemented by filtering the vodka through activated charcoal to purify it even further. To achieve the desired ABV (40% in most cases), water may be added after distillation. The final product should be crystal clear with no intrusive flavors other than a subtle terroir and the smooth kiss of alcohol.
Gin is a clear spirit flavored with juniper berries for an unmistakable botanical profile. It’s often said to taste like a pine tree, which is fitting; juniper is an evergreen tree, and the berries are actually just a form of cone. But within this pine tree flavor there are other more subtle notes to be discovered, and gin’s crisp, refreshing taste makes it a mixology staple - especially for summery drinks.
Gin originated in Holland in the 17th century, where it was first sold by doctors as an herbal remedy for various and sundry ailments. It caught on in England in the 18th century as a refreshment, rather than a medicine, where citizens celebrated how cheap and easy it was to produce. British sailors, who needed quinine and citrus to stave off malaria and scurvy, drank gin with tonic water and lime juice, and as the British empire spread across the world so too spread gin. Gin is still considered traditionally English, and many of today’s biggest brands (Beefeater, Tanqueray, Gordon’s) lean heavily on their proud English histories.
Gin is produced by first distilling a neutral spirit, then distilling this spirit a second time with juniper berries and other botanicals to add the flavor. The base spirit can be made from anything that will ferment; grains, beets, grapes, or even just sugar. The first distillation can be done with a pot or column still depending on the style, but the all-important second distillation is always done using a pot still.
Gin comes in a few different varieties:
London Dry is the most commonly seen variety, and is generally what you think of when you think of gin. It has a strong juniper taste, and, befitting the name, a very dry mouthfeel. London Dry gin is what’s used for gin and tonics, gin fizzes, martinis, and most other popular cocktails.
Plymouth gin is a style made exclusively in Plymouth, England, and due to a geographic indicator that’s the only place it can be made. There is only one brand, also named Plymouth. It’s less dry than the London Dry style, with a more subdued juniper flavor.
Jenever, aka Holland gin, is made in the style of modern gin’s medicinal precursors using malted wine. The juniper flavor is subtle, and depending on how much malt is used it can have a rich, smoky taste more akin to whiskey.
International style gin is a broad category describing all non-traditional gins that don’t fit in any other category. Since all that is required for gin to be gin is the juniper flavor, there is plenty of room for innovation, and many distilleries have taken up the challenge to produce gin in new and exciting forms.
In Ireland and America, it’s “whiskey.” In Scotland, Canada, Japan, and the rest of the world, it’s “whisky.” But whether it has the ‘e’ or not, it’s a spirit distilled from fermented cereal grains such as wheat, corn, rye, or barley. All whiskies are aged in wooden casks, which is the only way in which flavor is developed. This means that freshly-bottled whiskey is of an equal quality to older vintages, provided they spent the same amount of time in a barrel.
The first whisky was made in Ireland roughly 1,000 years ago. Monks, who had traveled to the east and learned the secret of distillation from perfumers, returned to the island and set to work applying the technique to fermented barley beverages. They called the product uisce beatha, a gaelic spin on aqua vitae, or “water of life,” the Latin moniker for alcohol. It spread from Irish monasteries to Scottish monasteries, and by the year 1,500 AD whisky was in full-scale production. In the 18th century, Scotch-Irish immigrants arrived en masse to the American colonies and settled in what would become Kentucky and Tennessee, setting up shop making whisky from local grains like corn and rye. During the Revolution, American whisky was seen as a patriotic alternative to the rum that the British preferred, and it’s been an inextricable part of Americana ever since. “Whisky” didn’t become “whiskey” until the late 1800s, when Irish distillers added an ‘e’ to differentiate their products from the Scottish competition for the American market; the differentiated spelling stuck in those two countries, but nowhere else.
There are many different types of whiskey, each with a prescribed set of localized ingredients, production methods, and complex flavors that craftsmen have spent generations perfecting. Whiskey’s flavor spectrum is diverse, ranging from sweet, spicy, smooth, smoky, and countless combinations thereof.
Although whiskey is made in many different ways, there are a few recurring themes. The grains are first milled, then boiled in water to create what’s called a mash, which is then fermented. Copper pot stills are most often used for distillation, although some American whiskies use column stills. Sometimes the grains are malted before fermenting. Master distillers may also combine whiskies of varying ages and styles to create new distinct flavor profiles. Ireland and Scotland would call this “blended,” but beware; in America and Canada, blended often means whiskey that’s distilled to a very high proof and then mixed with cheaper whisky of a lower quality, or even outright watered down.
Here’s a rundown of the most notable whiskey types:
Irish whiskey, the first and oldest, is typically made from either malted barley (a.k.a. single malt) or a blend of malted and unmalted (a.k.a. grain) whiskeys. Irish whiskey is aged for a minimum of three years, and tends to have a very smooth taste.
Scotch whisky, often just called “scotch,” is similar to Irish whiskey in that it’s made from barley, aged for at least three years and comes in single malt and blended varieties. It has a very distinctive smoky taste, which is believed to be a terroir infused by the concentration of peat in Scottish soil. Peat is also commonly used during the malting process, which may add to the flavor.
Canadian whisky was, historically, often blended - but the sort where high-proof whisky is made (using any grain) and then other ingredients are added. For this reason, Canadian whisky wasn’t held in very high regard amongst connoisseurs. But Canadian whisky has undergone a bit of a renaissance lately, with several small batch distilleries raising the bar for Canadian brown spirits.
Bourbon whiskey is an American style that is made from at least 51% corn, with the rest of the mash filled out with other grains like rye or malted barley. The oak barrels used for aging are flame-charred on the inside, and once it has aged for two or more years it’s referred to as “straight bourbon.” The corn gives bourbon a moderately sweet taste. It has a geographic indication, so it can only be legally made in America.
Rye whiskey is another American style, made in the same way as bourbon only using 51% rye grain instead of corn. The rye gives it a spicier flavor than the sweeter bourbon.
Tennessee whiskey is a particular style of bourbon made only in Tennessee, of which Jack Daniels is the biggest name. It’s made in the same way as other bourbons, with one additional step: before being put in barrels for aging, the whiskey is filtered through charcoal in what’s called the “Lincoln County Process.” Some say this improves the flavor. Others say the flavor is improved by dint of the Tennessee soil. In truth, the difference is negligible.
Rum is a sweet spirit, as one might expect from something distilled from the sugarcane plant. It ranges in color from a sparkly near-clear to a deep, dark brown. Production methods and the resulting flavors can vary, but the sugarcane sweetness remains a constant.
The very first rum was born from the thick, gooey molasses that was considered a useless waste product of 17th century sugar production. After the sugarcane plants were refined into sugar, a sticky brown sludge would remain. Not having any use for it, Caribbean planters would feed the molasses to their livestock or dump it into the ocean, until someone was savvy enough to realize that it could be fermented.
It wasn’t long before rum became a valuable commodity and a central component of international trade; rum from the Americas was taken to Europe and traded for textiles, which were taken to Africa and traded for slaves, who were taken to the Caribbean and sold to sugar plantations, which sold sugar to America to make more rum. The Caribbean region remains the nexus of rum production, but rum’s involvement in that reprehensible trade have been all but forgotten. Nowadays rum is popularly associated with the more benign iconography of the island-faring colonial era: sailors, pirates, parrots, pirates, palm trees, and pirates.
There’s very little standardization in rum production, aside from the use of sugarcane. Fermenting molasses is still the most popular technique, but French and Brazilian styles call for extracted sugarcane juice. Either one can be fermented and distilled into a clear liquid that is then aged, typically in oak barrels, to create rum.
Rum comes in a few different styles:
Light, White, or Silver
Light/White/Silver rum is aged little, if at all, and may even be filtered to ensure a clear appearance. Its taste is light and sweet, and it’s the rum most commonly used in cocktails, such as the mojito or cuba libre.
Golden or Dark
Golden/Dark rum has been aged for long enough for it to take on deeper colors and more developed flavors like molasses, vanilla, and caramel. The longer the aging process, the darker the color and more complex the taste.
Spiced rums have their flavors enhanced manually, often with ingredients such as vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, nutmeg, or any other thing that blends well with the natural flavors of sugarcane.
Rhum Agricole is rum made in the French style, using extracted sugarcane juice rather than molasses. Instead of the vanilla notes of molasses-based rum, rhum agricole has a slightly grassier flavor.
Cachaça is the Brazilian version of rum, made with sugarcane juice like the French rums, and is often aged in native woods other than oak. It has a geographic indication, meaning that it must be produced in Brazil to legally qualify as cachaça.
Tequila & Mezcal
Spring breakers may know tequila as a rough-tasting, salt-and-lime party shooter, but for those wise enough to look past the bargain bottles, tequila can be a rich, smooth spirit with complex flavors. Mezcal is tequila’s older, more artisanal cousin; similarly complex in taste, but with a smoky depth conferred by its unique production method.
Both tequila and mezcal are distilled from the agave plant, but tequila is made specifically from the blue agave grown mainly in the Mexican state of Jalisco. It has a UNESCO-recognized “geographic indication,” meaning that, according to international law, genuine tequila must be produced in and around Jalisco. Mezcal can be made from any agave strain, including blue agave, and the variety of flavor profiles available make selecting an agave similar to selecting a grape for wine production.
The agave plant was known to the ancient Aztecs as a source for pulque, a crude fermented beverage. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived, they brought European distillation techniques - as well as a taste for stronger alcohol - with them. Mezcal was invented and popularized soon after. Tequila’s origins involve a few names that are still familiar today: the Cuervo family started the trend of using blue agave to make their mezcal, and a few decades later it was the Sauza family who dubbed this version tequila. Today, Jose Cuervo makes up nearly 35% of the tequila market.
To make mezcal or tequila, the heart of the agave, la piña, is harvested. For tequila, this fruit is steamed or baked en masse in large ovens, then mashed into a pulp to extract the juice which is fermented and distilled. The mezcal process is traditionally more rustic, with the agave fruit carefully roasted in an underground pit - giving it the signature smoky flavor - and ground beneath a stone wheel pulled by a horse or donkey.
Urban legends abound regarding tequila bottles with worms at the bottom, and the strange effects that eating said worms will have. This practice is uncommon, and primarily a marketing gimmick, but gusano rojo (red worm) larvae are occasionally placed in the bottom of mezcal bottles. Regarding the worm’s hallucinogenic properties, fear not; eating them will give you nothing more than alcohol and protein.
There are a few types of tequila, distinguished by how long they are aged:
Blanco, white, or silver
Blanco/White/Silver tequila is unaged, bottled right after distillation. It’s clear, with an intense, pure agave flavor. As the cheapest variety, it’s typically used for shots and margaritas.
Reposado/Rested tequila has been barrel-aged between 2 and 11 months, allowing the flavor and color to develop into something worth sipping from a glass.
Añejo tequila has been barrel-aged for more than 1 year, giving it an even more complex flavor and a deep yellow color.
Extra-añejo tequila has been barrel-aged for 3 years or more, for an exceptionally rich, smooth taste and a captivating hue. The ultimate in tequila enjoyment.
Brandy is a catch-all term for spirits distilled from fruit, or more typically, wine. Brandy tends to have a very powerful flavor, making it a decadent, luxurious spirit to be enjoyed as a digestif following a hearty meal. But since there are many different types of brandy, it can also be a versatile ingredient for crafting cocktails.
The word brandy is taken from the old Dutch word brandewijn, meaning “burnt wine,” and its invention is credited to Dutch traders, who first distilled wine in order to create a sort of wine concentrate, to which they could later add water to make wine again. This way, wine could be preserved and transported at a lower cost. It was then discovered that after being aged in oak barrels, this wine concentrate was not at all like the wine they had started with. It had new, more interesting flavors and a rich amber color. Once the delicious secret of brandewijn got out, wine producers everywhere took notice, and it’s been in demand ever since.
Modern brandy is made all over the world, and many different countries have put their own spin on the spirit with different ingredients, terroir, production methods, and aging processes. Many of them have geographic indicators, meaning they can only officially be produced in specific regions. And though grapes/wine are the most common building blocks, it can be produced from any fruit. Non-grape brandies are sometimes known as eau-de-vie, French for “water of life.”
Here are a few of the more significant types of aged brandy to look for, each of which has further distinctions based on how long they are aged:
Cognac is a French brandy with a caramel color and a strong, sweet taste. Cognac has very strict guidelines: it must be produced in the Cognac region of France using specific white grapes; it must be twice-distilled in a pot still; and it must be aged for at least two years.
Armagnac is another French brandy, produced in the Armagnac region. It also has a mandatory blend of grapes and distillation method - once, using a column still - and a minimum two-year aging period. Armagnac tends to have a fruitier flavor and a fuller texture.
Calvados is a French apple brandy, distilled from apple cider and frequently augmented with pear juice. Like other French brandies, there are rules; it must be made in the Calvados region, certain cultivars of apple must be used, and it must be aged for at least two years. The apple flavor is unmistakable.
Unaged brandies are complex in their own right, but may not have the smoothness of aged brandies. Some unaged brandies to consider:
Grappa is an Italian pomace brandy, meaning it’s distilled from the mashed grapes leftover from the winemaking process rather than the wine itself. Flavors can vary, as it’s made from many different types of grape, but are often quite intense.
Pisco is brandy from Chile/Peru, and is notably used to make the pisco sour cocktail. It has a clear or very light color and a sharp aroma, and a few rules: it must not have any additives, and it must be stored in glass or metal so as to maintain the purest flavor of its ingredients.
Fruit brandies are made using fermented fruits other than grapes. There are the aforementioned apple-based Calvados; traditional Baltic brandies made from plums, apricots, peaches, and other fruits; South African brandies made from exotic flowers; and a veritable cornucopia of other varieties to try. In the United States, the St. George distillery out of San Francisco creates a nice range of memorable fruit brandies.
Bitters are highly-concentrated solutions of alcohol and botanical flavor that are used to add dashes of complexity to cocktails. For a mixologist, bitters are akin to a chef’s spice rack; the aim is to add just enough, typically only a drop or two, to complement and highlight a drink’s other ingredients. There are many cocktail recipes that call for specific bitters, and countless more to which adding bitters can add intriguing new dimensions.
Angostura is perhaps the most well-known bitters variety, having been produced by the House of Angostura with the same recipe since the 1820s. First developed by a German doctor in Venezuela, and now made in Trinidad & Tobago, Angostura’s exact blend of herbs and spices is a closely-guarded secret. But cinnamon, cloves, tamarind, and cardamom may be detected, and it’s a component of many cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan, and the Rob Roy.
Peychaud’s bitters is made in Louisiana by the Sazerac company, from a recipe created around 1830 by Antoine Amédée Peychaud. Peychaud was an apothecary in New Orleans, and his bitters used gentian root as its main ingredient. It has a lighter, sweeter, more floral taste than Angostura, and is a central component of the Sazerac cocktail.
Orange bitters doesn’t have a secret recipe, just a main ingredient: Seville orange peels. This is supplemented by other spices, such as cardamom, coriander, and cloves, but the orange flavor is most prominent. Until recently, orange bitters wasn’t widely-distributed, so the cocktail recipes that require it tend to be either very new, or very old.
Bitters are also quite simple to make at home, using a high-proof spirit (100 proof or higher) and whichever combination of herbs, spices, fruits, flowers, roots, bark, seeds, beans, you so desire. Add the ingredients to the liquor, let it sit for a week or two until the liquid is infused, then strain into a dropper bottle. There are countless DIY bitters recipes online, or get creative with your own unique concoctions.