The popularity of distilled spirits continues to grow. Those interested in expanding their taste horizons beyond beer and wine can find the variety of available choices overwhelming. Learn about the many different types of liquor to narrow your choices or test your taste.
The Difference Between Beer, Wine, and Liquor
All alcoholic beverages begin with grains or fruit. These supply sugars that feed yeast during the fermentation process.
Wines ferment naturally, drawing yeast molecules from the air. Crushed fruits (grapes, for most wines) are full of sugar and don’t need any additives to begin the fermentation process.
Beer needs a little help. The grains brewers use to make beer are made mostly of carbohydrates, so they must coax the sugar out by adding hot water. Over a few hours, the grains release their sugars and can be filtered out. Brewers then add yeast to the remaining liquid (called “wort”) to cause fermentation.
These fermented beverages have a lower alcohol content than liquors, which undergo the additional step of distillation. Alcohol boils at a slightly lower temperature than water, so distillers heat the fermented liquid, sending the alcohol steam through a still, where it condenses back into liquid with a concentrated alcohol content.
From there, liquors take separate roads to the bottle. Some are bottled immediately, while others age in barrels for years. There are hundreds of different types of liquor and brands, but almost all distilled spirits fall into one of the following categories.
Vodka is a neutral, nearly flavorless, odorless, clear spirit. Because it doesn’t have much flavor, vodka makes up the base of many kinds of cocktails. Distilled from grains like wheat, rye, or corn, one can also make it from potatoes, beets, or even grapes.
Typically, vodka doesn’t go through an aging process. Different brands may distinguish themselves by their country of origin, their primary components, and their extremely subtle, nearly undetectable flavors. Some vodkas may have an “oily” or creamy feel, while others seem citrusy or peppery. Some brands add flavorings.
Vodka is usually bottled at around 40% ABV or 80 proof, although some types have much higher alcohol content. There is no internationally recognized standard for vodka, although, in Europe, vodka not made from grain must identify the products used to produce it. Vodka may be triple distilled and filtered for purity.
Gin starts out very much like vodka—distilled from a fermented grain mash. But gin is distinguished by the addition of botanicals, primarily juniper berries. Some brands redistill the spirit with other berries, herbs, seeds, or spices. Anise, coriander, and citrus are other common additives.
Gin is typically bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof) but can reach as high as 47% ABV (94 proof). Like vodka, it’s clear and isn’t aged. The European Union has imposed some strict regulations on the production of gin, defining the required alcohol content of the initial distillation at 96% and requiring the inclusion of juniper. Spirits that go through redistillation with added botanicals are usually about 70% ABV and bottled at about 35 to 40% alcohol (70 to 80 proof).
Of note, the regulations that apply to “London Dry Gin” also require that the product contain no more than five grams per hectoliter of methanol (wood alcohol). You may have heard about methanol when the FDA warned that some imported hand sanitizers contained it. Methanol is poisonous, even when one absorbs it through the skin.
Fermentation creates both ethyl alcohol and methanol. Proper distillation removes methanol.
Probably the best-known distilled spirit, whiskey (or “whisky” in Japan, Scotland, Canada, and several other countries) is fermented with a variety of grains, including corn, rye, barley, and wheat. The used grain may be “malted,” meaning it has soaked in water to cause it to germinate, and then the process is halted by drying the grain with hot air. Malting makes the grain more amenable to fermentation and adds subtle flavor to the resulting wort.
Scotch and bourbon are both whiskeys, but bourbon is unique to the United States. Bourbon whiskey must use a mash that is at least 51% corn, distilled at no more than 160 proof, and aged in new, charred oak barrels. Bourbon must go into the barrel at no more than 125 proof. If it ages for at least two years and contains no additives (other than water), it earns the label “straight” bourbon, but if it ages less than four years, the label must display how long its age.
“Finished” whiskey can be aged in a combination of barrels, including barrels previously used for bourbon or wines like port or sherry. Fine whisky can be aged from 12 to 20 years, and some distillers have kept select whisky in barrels for up to 50 years.
While many people use whiskey as the base for cocktails, connoisseurs sip it “neat” or straight, sometimes with just a splash of water.
A spirit that is gaining in popularity, rum comes from fermented sugar cane juice or its byproduct, molasses. Only a few countries regulate what can constitute rum, primarily Barbados, Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil, and the French island of Martinique.
Rum comes in many varieties distinguished primarily by color and country of origin. Some clear rum has been aged but filters out the color. Because it comes primarily from warm, tropical countries, rum ages faster than other spirits. It ranges from white or silver rums—which usually as a base for cocktails—to gold and dark rums that one can enjoy straight.
Rum producers use a variety of types of barrels, some of which may previously have contained whiskey, sherry, or cognac.
Some rum producers add flavors (like coconut or spices), caramel coloring, or sugar in the form of molasses to provide a darker color and more sweetness.
Tequila, another spirit that comes in a spectrum of colors, comes only from Mexico and uses the baked, crushed, fermented hearts of the agave plant. Varieties made with 100% blue agave are generally of the highest quality, while “mixtos” may have used fermented sugar cane or contain additives like coloring and flavorings.
Light-colored tequila may be bottled directly or rest for up to 60 days in barrels, lending it a golden hue (“oro”). Reposado means “rested,” and this variety is aged up to a year. “Añjeo” means “old” and signifies a tequila aged for three years or more (“extra añjeo”).
Tequila is coming into its own as a respected, subtle spirit that one should enjoy enjoyed in sips, not shots. But it still forms the basis for cocktails like margaritas.
Many people think brandy is a type of fortified wine. Not quite—brandy is distilled wine made from fermented fruit like apples, cherries, peaches, grapes, or apricots. It ages in barrels and has a higher alcohol content than wine, making it officially a liquor. Brandies from particular areas may have names signifying where they come from, such as Cognac or Armagnac.
Sometimes used in cocktails but mostly as an after-dinner drink, some people believe brandy aids in digestion. Serve brandy in snifters for maximum enjoyment of its fragrance and flavors.
Once you’ve learned what type of liquor you prefer, you can refine your taste with rare liquor purchased online or in your local store.