Take an In-Depth Look into our Spirits…
Wanting to gain more “Spirit” insight? Learn more about your favorites below.
Spirits can be made from any fermentable organic substance. The most commonly used substances are:
Usually rye, corn, barley, wheat – Used to make whisk(e)y, vodka, gin
Usually in the form of fermented sugarcane juice or molasses – Used to make rum
Used to make brandy; most brandy is made with grapes
Used to make mezcals (including tequila)
Spirits are made by making a “beer” or fermentable mash out of the base ingredient and then boiling that ingredient in a still. The still collects the alcohol vapors and condenses them into a distillate. There are two types of still: Pot and column.
—Pot or Alembic Stills
Pot, or alembic stills are older and basically consist of a large kettle (the “pot”) that narrows into a tube at the top to collect alcohol vapor. Pot distilling is considered “inefficient” because it carries along water and chemical compound vapors along with the alcohol; however, this “inefficiency” is an advantage when it comes to producing rums, whiskies, and brandies with distinctive flavors (e.g., cognac, Jamaican rum, Irish and Scotch single-malt whiskies).
In order for mash to be distilled in a pot still to a high enough proof to be barrel-aged or bottled, it must be distilled multiple times. This is why spirits will often have “double-distilled” or triple-distilled on the label.
—Column or Continuous Stills
Column or continuous stills use two enclosed copper or stainless steel columns. The fermented liquid is slowly fed down into the top of the first column while steam is sent up from the bottom. The rising steam strips the alcohol from the descending liquid and carries it over into the second column where it is recirculated and concentrated to the desired percentage of alcohol. Column stills are more “efficient” than pot stills in that they extract a higher concentration of alcohol. They are favored for neutral-flavored spirits such as vodka and white rum and also for industrial alcohol.
The alcohol content of a spirit is measured either in ABV (alcohol by volume) or proof, which is just double the ABV. Thus, a 40% ABV whiskey would be 80 proof.
Proof has some interesting implications for the flavor of spirits. Up to a certain percentage (usually around 70-80% ABV), distilling to a higher proof has the effect of concentrating desirable flavors, provided the undesirable flavors are dumped off (this is part of the distiller’s art). As proof gets past this point, however, the spirit becomes more neutral in flavor, to the point where around 95% ABV you have what are called neutral grain spirits, which are used to make bitters (see below) and macerations for liqueurs.
Many spirits are aged in oak barrels or casks to impart flavors that can be characterized as spice, dried fruit, vanilla, leather, campfire, and numerous other elements. Bourbon whiskey must be aged in new white oak barrels; most European whiskies, brandies, and rums use old barrels that have been used for wine, sherry, port, or (obviously) bourbon.
Almost all whiskies and brandies, many rums, and some tequilas, mezcals, and even gins are aged in barrel. These spirits will acquire golden or brown colors from the wood; commercial spirits makers often incorporate caramel color to simulate the colors, but artisanal spirits producers never use such ingredients.
Many spirits are “chill filtered,” which removes any hazy residues left in them; however, chill filtering also strips some flavors out of the spirit. In general, spirits bottled at 50% ABV or higher do not need chill filtering to remove haze. Several spirits (notably vodkas) are carbon filtered; that process does tend to remove a number of important flavors and so will almost never be used for artisanal spirits.
Vodka is a white spirit distilled from a variety of substances including rye, wheat, potatoes, molasses, and beets. (Most Polish vodkas are made from rye, while Russian vodkas are usually made of wheat.) Vodka is usually made in column stills and chill filtered, and often carbon filtered or even redistilled past reaching optimal proof. This results in a highly-neutral spirit that is attractive to the mass market but not very interesting from a craft spirits and cocktails perspective. American vodkas are technically neutral spirit, meaning that it MUST be distilled to a super-high proof and then watered down.
Whisky (Scottish/English spelling) or whiskey (Irish/US spelling) is a spirit distilled from grain. This grain can be malted (germinated to release enzymes required to modify the starches in the grain into sugars) before being fermented, or it can simply be fermented directly. Regardless of origin, whisk(e)y is almost always aged in oak; unaged whiskey, sometimes called “white lightning” or “white dog,” is generally a novelty item that is not particularly interesting to drink, though many brands have released varieties of this product recently.
—Scotch Whisky – minimum of 3 years aged
Scotch whisky is divided into two major categories: Malt whisky and grain whisky. Malt whisky is made from barley which has been malted and then dried over peat fires; this gives the whisky a smoky flavor and often other flavor elements (seaweed, petrol, iodine, salt, even spice). It is usually pot-distilled. Grain whisky (rarely bottled as such) is made from corn, wheat, and a little barley; it is usually column-distilled.
—Single Malt Whisky
Single malt whisky is made of malt whisky bottled at one distillery. Vatted malt whisky is a blend of malt whiskies from multiple distilleries. Blended Scotch whisky (e.g. Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker) is made from a mix of malt and grain whiskies (makes up 95% of Scotch Whisky)
Irish whiskeys, both blended and malt, are usually triple distilled through both column and pot stills, although there are a few exclusively pot-distilled brands such as Redbreast. Otherwise, Irish whiskeys are a mix of pot and column-distilled whiskeys. Irish Malt Whiskey is likewise so designated, but most Irish whiskey is a blend of malt and grain whiskies. Irish whiskey is generally smoother and more mellow than Scotch malt whisky due to the multiple-distilling approach.
American whiskeys come in numerous types. All must be (i) made from grain; (ii) distilled to 90% ABV or less and be aged at 62.5% ABV or less (this is called “barrel proof”) in oak barrels; and (iii) be bottled at no less than 40% ABV. Any whiskey that has been aged for less than four years must be labeled as such.
American whiskeys use a grain mash combining corn, rye, wheat, and barley. Mash technically refers to the mix of crushed grain (including some malt that contains enzymes to break down grain starches into sugars) and hot water from which the distiller draws a liquid extract called wort. The wort is fermented into a simple beer called the wash, which is then distilled.
Sour mash is the fermentation process by which a percentage of a previous fermentation is added to a new batch as a “starter” to get the fermentation going and maintain a level of consistency from batch to batch. A sweet mash means that only fresh yeast is added to a new batch to start fermentation.
Bottled in bond refers to 100-proof whiskey (and brandy) produced from a single distillery in a single batch and then aged for at least four years in a government-supervised “bonded” warehouse.
American distillers develop new whiskeys all the time, but the following are the most common styles:
Bourbon must (a) contain at least 51% corn, (b) be produced entirely in the US, (c) be distilled at less than 80% ABV, and (d) be aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. “Small batch” refers to bourbons blended from a small group of selected barrels, and “single barrel” refers to bourbon from one barrel.
Tasting notes: Look for toffee, pralines, vanilla, dried fruit, and caramel, as well as wood “spice” from the barrel.
Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon, but also must be filtered through sugar maple charcoal. This makes the whiskey smoother than bourbon.
Rye whiskey has the same standards as for bourbon except that it must contain at least 51% rye grain. Unlike most bourbon, rye is often bottled as 100% straight rye grain whiskey. It is drier than bourbon, often spicy, nutty, and toasty. It is the default whiskey for cocktails like the Manhattan and Old-Fashioned, although many bartenders use bourbon for these drinks now as well.
Canadian whisky is made primarily of corn or wheat, but with a supplement of other grains (usually rye or barley malt). Unlike bourbon, they are aged primarily in used oak barrels, usually 4-6 years. Canada ships a lot of whisky in bulk to other countries for bottling.
—Blended American Whiskey
Blended American whiskey is required to contain at least 20% straight whiskey, with the balance being unaged neutral spirit or high-proof light whiskey. It is relatively generic in flavor and only bottled by low-end producers.
Both Japan and India produce world-class whiskies now; both countries produce in the Scottish style (see above).
Rum is the collective name for spirits distilled from sugarcane, either in the form of fresh-pressed cane juice, molasses, or refined sugar. Originally, indigenous farmers used the fermented extra cane to fertilize their fields, and occasionally drank it. European colonists refined the process, introduced distillation of the fermented product, and began exporting it back to their home continent.
Rums can be divided according to three principal categories: base sugar type, distillation method, and blending technique.
In general, most or all rums from a particular country or island will tend to have the same sugar type, distillation method, and blending techniques used. The general breakdown works as follows:
Former English colonies AND Haiti: Various sugar types with a tendency toward blending fresh cane juice, molasses, and the so-called “dunder” (the residue remaining in the stills after previous rum distillation); pot still; rums are blended with a variety of younger rums from very different stocks (ranging from pure cane to full-on black strap molasses) as they age.
Guyana (both British and French), Trinidad and Tobago: Rums are made from demerara sugar (a variety of turbinado, or partially processed sugar from which only some molasses has been extracted; technically only grown in Guyana, but imported regularly and used to make rum by Trinidad and Tobago).
Most former French colonies (principally Martinique): Rums (or “rhums”, here) are made from freshly pressed cane. Historically, this freshly pressed cane was fermented on the island and then often shipped back to France to be distilled and aged there, returned to the colonies at a premium as “Rhum Français.” This style of r(h)um is known as rhum agricole.
Virgin Islands: Too small to cultivate their own cane stocks for more than local use, the Virgin Islands import most of their cane and use a variety of stocks. A popular base for V.I. rums is black strap molasses; this is a hyper-concentrated (85+ brix) sugar derivative that was brought to smaller islands in barrels by rum runners, who would then do production away from the usual supervising (and taxing) authorities.
St.Lucia: St. Lucia also imports its sugar base, in this case molasses from Guyana. The resulting stock is halfway between turbinado and full-on molasses in its viscosity and effect on the product it generates.
Light Rum is aged less than one year.
Dark Rum is aged three years or longer.
After the ageing process almost all rums are blended to achieve a desired flavor.
A Brazilian “twist” on rum that gets its distinctive flavor from the juice of unrefined sugarcane. The juice is allowed to ferment in wood or copper vats for 3 weeks before being boiled down.
Brandy, in its broadest definition, is a spirit made from fruit juice or fruit pulp and skin. More specifically, it is broken down into three basic groupings.
Grape brandy is brandy distilled from fermented grape juice or crushed but not pressed grape pulp and skin. This spirit is usually aged in oak. Common grape brandies include Cognac (from central France; usually light, dry, and elegant), Armagnac (from Southwestern France; often more rustic and full-bodied), and Spanish brandy or Brandy de Jerez (aged in sherry casks, lush, sweet, fruity and oaky).
Pomace brandy (Italian grappa and French Marc are the best-known examples) is brandy made from the pressed grape pulp, skins, and stems that remain after the grapes are crushed and pressed to extract most of the juice for wine. Pomace brandies, which are usually minimally aged and seldom see wood, are an acquired taste. They often tend to be rather raw and rather funky, although they can offer a fresh, fruity aroma of the type of grape used, a characteristic that is lost in regular oak-aged brandy.
Fruit brandy is the default term for all brandies that are made from fermenting fruit other than grapes. Common examples are Calvados (apple brandy from Normandy in Northwest France), and other apple brandies, most of which are made in the US. These are usually oak-aged.
Unaged fruit brandies are often called eau-de-vie (“water of life”), which is also the default term in French for unaged spirits in general.
Brandy, like rum and tequila, is an agricultural spirit. Unlike grain spirits such as whisky, vodka, and gin, which are made throughout the year from grain that can be harvested and stored, brandy is dependent on the seasons, the ripening of the base fruit, and the production of the wine from which it is made. Types of brandies, originally at least, tended to be location-specific. (Cognac, for example, is a town and region in France that gave its name to the local brandy.) Important brandy-making regions, particularly in Europe, further differentiate their local spirits by specifying the types of grapes that can be used and the specific areas (appellation) in which the grapes used for making the base wine can be grown. American brandy makers do not use such specifications, and most American brandies (such as the ones that we will be carrying) use a mix of grapes, distilling styles, and aging methods.
Gin is a white spirit flavored with juniper berries and so-called botanicals (a varied assortment of herbs and spices). The spirit base of gin is primarily grain (usually wheat or rye), which results in a light-bodied spirit, except for genever, or Dutch gin, which is made from “malt wine” (a mix of malted corn, rye, wheat, and barley), giving it a grainy, malty, heavy, whisky-ish feel. Genever is also usually pot-distilled and often aged, so it is more like a whisky than like the gin most people know in that respect as well.
—Old Tom Gin
Old Tom gin, a style arising in the late 18th/early 19th century, is sweetened (originally to hide inferior botanicals).
—London (Dry) Gin
London (dry) gin was developed following the invention of the column still in 1832, and is what most people think of when they imagine “gin.” London gin is obtained exclusively from pure (100%) ethyl alcohol which is flavored with botanicals (see below) and redistilled to 70% ABV. London gin may not contain added sweetening exceeding 0.1 gram of sugars per liter of the final product, nor colorants, nor any added ingredients other than water.
—Traditional Gin Botanicals
Traditional Gin Botanicals: Genever is usually flavored with juniper berries (which must be present in European gin by law) and other botanicals. London dry gin may have a range of elements other than juniper: such as lemon and bitter orange peel, as well as a subtle combination of other spices, including any of anise, angelica root and seed, orris root, licorice root, cinnamon, almond, cubeb, savory, lime peel, grapefruit peel, dragon eye, saffron, baobab, frankincense, coriander, grains of paradise, nutmeg and cassia bark.
—New Style Gins
New Style Gins: Modern distilled gins produced in Europe must, by EU law, have a “predominant” juniper flavor. However, in the US, this is not the case. Consequently, there exist many gins, primarily made by craft distillers in the US, with a wide range of botanicals beyond the traditional juniper.
Agave spirits are generically known as mezcals. They are produced from the fermented juice of the agave plant (mistakenly thought of as a cactus; it is actually a lily). Tequila can be produced only from the blue agave (Agave Tequilana Weber) and only in specifically-designated geographic areas, primarily the state of Jalisco. It is a type of mezcal, but people often think of tequila and mezcal as separate categories.
The agave, also know as maguey (pronounced muh-GAY), is cultivated on plantations for eight to ten years, depending on the type of agave. When the plant reaches sexual maturity it starts to grow a flower stalk. The agave farmer, or campesino, cuts off the stalk just as it is starting to grow. This redirects the plant growth into the central stalk, swelling it into a large bulbous shape that contains a sweet juicy pulp. When the swelling is completed, the campesino cuts the plant from its roots and removes the long sword shaped leaves, using a razor-sharp pike-like tool called a coa. The remaining piña (“pineapple”—so-called because the cross-thatched denuded bulb resembles a giant green and white pineapple) weighs anywhere from 25 to 100 pounds.
At the distillery the piñas are cut into quarters. For tequila, they are then slowly baked in steam ovens or autoclaves (oversized pressure cookers) until all of the starch has been converted to sugars. For mezcal they are roasted in underground ovens heated with wood charcoal; this is what gives mezcal its distinctive smoky taste. They are then crushed and shredded to extract the sweet juice, called aguamiel (honey water).
The fermentation stage determines whether the final product will be 100 percent agave or mixed (“mixto”). The highest-quality Tequila is made from fermenting and then distilling only agave juice mixed with some water. Mixto is made by fermenting and then distilling a mix of agave juice and other sugars, usually cane sugar with water. Mixtos made and bottled in Mexico can contain up to 40% alcohol derived from other sugars. Mixtos that have been shipped in bulk to other countries for bottling (primarily the United States) may have the agave content further reduced to 51% by the foreign bottler. By Mexican law all 100% agave or aged Tequila must be bottled in Mexico. If a tequila is 100 percent agave, it will always say so on the bottle label. If it doesn’t say 100% it is a mixto, although that term is seldom used on bottle labels.
Distillation and Aging
Traditionally tequila and mezcal have been distilled in pot stills to 110 proof (55% ABV). The resulting spirit is clear, but contains a significant amount of congeners and other flavor elements. Some light-colored tequilas are now being re-distilled in column stills to produce a cleaner, blander spirit; this is frowned upon by artisan producers. Some tequilas and mezcals are barrel-aged to smooth them out and generate color. Lower-end product will often have caramel color or flavorings added to color and flavor the tequila or mezcal; this is the origin of “gold” tequila, which is actually unaged but resembles a reposado (see below) in color.
Mezcals in general do not bother with classification beyond possibly naming the agave varietal used in production. Tequila classifies as (a) either agave or mixto and (b) by aging as follows:
Silver or blanco tequilas are clear, with little (no more than 60 days in stainless steel tanks) or no aging. They can be either 100% agave or mixto. Silver Tequilas are used primarily for mixing and blend particularly well into fruit-based drinks.
Gold tequila is unaged silver tequila that has been colored and flavored with caramel. It is usually a mixto.
Reposado (“rested”) tequila is aged in wooden tanks or casks for a legal minimum period of at least two months, with the better-quality brands spending three to nine months in wood. It can be either 100% agave or mixto. Reposado tequilas are the best-selling tequilas in Mexico.
Añejo (“old”) tequila is aged in wooden barrels (usually old bourbon barrels) for a minimum of 12 months. The best-quality anejos are aged 18 months to three years for mixtos, and up to four years for 100% agaves. Aging tequila for more than four years is a matter of controversy. Most tequila producers oppose doing so because they feel that “excessive” oak aging will overwhelm the distinctive earthy and vegetal agave flavor notes. Still, there are tequilas coming on to the market with the designation “Extra Anejo,” meaning 4+ years aged.
Technically not beverage alcohol, cocktail bitters, or aromatic bitters, have enjoyed a resurgence with the revival of cocktail culture, since they are essential to classic cocktails. Cocktail bitters are a proprietary blend of botanicals with a bitter backbone (gentian or quinine, as described above; some use Hawaiian oak or hawthorn) that have been macerated in a spirit for several days and then cut to an appropriate ABV (typically 43-58%).
Bitters are designed to be used as seasoning for cocktails; think of them as the salt and pepper of the cocktail world. Like salt, bitters are not added to cocktails for extra bitterness, but rather because their bitterness emphasizes other flavors within a drink; for example, Angostura bitters added to a Manhattan bolster the spiciness, woodiness, and sweetness inherent in the whiskey and vermouth.
Like whiskey, beer distillates are spirits distilled from grain. However, unlike traditional whiskies, which are distilled from a mash of fermented grain, beer distillates are produced from a finished beer, meaning that in addition to grain and yeast, the base often contains hops, added sugars, and perhaps even souring agents. Distilled beers are a centuries-old tradition in Germany, and other countries now produce them as well.
Broadly speaking, liqueurs are sweet, flavor-infused spirits. They can be made from fruits, nuts, chocolate, coffee, herbs, spices, or more unusual ingredients like artichoke, Chinese rhubarb, or even tobacco. Top-quality liqueurs are either produced by fermentation and distillation of the main flavor element or use high-quality spirits. Thus, Cointreau (and other good triple secs) are made from distillate of bitter and sweet orange flavored with fresh doses of orange, while Grand Marnier is cognac infused with bitter and sweet orange.
Liqueurs, like cocktail bitters (see below) use a technique called “maceration”; this is, very simply, the infusion of herbs, spices, and other flavor elements into alcohol. Thus, cherry liqueur (e.g. Cherry Heering) is made by steeping cherries (and a few other flavor elements) in alcohol. Liqueurs are then sweetened with sugar or another sweetener. Very few quality liqueurs are made using a single flavor element; even most of what we think of as “single-flavor” liqueurs (like crème de cacao, made from chocolate) use complementary flavors to enhance the overall product.
Liqueurs are usually not aged; some undergo long resting stages during their production in order to allow the various flavors to marry.
Herbal liqueurs constitute a wide category that includes absinthes, pastis, Sambuca, Ouzo, Raki, and bitters, or amari. These liqueurs are usually made from mysterious, proprietary blends of herbs and spices, a sort of alcoholic Coca-Cola. Many of these have been in constant production for hundreds of years.
Absinthe is flavored primarily with anise and wormwood, and is distilled; it is generally bottled at very high proof (55%+ ABV). Sambuca is also distilled, but much sweetener and bottled at lower proof.
Pastis (also ouzo and raki) are macerated and often have oil of fennel added to enhance flavor.
Chartreuse, Benedictine, Verveine, and numerous other liqueurs are French or Italian herbal liqueurs made from proprietary blends of ingredients. They are often used in cocktails.
Bitters, or amari (from the Italian), are liqueurs with a generally bitter profile, usually conveyed by gentian (an Alpine flowering herb), quinine (a Peruvian tree bark), or citrus peel/pith. They are flavored with a variety of botanicals, but tend to have less fruit and sugar than liqueurs in general. Campari is probably the best known amaro, but there are thousands with a variety of flavoring elements.