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Know Your Spirits

Quite a while back, when I first got into distilling, I had trouble telling the difference between many popular spirits. The more I looked into it, the more interesting details about their different ingredients, areas and types of production I found. So I started to keep a record of this information for each drink I was researching, which came in really handy whenever I wanted to try something new. I recently came across the notes and thought it would make a good post, especially for those of you who are considering using your whiskey still to make a different spirit or use a new recipe.

Whiskey

Whiskey or whisky is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Whiskey is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide and comes in different types, depending where in the world it’s produced. The typical common characteristics of are the fermentation of grains, distillation and aging in wooden barrels. American whiskeys are made from cereal grain and, depending on the main grain the initial mash contains (over 51% of corn, rye, malted barley or wheat), there is a diversity of subcategories. Adding coloring or flavoring is not allowed. They are aged in new charred-oak containers, except for corn whiskey which is usually not aged. Whiskey which is aged for a minimum of two years is also called straight.

Blended whiskey is a mixture that contains straight whiskey or a blend of straight whiskeys and, separately or in combination, whiskey or neutral spirits, and may also contain flavorings and colorings

Bourbon

Bourbon is also a subcategory of American whiskey. It is a distilled spirit which is strongly associated with the state of Kentucky. The typical mash for bourbon is a minimum of 51% corn, with the rest made up of wheat, rye and/or malted barley. It is aged in new, charred-oak barrels and distilled to no more than 80% abv. It enters the barrel for aging at a maximum of 62.5% abv and is bottled at 40% abv or more. Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period but if it is aged for at least two years and has no added colorings or flavorings, it may be called straight bourbon. Blended bourbon must contain at least 51% straight bourbon.

Scotch

Scotch is a carefully regulated type of whisky, which needs to follow very strict standards. First of all, it needs to be distilled in Scotland from malted barley at a level of less than 94.8% and wholly matured in oak casks of a capacity of maximum 185 gallons, for at least three years. No added substances are allowed, except for water and plain caramel coloring. Single malt Scotch whisky is produced from only water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills. Scotch has a minimum strength of 40% abv.

Gin

Gin is a spirit that gets its distinct flavor from juniper berries, which are actually seed cones produced by different types of junipers. There are two types of gin: compound gin, which is simply obtained by adding natural flavorings, predominantly juniper, to a neutral spirit of agricultural origin and distilled gin. Distilled gin, out of which London Dry Gin is one of the most popular, is obtained through either distilling or re-distilling, together with the same signature botanics, which give it its unique taste.

There is also a difference between American and English gin. English gin is distilled at a slightly lower proof than the American, so it retains more of the character of the grains used. The minimum bottled alcoholic strength for distilled gin is 37.5% abv in Europe and 40% abv in the States.

Vodka

Vodka is one of the most common spirits worldwide, produced and distilled from a wide variety of ingredients, including grains such as sorghum, corn, rye or wheat (the last two being considered superior), but also potatoes. A common property of the vodkas produced in the United States and Europe is the extensive use of filtration prior to any additional processing including the addition of flavorings. However, this is not the case in the traditional vodka-producing nations, where distillers prefer to use very accurate distillation but minimal filtering, to preserve the unique flavor and characteristics of their product. Repeated distillation makes its ethanol level very high – final filtered and distilled vodka may have as much as 95–96% ethanol, which is why most vodka is diluted with water prior to bottling.

The standard for European vodka is 40% abv, while the American one is at least 30% abv.

Tequila

Tequila is a very distinct distilled beverage made entirely from the blue agave plant and produced exclusively in certain parts of Mexico. The plants, which are very rich in sugars, are slowly baked to break down into simple sugars, then shredded or mashed to obtain the agave juice which is used for tequila. The juice is left to ferment and then distilled. It takes a second distillation to obtain the silver tequila which can be bottled or aged in wooden barrels, usually oak, to obtain other types of tequila such as reposado (2-12 months), añejo (1-3 years)or extra añejo (over 3 years).

Tequila is somewhere between 31-55% abv.

Rum

Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made fro sugarcane byproducts, such as molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice and is mostly produced in Latin America and the Caribbean, where it developed, although a large number of countries now produce it, including the US. After the fermentation of molasses or juice, followed by the distillation process, most rum is aged for at least one year in wooden casks or stainless steel tanks – which determines the different types and colors. For dark and spiced rums, caramel and other spices may be added to adjust the color of the final product.

Rum is not a very standardized drink so its minimum alcohol content varies between 40-50% abv.

Brandy

There are three main types of brandy and a very wide variety of subcategories of these, from different areas. The general term of brandy refers to grape brandy, which is produced by the distillation of fermented grapes and generally contains 35-60% abv. Some brandies are aged in wooden casks, some are simply colored with caramel, while some brandies use a combination of both aging and coloring. Depending on the area, it could be single or double distilled and aged for different periods of time.

Fruit brandies are distilled from fruit other than grapes. Apples, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, elderberries, raspberries and blackberries are the most commonly used. Fruit brandy usually contains 40% to 45%, is often colorless and does not require aging. Some of the most popular examples are German schnaps, Eastern European palinka or rakia.

A third type of brandy is pomace brandy (or marc), which is produced by fermentation and distillation of the grape skins, seeds, and stems that remain after grapes have been pressed to extract their juice for making wine. Most pomace brandies are neither aged nor colored. Greek tsipouro and Italian grappa are popular examples of this type of brandy.

Cognac

Cognac is a variety of brandy, produced only in the Cognac region of France. For a distilled brandy to be allowed the name cognac, it needs to meet certain legal requirements. First of all, if must be made from at least 90% Ugni blanc grapes  (for the true crues), twice distilled in copper pot stills and aged for at least two years in French Limousin oak barrels. Cognacs which are not cru can also use different grape varieties from the region. Most cognacs are aged considerably longer than the minimum legal requirement, to increase their taste and value.

 The final produce averages at about 40% abv.

As you can see, each type of distilled alcohol is unique and usually requires different ingredients, but also different distilling and aging processes. I have not gone into the specifics of their distilling but if you’d like to know more or want to experiment with new recipes, let me know and I’ll treat them separately in more detail.

Posted by Jason Stone on


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