Cocktails 101: How the Major Spirits Are Made
The last Cocktails 101 post gave a brief introduction to distilling and the process of making spirits, but what makes each type of liquor unique? How is whiskey different from brandy or rum? What are they made from and what processes do they go through? Read on for the specifics of the major spirit families.
Made exclusively from fruit, brandy is the family from which we get cognac and Armangnac (grape-based), calvados (apple- and pear-based), pisco (Peruvian, grape-based), kirchwasser (German, cherry-based) and grappa (Italian, made from grape skins left after wine is pressed). The most common brands, Courvoisier and Hennessey, are cognacs.
There are many, many types of whiskey in the world but pretty much all of them begin with a grain mash. Corn is the majority for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, rye for rye whiskey, barley for Irish and Scotch, corn and rye for Canadian. The nuances of each type of whiskey are far too numerous to list here, but suffice it to say that the flavor of each is particular to its own style, and usually to its own region. Common brands include: Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark (bourbon); Jack Daniel’s (Tennessee whiskey); Bushmill’s, Jameson (Irish whiskey); Glenfiddich, Johnnie Walker (Scotch whisky); Seagram’s, Crown Royal (Canadian whisky).
Made from sugarcane and/or the products of sugar milling (cane juice, molasses), rum is produced all over the Caribbean and South America. Each island or nation has a different way of making rum, utilizing many different base materials and production methods, which results in a spirit that is incredibly diverse and flavorful. Rums range from light or white to dark chocolate brown. They can be aged or unaged, flavored or unflavored, spiced and more, but the most common rums in the U.S. are Cuban-style and very mild in flavor—the most famous brand name being Bacardi.
Made exclusively from the blue agave plant, true tequila can be produced in only five states within Mexico. The hearts (piñas) of the agave plant are cooked and juiced to extract the liquid which is then turned into the national liquor of Mexico, with its characteristic spicy, peppery flavor. Tequila comes in three types: blanco (silver), reposado (gold) and añejo (aged). The most ubiquitous brands are José Cuervo and Sauza, but more traditional examples include Milagro, Corralejo and Partida.
The most common type of gin is the London dry style, popularized in England and still the most well-known in the U.S. today. The base is usually a grain mash and the characteristic flavor of this style of gin comes from juniper berries—which give the spirit its woodsy, robust flavor—as well as other botanicals such as coriander, fennel, angelica and citrus. Brand examples include Beefeater and Tanqueray.
Originally found exclusively in Eastern Europe, vodka is today a liquor juggernaut. Today it is highly prized for its lack of flavor, achieved through many successive distillations. Vodka is made from every plant imaginable, though grain and potatoes are especially popular. Brand examples include Smirnoff, Ketel One and Absolut. Now that you’re armed with the basics of distilling and a rough outline of what each spirit is, come back for my next post, where the truth about cocktails (and smashes and fizzes and highballs and juleps) will be revealed. Enough with the details—it’s time for a drink!
- Marleigh Riggins Miller