• Patrick Van Negri

All You Need to Know about Spirits / Liquors


Spirits 101 Learn About Spirits Liquor Guide Education Liquors

(Almost) all you need to know, there is so much to learn even past this!

I do not know about you, but whatever I am obsessed with, I like to learn everything about it. Not just learn more about it, but dive deep into the subject matter and become an expert about it! How do you call that? Passion? Calling? Obsession? I am not sure, but I am sure it makes me feel alive!


I immensely enjoy drinking wine and spirits. Have you ever wonder where does it come from? How is it made? What are the different types of it and the different regions they make it from? Well, I was curious too, and I asked myself those questions as I sipped my first drinks!


Some people drink to get drunk, party, and/or "solve" their problems;

"I drink because I enjoy it. I love the process, and I value something that requires time, dedication, attention to detail, aging, hard work, and has a story to tell."

Spirit, or liquor, is made from a grain (sometimes even fruit or veggies) that is distilled and fermented. Just remember, there are no technical rules. Still, to call something a particular type of spirit, some laws and regulations require a certain minimum percentage of a specific ingredient, and the types of barrels they must age; you will understand later in the article. Therefore, these are the 10 spirits you need to know about and short summaries about them.


GIN

Gin is traditionally made from juniper berries with its signature pine flavor, which is usually the base, or a neutral grain spirit.

However, there are loads of botanicals such as coriander, angelica root, licorice, citrus fruit, chamomile, among many others – making it unique and adding complexity. It is almost always clear, but it can get color from oranges and other fruits as you saw last summer posts. You must've had a gin & tonic at least once in your lifetime.

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WHISKY, WHISKEY, BOURBON & SCOTCH

Dang, wait what? Let me explain:

It comes from rye, barley, corn, wheat, or merely a mash, which is a mix of grains and aged most likely in charred oak barrels.

Different countries and states have other names and laws for it, and it also differs from which grain you use or what ratio of mash, so to simplify here are different types of Whisk(e)y's:

Bourbon🇺🇸

  • American Whiskey from Kentucky (95% supply), but can be made anywhere in the USA and must be made here

  • Must be made from 51% corn, and 49% rye, barley, and/or wheat, making it sweeter than other types

  • Aging: no minimum aging in new charred oak

  • Bottling: minimum of 80 proof

Scotch🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

  • Whisky from Scotland, made from Malted Barley (making it a Single Malt, if it's only one distillery) and other grains (then it would be a Blend from single malts and even multiple distilleries)

  • Aging: Oak casks (can be sherry, rum, bourbon, and even wine casks) with a minimum of 3 years

  • Bottling: minimum of 80 proof

Irish🇮🇪

  • Whiskey from Ireland, which must be made from barley, but can include corn, and wheat. It is often distilled more times than Scotch, making it lighter and crispier, and finish smoother.

  • Aging: minimum of 3 years in wooden casks

  • Bottling: minimum of 80 proof

Canadian🇨🇦

  • Whisky from Canada, selecting mash bills: which are ratios of grains which at the end gets blended for superior taste.

  • Aging: minimum of 3 years in wooden casks

  • Bottling: minimum of 80 proof

Japanese🇯🇵

  • Whisky from Japan made from malted barley and most likely blended in a single distillery for a complex flavor, but they also do single malts. There is a strong influence from Scotch whisky, but the difference is that it has more aroma, and at the same time, it is lighter, which is due to their Mizunara oak. Unlike previous ones, there are no rules and laws, meaning that the whisky can be imported and labeled as "Japanese".

  • Aging: no specifications, but must be aged in barrels

  • Bottling: no specifications

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TEQUILA

Tequila comes only from the Weber blue agave, and it is a Mexican spirit.

Actually, to my knowledge, it can only be made in Mexico, making Jalisco the town of Tequila. The crazy part is that the blue agave needs 6-12 years to grow to be distilled, and they use only the "pina", which is the middle part of the plant. To call it Tequila, it must be made from at least 51% blue agave, and aging must take place in oak barrels, bottling from 70-110 proof – that is the law. Almost like with Rum, the aging process will show in the color, ranging from "Blanco/Silver" which is aged less than 2 months to Reposado, Anejo, and Extra Añejo, which is aged for more than 3 years.

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MEZCAL

So what the heck is Mezcal then?

Well, Tequila is basically a type of Mezcal, which means that Mezcal can be made from any agave, and it tends to be much "smokier" than Tequila due to its process.

The significant difference is that Mezcal is slow-roasted buried in wood fire pits, and Tequila is baked in stone ovens. The law with Mezcal is that it has to be made from 70-100% agave.


VODKA

As you probably already know, it is made from Potatoes. However, nowadays, they make it with a variety of grains, and even grapes.

Wheat, rice, corn, or rye can are used as well. It usually is made in a continuous column still and even pot stills. Vodka would be the most neutral spirit, which is excellent for mixing or for you who don't like the "taste" of alcohol. I am sure you had one of the flavored Vodka's as well.

Funny enough, the word comes from Slavic, which means water – "voda" in my native Croatian. Vodka can be made anywhere, and it is the most consumed spirit in America along with Tequila.

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RUM

Rum is distilled from sugarcane (juice or molasses), making it contrary to Vodka – usually the sweetest spirit.

You will most likely find them in tropical cocktails since it is a tropical spirit traditionally made in the Caribbean and Latin America. The warmth and humidity add their special touch. Oddly, I've met a producer who makes it in Croatia too, and it is still as good.

The color you see usually comes from used white oak, coming from used charred whiskey barrels. The more you age it, the more intense color you will have, depending on the barrel. However, rum can range from being a clear spirit, all the way to being super-dark.

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COGNAC & BRANDY

So my friend, who worked with a cognac brand, did not know the difference between Cognac and Brandy. So I have to keep it straight, and that also made me prioritize this article.

Cognac is Brandy but made explicitly in the Cognac region in France, made from distilled grapes/wine.

Thus, only Brandy's made in the Cognac region are allowed to call their Brandy a Cognac. Same as sparkling wine for the Champagne region, both in France. It is made from white wine that is distilled.

Cognac🇫🇷

  • It can only be made from a varietal of grapes, but most often made from Ugni Blanc and must be distilled twice in copper stills. There are loads of rules and regulations with Cognac. It is blended for superior taste, and their age is classified, by the youngest in the blend:

VS: Very Special (minimum of 2 years old)

VSOP: Very Superior Old Pale (minimum 4 years old)

XO / Napoléon: Extra Old (minimum 6 years old)

  • Aging: minimum of 2 years in French oak barrels

Brandy

  • It is distilled wine, but can also come from other fruits, usually blended from different vintages for aroma complexity.

  • Heard about Grappa? It is prevalent in my homeland Croatia (called rakija), and that comes from grapes that were pressed once for the wine but includes everything, from stems, seeds, and skins, of course.

  • Aging: usually in oak casks, depending on the region, ranging from 2 to 50 and more years.


LIQUEURS/CORDIALS

It is usually made with a neutral grain spirit or brandy, infused with fruits, botanicals, and roots.

Traditionally served as digestive or aperitif, but also makes cocktails even better. I like it in all 3 ways, and I enjoy them neat or slightly cool or even rocks.

They will most likely be proprietary blends, citrus-based, and infused with herbs and roots, but some include coffee, nuts, flowers, chocolate, and such things. Some cases include macerations, which happens with grapes for red wine, which is soaking the fruits, herbs, roots, and other things, so the contents can release its aroma and give it a natural color. Maceration can be done in a day, but it can go for much longer, such as a month. After that, they mix it with syrup, but as you can see, there are many different types of Liqueurs/Cordials so it will vary. Some of the names that fall into this, which you most likely heard already are:

Triplesec, Luxardo Maraschino, Aperol, Campari, Disaronno, Sambuca, Jägermeister, Curaçao, Cointreau, Kahlua, Bitter, Amaretto, St. Germain, Amaro Montenegro and the list goes on. I love this category!

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FORTIFIED & AROMATIZED WINE

Even though it might not the best fit for this article, but

adding Brandy or a neutral spirit to wine, and/or a mix of herbs, creates a Fortified and Aromatized Wine category.

It all started when the British could not import French wine, so they went to Portugal to find an alternative. However, the wine would get spoiled during transpiration, so they added Brandy to stop the spoilage – and that's how this category was born! Actually, it dates even longer than that, when Hippocrates was adding herbs and other things into wine 400 B.C. and calling it a medicine. What a genius, right?

Like in Absinthe, wormwood seems to play a crucial role here.

To make things simple, fortification is when Brandy or a neutral spirit is added, and aromatization is when herbs, roots, barks, and other items are steeped into the wine.

One of the most popular, and essential to loads of cocktails, is Vermouth, but you might also hear of Lilet, Port, Sherry, Madeira, and many more, which are coming in the next articles.


ABSINTHE

Some of you still think it is banned but is it not as has been used as medicine since the ancient ages.

Wormwood being the main ingredient; it is also made fennel and aniseed as well as other herbs.

You might recognize it for its intense, electrifying green color, which comes from the infusion of herbs at the 2nd distillation to make further the aroma more intense. I like to use it in some cocktails, but also you can drink it straight with water, 1 part Absinthe and 3-5 parts water.


In Conclusion

Hopefully, you found this educating and exciting, and you know what you are drinking next time and figure out what to drink next time!

Lastly, I would stress the importance of using proper glassware with proper spirits, which sounds like a good topic for another article. Cheers to that 🥂

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P.S. Wine article coming soon too, as well as Croatian spirits and wines! 😀

Until next time – cheers my friend!

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