Liquor is made by distilling wine or beer down to a more concentrated form. The different types of spirits that are produced reflect the different types of beer and wine (called the wash) that are put into the still as well as the method used to age the liquor (if at all), and for how long.
Beer and wine have a ceiling on how strong they can be produced. Once the alcohol level gets above 15% or so, the solution becomes toxic to the yeast. Some strains of yeast have been developed to push the envelope higher into the 20% range, but it is not really feasible to go much higher. In order to strengthen the beverage into a liquor, the beer or wine is heated to the boiling point for ethanol 173 degrees Fahrenheit (78.4 degrees Celcius) at sea level.
The ethyl alcohol vapor evaporates below the temperature of water, and so the alcohol is "stripped" from the solution.
The vapors are then condensed back into a liquid with a much higher concentration of alcohol. That's the theory anyway, now let's take a look at the real-world applications:
How Vodka is Made
It is commonly assumed that Vodka is made from potatoes. In fact while some vodka brands are still made from potatoes, the vast majority are made from other feedstocks such as corn, sorghum, barley, and wheat.
The base �wash� for vodka is similar to a very bland beer. The beer is fermented to around 5% - 7% alcohol strength and then distilled in a reflux still. The result is almost pure ethyl alcohol (reflux stills can easily achieve 95% alcohol strength � or 190 proof).
Spring water is then added to the alcohol to bring the strength down to 40% (80 proof) before it is bottled. Vodka is not aged.
The reflux still is used to make most brands of vodka, whiskey, and gin
Due to the lack of flavor in vodka, many brands have developed flavored varieties that include spices, citrus flavors, savory flavors such as almond and vanilla, and others.
Vodka is the most popular style of liquor in the world.
How Whiskey is Made
Whiskey begins its life in a manner very similar to vodka. However, unlike vodka, whiskey is aged, and there are significant stylistic differences in how various forms of whiskey are produced.
Scotch Whisky (note there is no �e� in the word whisky when you are referring to Scotch) is created from grains that have been smoked in special peat moss smokers to get a particular taste. Scotch must be made in Scotland and it has to be aged for at least 3 years in oak barrels. Scotch whisky is usually aged in barrels that were previously used to make either Sherry or Bourbon, and is sold as single malt or blended whisky
Bourbon Whiskey is an American style of whiskey. It must contain at least 51% corn, and must be aged in new charred oak barrels for at least 2 years. Bourbon must be made in the United States. �Barrel Proof� bourbon is higher proof whiskey that can be as high as 160 proof, but most bourbon is sold at 40% (80 proof).
Irish Whiskey is, of course, made in Ireland. There are two types of Irish whiskey: Single Malt and Blended Whiskey. Like scotch whisky, single malts are made of pure barely, while the blends are a combination of single malts and grain whiskeys that have been produced using other grains such as corn and wheat. Generally speaking, blended whiskey has a lighter taste that many consumers prefer. Single malts, however, are considered the more pure form and are usually much more expensive.
Canadian Whiskey is similar to the blended styles of American and Irish Whiskies. It must be made in Canada, and aged for at least 3 years in wooden barrels. Canadian whiskies are known for being very smooth and drinkable.
There are a number of other styles of whiskey such as Rye, Japanese, Welsh, Indian, Mountain and others. Many of these styles are less strictly defined and have differing definitions depending where you happen to be in the world.
How Tequila is Made
The agave plant is responsible for tequila, and all tequila is made in Mexico. Agave plants are harvested as large thick trunks; the spiney leaves are hacked off with machetes, and the plants are trucked to special hot houses where they begin the fermentation process.
The agave plant is used to make Tequila
The plants are then cut up and the juices are fermented before moving on to their final form.
Tequila is sold in a variety of styles � each is dramatically different, making the different types of tequila almost totally different liquors. The longer an aged tequila stays in the barrels the darker the color and stronger the flavor becomes.
- Blanco (white) � unaged white spirit that is bottled immediately after distillation
- Oro (gold) � unaged Blanco that has had coloring added to make it look �gold� in color
- Reposado (rested) � aged for at least two months to one year in oak barrels
- Anejo (aged) � aged for 1-3 years in oak barrels
- Maduro (extra aged) � aged a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels
How Rum is Made
Rum is generally made from molasses, however some styles like the Brazilian form of Cachaca are made from raw sugarcane juice. It is mostly made in the Caribbean and South America, and is usually aged in wooden barrels depending on the style. There are far fewer regulations concerning rum production than you will find for most other styles of liquor, and as a result there are many varieties to choose from.
Sugar cane harvesting. Molasses, a by-product of sugarcane, is used to make most rum.
Like tequila, rum can be either aged or not. And, like tequila, the longer the rum ages in the charred oak barrels, the darker and stronger the taste. Light rums are sweet and do not have much flavor, while darker rums have aged longer and have much bolder taste.
Rum can also be purchased �spiced� or �flavored�. Spiced rums usually have caramel flavor and spices added. Flavored rums come in coconut, citrus, orange, and lime flavors.
How Gin is Made
Gin is basically vodka that has been infused with juniper berries. The flavor is dry and clean. Stylistic differences are achieved by adding different flavors to the juniper berries such as lemon or orange peel, anise, licorice, cinnamon, coriander and others.
Juniper berries are used to flavor Gin
How Brandy And Cognac Are Made
In contrast to the other liquor styles listed here that are made from grains, Brandy is made from wine that is produced from grapes, apples, and other fruits. It is also considered the oldest form of distilled spirit.
Brandy was originally developed to �concentrate� wine. The idea was that it was more stable in its concentrated form, and could be shipped overseas without the risk of spoilage. Concentrating the wine also helped to lower taxes that were levied based on the volume that was shipped, not it�s strength. Once it was received, water could be added back to the brandy to make wine again.
Still used to make Fruit Brandy
Perhaps predictably, most people just consumed the brandy in its concentrated form, and thus the modern liquor industry was born.
Brandy comes in many styles � mostly depending on where it is produced. The most notable style of brandy is Cognac, which is made only in the Cognac region in France. Cognac, like almost all brandy, is distilled in pot stills.
Brandy is also made of a number of other feedstocks and formats including:
- Calvados is apple brandy
- Eau-de-vie is a French form of fruit brandy
- Kirschwasser is a cherry brandy
- Sherry is a fortified wine that is created by adding brandy to wine
When you buy brandy you will see labels that will indicate the quality grade of the product:
- A.C. � aged 2 years in wooden barrels
- V.S. � �Very Special� aged 3 years in wood barrels. This is also called 3-star.
- V.S.O.P � �Very Special Old Pale� aged 5 years in wood barrels. Also called 5-star
- X.O. � �Extra Old� Aged at least 4 to 6 years depending on the style
- Vintage � Stored in wood cask. The length of aging varies and is shown on the label.
- Hors D�age � Generally aged over ten years, and high quality.