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Beginner’s guide: spirits

A guide on popular spirits to make your cocktail game go from amateur to connoisseur. BYO bar cart.

A guide on popular spirits to make your cocktail game go from amateur to connoisseur. BYO bar cart.

What are spirits?

While we don’t want to take anything away from poltergeists and cheer squads,  - in this context, when we say spirits we mean alcohol. We are an alcohol delivery company after all.

So - in the spirit (well-placed pun not intended) of alcohol education, let’s talk about what an alcoholic spirit actually is. All alcohol is made from fermenting sugar, in some form or another, and brewing it into ethanol. Ya know, sciency things. What gets fermented can then be distilled, which means separating out water and creating higher alcohol concentrations (think: ABV, or the long version, alcohol by volume). BOOM, you have a spirit.

Spirits vs. Liquor

This is confusing. But for the purposes of selling and consuming alcohol, “spirits” and “liquor” are the same. What is different though that you need to remember is liquor and liqueur are not the same. Liqueur (sometimes also called a cordial here in the US) is not a fancy way to say liquor. It’s a spirit that contains additives, like sugars, other liquids or herbs, which lower the ABV.

Primary types of spirits

Vodka

Vodka is what’s known as a neutral spirit - a clear, unaged liquor that is usually around 40% ABV. It has no distinctive color, aroma or flavor, and is usually made from grains like rice or wheat, but there are also options made from potatoes and other fruits and vegetables. Notable vodka brands are Smirnoff, Absolut, Grey Goose and Tito’s.

Vodka tends to get a bad rap because it’s one of the first liquors we try. Whether that be as an ingredient in some juice, via an ice luge, or as a shot of some vodka that was bright blue and flavored with “razzmatazz-berry,” it’s safe to say there’s some big reservations about vodka.Things like that tend to leave an impression. But vodka can be darn right tasty if done the right way.

If you’re looking to drink vodka straight, chilled vodka shots are traditional in parts of Europe, especially when paired with savory foods.  Otherwise, serve chilled over ice. If you’re looking for a few vodka cocktails  to shake up, we suggest starting with our Moscow Mule, Cosmopolitan or Bloody Mary recipes.
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Gin

Gin is a neutral spirit infused with juniper to make it kind of taste like a drinkable Christmas tree. With humble beginnings in either Holland or Belgium (jury is out on which), this is an age old drink with a bunch of history. We could get into it, but that’s an article for another time. Needless to say, it’s long, full of drama and contains words like “mother’s ruin.”

Gin is made in three different ways. In the compound method, you take a neutral spirit (vodka,) some juniper berries and  the botanicals of your choice. Put all of that into a jar, leave it alone for two weeks to let them steep, like tea. Then, strain out the solid stuff and BOOM. Gin. Pot distilling makes a more full bodied Gin. During this type of production, neutral grain spirit is made in a specialty type of pot still.The liquor is then distilled again with juniper berries and other botanicals. Lastly, column distilling is the distillation of gin you’ve probably tried or heard of. This creates a smooth, crisp gin, and can be created in larger batches. In this type of distilling, the botanicals are suspended above the liquid. Since the botanicals are suspended above the liquid, the vapors are technically what is infused. Once it’s distilled and infused, the gin is diluted. It’s then bottled at about 80 - 100 proof (40-80% ABV).

Gin comes in 8 styles:
  • London Dry are famous ones like Beefeater and Tanqueray. They’re heavy on juniper and have some pretty high standards. At least 70% ABV, no artificial flavors or colors, and some strict rules against more than 0.1 gram of sugar - London Dry is a league of its own.
  • New American is gin like Aviation. There’s no requirements by definition, but it basically refers to modern gins that use less junipers than London Dry.
  • Plymouth gin is sort of like London Dry, but less dry and made with root based botanicals. It also has a strict rule of only being made in Plymouth, England, hence the name.
  • Old Tom gin is an older style gin that is having a moment in the US. It’s a bit sweeter than London Dry, though dryer than genever.
  • Speaking of Genever, this is what gave gin it’s roots. Genever is a malty, whisky-like spirit made with juniper. It’s only made in the Netherlands, belgium, two northern French regions and two german states. Sloe gin is not your typical gin. First of all, it’s purple. Secondly, it’s flavored with sloe berries and sugar so it’s more of a liqueur than the rest of the gins mentioned.
  • Finally, there’s navy strength. Most gin is between 40-45% - navy strength is up to 57%. It got its name by being the drink of choice for the British royal Navy in the early 19th century.
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    Tequila

    Tequila, the liquor you love or hate, is a distilled beverage from the blue agave plant and hails from Jalisco, Mexico. You may know a few brands of tequila, with first names like José or Don, but what you may not know is how many types of tequila there are.

    There are 5 main types of tequila:
  • Plata, which may sound unfamiliar, is actually just  unaged Blanco or Silver Tequila.
  • Joven is un-aged Blanco tequila that is blended to be gold, either with Anejo or gold coloring.
  • Reposado is a type of tequila that is aged in wood barrels. Catch here is it’s only Reposado if it’s aged for one year or less.
  • Anejo is tequila that is aged in wood barrels for one to three years.
  • Extra Anejo is anejo tequila, but needs to be aged for at least three years.
  • We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention Mezcal, which can sometimes be confused with tequila. They’re similar, but Mezcal typically has a smokier flavor due to the way the agave is worked with before distillation.

    Fans of tequila have their ways they prefer to imbibe, but like other spirits it breaks down to a shot, on the rocks or in a cocktail (margaritas anyone?). Whatever you choose, we suggest exploring the different types of tequila to taste the differences and experience all the flavors this liquor has to offer.
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    Whiskey (and its relatives)

    Whiskey is a distilled spirit from a mash of fermented grains. At this point, you’re probably wondering “what the heck is a mash of fermented grains?” It’s a mix of grains like corn, wheat, rye or malted barley. The proportions of each of those grains will change the taste of the whiskey. This mash ferments so the sugars turn to alcohol, gets distilled and is then typically aged in oak barrels. We say typically because unaged, or “white” whiskey does exist - think moonshine.

    There’s a LOT of whiskeys - some with the ‘e’ and some without:
  • Irish whiskey: the Godfather of whiskey. It’s produced in Ireland and made from unmalted barley and other grains in a copper pot still and aged for at least three years. Popular brands of this whiskey are Jameson and Tullamore D.E.W.
  • Canadian whisky: a whisky (note there’s no ‘e’) that needs to be mashed and distilled in Canada. It’s aged for at least three years in Canada in wood barrels. Canadian whiskey ABV may exceed 90% so they add caramel coloring and artificial flavors to make it a bit more drinkable.
  • Scotch: Scotch is made in Scotland with a fermented grain mash of malted barley. It’s usually twice distilled and is aged in oak barrels. Scotch is usually smoky in character because the barley is dried using peat.
  • Bourbon: Bourbon’s a blended grain whiskey that needs to be made from a mash of at least 51% corn, and needs to be made in the US. It’s aged in new charred oak barrels and does not have an aging requirement. Though, if you’re drinking “straight bourbon,” that means it’s been aged for at least two years.
  • Rye: There’s two main kinds of rye whiskey: Canadian and American. Canadian rye oddly doesn’t need to be dominant in rye. It actually tends to have a higher corn percentage in their bottles. The requirement of Canadian rye is that rye must exist somewhere in the blend. American rye must have a mash of at least 51% rye. It needs to be aged in charred new oak barrels. 
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    Rum

    Rum is technically any spirit that contains some form of sugarcane. So there’s a lot of range in this alcohol. That said, there’s basically two main types of rum: Rhum industriel and Rhum agricole. Rhum industriel - or industrial rum - is made with sugarcane byproducts. It’s usually a little fruity. Rhum agricole - or agricultural rum - is made with sugarcane juice, and usually tastes earthier than industrial.

    Both of these styles vary in color and ABV. Each island in the Caribbean produces a unique form of rum, so you may find you like one better than the other. Industrial rums usually start with a base of molasses, yeast and water. It’s then fermented and distilled. During distillation, the liquid is placed in either a column or pot still and distillers collect the vapor from the still and recondense to make the spirit. It’s then aged, blended and ready to serve.

    While there’s two main types of rum, there’s several styles:
  • Silver: also known as white rum. It’s very sweet and great in cocktails. It ages faster than other rums and is filtered after aging to remove any color.
  • Gold: This is a medium bodied rum with a stronger flavor than white rum. It’s aged a bit longer in oak barrels.
  • Dark: These age longer than light and gold rums. They may be spicy or have a stronger molasses flavor. These are often sipped neat or on ice, but are also great in cocktails.
  • Spiced: this rum starts as gold rum, and then spices are added along with caramel to create this drink.
  • Naval: this is a dark rum that is usually proofed above 50% ABV. Similar to the name of Naval Strength Gin, this is called Naval rum because this rum is made in the style of those that were historically rationed by the British Navy.
  • Single Barrel: a rum that comes from just one barrel, so each batch will taste different barrel to barrel.
  • Overproof: no surprises here - this is a rum that ABV is over a standard value. They’re usually 120 proof (60% ABV), but you’ve probably heard of more famous expressions at higher ABV like Bacardi’s “151”.
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    And there you have it! A bit of liquor knowledge from us to help you make the right decisions as you pursue ordering and making the best dang cocktails out there. Happy sipping!