Bourbon (Popular brands: Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Maker’s Mark)
By federal law, bourbon must contain at least 51% corn in its mash, but not exceed 79% corn. If its contents exceed 79% corn, it must be labeled as corn whiskey. Bourbon is considered a straight whiskey. It must be distilled at 160 proof (eighty percent) or less. It must be aged a minimum of two years in NEW charred oak barrels (most bourbons are aged four years or longer). Most American Whiskies are distilled in continuous stills.
Since bourbon is a straight whiskey, it cannot be blended with anything except water, to lower the proof. Most bourbons are sold at eighty proof.
To be considered “Kentucky Bourbon,” the product must be distilled and warehoused at least one year in Kentucky.
Sour mash is made by taking at least 25% of the spent mash from a previous batch of whiskey and allowing the new batch to ferment for 72 to 96 hours. This allows consistency from batch to batch.
(Popular brands: Jack Daniels, George Dickel, Gentleman Jack)
Tennessee whiskey differs from bourbon in some phases of production. After distillation, Tennessee whiskey is poured into a vat and filtered through layers of maple charcoal, usually prior to aging. Also, it must be produced in Tennessee.
Blended Whiskey (Popular brands: Seagram 7 Crown, Traveler’s Club, Gold Crown, Kessler)
Blended whiskey is made from a combination of bourbon and grained spirits. Each brand attempts to construct just the right combination of whiskies. Every blend on our shelves contains a number of straight whiskies in their formulas. A blend must contain at least 20% straight whiskey. This category did not exist prior to prohibition.
Rye Whiskey (Popular brands: Jim Beam Rye, Wild Turkey Rye)
Rye whiskey refers to whiskey made from a mash of at least 51% rye.
Bottled in Bond
This refers to straight whiskey that is aged in “bonded” United States government warehouses for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof.
Brandy & Cognac
(Popular brands: E & J, Paul Masson, St. Remy, Presidente, Hennessy, Courvoisier)
Brandy is made by distilling wine or fruit and then aging the product in oak barrels. Brandy is produced all over the world. In fact, most countries that produce wine also produce brandy. A brandy’s taste is affected by factors such as the grapes that are used in the brandy, the soil of the region where the grapes are grown, the production method used, and blending.
There are four basic steps to producing brandy: fermentation of the grape, distillation to brandy, aging in oak barrels, and blending.
Brandy production was introduced in the United States in California more than 200 years ago by Spanish missionaries. Most American brandy is made in California. Brandy may be distilled in either a continuous or pot still. All California brandy must be aged at least two years in oak barrels. According to the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, any brandy (other than grappa and other specialty brandies) aged less than two years must be labeled as “immature.”
France is famous for two types of brandy: cognac and armagnac. Cognac is brandy that is produced in the Cognac region of France. This region is located at the dividing line of the northern and southern climates of France. Although French law allows several types of grapes to be used in the production of cognac, the major variety is called Ugni Blanc (also known as St. Emilion). The production of cognac involves distilling the product twice in small copper pot stills. It is then aged in oak casks for at least 30 months. Virtually all cognacs are blends containing several cognacs. Some cognacs are a blend of 50 or more cognacs!
Cognac producers use a lettering system rather than a vintage date (or production year) to describe their cognac to the customer. The letters describe the youngest cognac in the blend. The following are examples you will see in our stores:
- V.S. (Very Superior or Very Special): This cognac is aged between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 years.
- V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale or Very Special Old Pale): This cognac is aged between 4 and 6 1/2 years. This product may also be referred to as Very Old or Reserve.
- X.O. (Extremely Old or Extra Old): This cognac is aged between 5 1/2 and 40 years. This product may also be referred to as Cordon Bleu, Napoleon, Grand Reserve, Extra or L’or.
Generally speaking, cognac producers use cognacs that are much older than the required minimum in their blends.
You will also see some cognacs labeled as “Grand Fine Champagne” or Grande Champagne.” This means that the grapes used in the production of this cognac are grown in the Champange region of Cognac (a region of grape production within a region).
A second type of brandy produced in France is called armagnac. It is produced from white grapes grown in the Armagnac region of France. It differs from cognac in that it is distilled only once. Armagnacs use the vintage date to describe its age. All armagnacs used in a blend must be from the same vintage (or production year).
You may be surprised to know that Spain produces more brandy than France. Most Spanish brandies differ from French brandies in that they use the solara method in aging their brandies. This method comprises three “aging stages”:
- The wine spirits are blended and placed for some time in barrels.
- Half the brandy in each barrel is then blended in another barrel containing older brandy.
- Finally, half of that barrel is placed in yet another barrel containing even older brandy.
Fruit brandies are produced from…yes, fruits. The fruit is ground into a mash and combined with yeast and allowed to ferment. The mash is pressed and the resulting liquid is then distilled. Some examples of fruit brandy are applejack, calvados, and kirsch.
Fruit-flavored brandies are classified as cordials in the United States. These products consist of brandies, sugar, natural coloring, fruit and other flavorings combined to form the end product.
Grappa (also called pomace brandy) is produced by distilling the skin and/or pulp of grapes (or other fruit) that have been pressed for making wine. It generally is unaged.
When distillers produce brandies and other distilled spirits, they lose a portion of the product to evaporation in the barrel. Since many brandies and cognacs are aged for an extended period of time, distillers lose a large portion (in some cases more than 25%) of their product. This lost portion of the barrel is referred to as the “angel’s share.”
(Popular brands: Canadian Mist, Black Velvet, Rich & Rare)
Canadian Whiskey is distilled from a fermented mash of wheat, corn, rye, and/or barley. Each ingredient accounts for less than 50% of the whiskey’s formula. It is a common misconception that all Canadian whiskey is straight rye whiskey. Canadian whiskies are blended. While Canadian whiskies are made from a combination of grains, more corn is usually used than any of the other grain. Each distiller has their own secret recipe, varying the proportions of grain used in the production of their whiskey.
Most Canadian whiskies are light-bodied, slightly pale, and mellow. They have traditionally been very popular because they are easy to mix with other ingredients in mixed drinks. Most Canadian whiskies are bottled at eighty proof. According to United States regulations, Canadian whisky must be produced in Canada, must be aged at least three years in oak barrels, and must be a blend.
After aging, the product is dumped into large blending vats. Here, distillers blend a combination of whiskies of different batches and ages with grain spirits (twenty or more whiskies may be blended together to produce Canadian whiskey). By blending different ages of whiskies, the distiller produces a consistent taste from batch to batch. After blending, the product is usually returned to the barrel to allow the mixture to fully combine. A blended whiskey’s age is determined by the age of the youngest whiskey in the blend.
Some Canadian whiskies are bottled in Canada and then shipped to the U.S. These whiskies tend to be more expensive (in most cases they are also aged four years or more). Over half of the Canadian whiskies consumed in the U.S. are shipped here in bulk (in barrels) and then bottled here.
Cordial & Liqueurs
(Popular brands: Bailey’s Irish Creme, Kahlua, Jagermeister, Grand Marnier)
The term cordial and liqueur are interchangeable. Liqueurs are a combination of a distilled spirit and flavorings. Many of these products were developed in the Middle Ages as medical remedies, love potions, etc.
Cordials and liqueurs are usually sweet in taste. They must contain at least 2.5% sugar by weight. Most contain considerably more. Some liqueurs contain as much as 35% sugar by weight. If the product contains less than 10% sugar by weight, it must be labeled as “dry.” The sugar source may be beet, maple, sugar cane, honey, corn, or a combination of these.
Most cordials and liqueurs contain 17-30% alcohol by volume (or 34-60 proof). Some liqueurs, however, contain 50% or more alcohol by volume (or 100 proof).
There are three methods to extract the flavors needed to produce a cordial or liqueur:
- Infusion or Maceration: Infusion involves crushing fruits and soaking them in water. Often, this process can take up to a year to allow the fruit’s taste to be fully absorbed into the water. This liquid is drawn off and stored in a tank for several days and then filtered. The fruit is then distilled to extract any remaining flavor. Next, the distilled liquid from the fruit and the filtered liquid are combined. Finally, syrup and/or sugar are added to sweeten the product. Maceration is a very similar process to infusion. The difference is that the crushed fruit is soaked in alcohol instead of water. Then, the product is filtered and added to the liquid from the distilled fruit. Finally, the product is sweetened and bottled.
- Percolation: Percolation involves pumping a distilled spirit (like brandy) through an apparatus containing leaves or herbs continuously for a period of time (maybe hours, days, weeks, or even months). The flavoring agent (the leaves or herbs) is then distilled and the resulting product is added to the liquid produced from the percolation process. This product is then sweetened, colored (if needed), and bottled.
- Distillation: Distillation involves using heat to extract flavor. A flavoring agent such as seeds or flowers is soaked in alcohol for hours. Then, it is placed in a copper pot still with additional spirits and distilled. The resulting product is then sweetened and usually colored before bottling.
There are two types of cordials or liqueurs: generic and proprietary. Generic cordials or liqueurs are produced from universally known recipes (an example of a generic liqueur in amaretto). Proprietary cordials or liqueurs are produced from secret recipes (an example of a proprietary liqueur is Benedectine). You may occasionally see a liqueur labeled as proprietary.
Liqueurs are often labeled either “after dinner drinks” or “aperitifs.” An after dinner drink, as the term indicates, is consumed after dinner with the purpose of aiding the digestion of a meal and/or savoring the meal. Aperitifs are consumed before the meal and are intended to stimulate the appetite.
(Popular brands: Tanqueray, Seagram, Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire)
Gin is a distilled grain spirit that is flavored with various plant extracts, but mainly the juniper berry. Each distiller has its own spices and herbs and their own recipes combining its items to give their product its own flavor. Gin was invented in the 1600’s by a Dutch doctor named Dr. Sylvius. He used gin as an elixir to treat kidney and digestive problems.
British soldiers sampled the product while in the Netherlands and brought the spirit back to England, where it became popular. The gin that the English eventually developed is very different from the gin that the Dutch originally produced, which has a strong flavor and is heavy-bodied. The English developed “London Dry Gin” in the 1830’s by distilling the spirit in a continuous still. The name “London Dry Gin” first indicated where the gin was produced. Now, it indicates a type of gin. Also, almost all of the gins on our shelves are labeled “dry.” This refers to a gin that has not been sweetened.
Federal regulations do not allow age claims on gin. Most gins are either American or English gin. English gin is produced from corn, barley, and other grains in the mash. The mash is allowed to ferment, then it is distilled in a continuous still at 190 proof. Distilled water is added to reduce the proof and then the liquid is distilled a second time in a modified pot still with flavoring agents and bottled between 80 and 97 proof. The flavoring agents are added to the distilled spirit either by combining the products before the second distillation or by suspending the flavoring agents in a percolator basket above the still and allowing the vapors to pass through the flavoring agents during the second distillation.
American gin is produced using one of two methods: distilling or compounding. Distilled gin is distilled with the flavoring agents (either in the initial distillation or in a second distillation) using a percolator basket. Compound gin is produced by combining neutral spirits with the extracts of natural flavoring agents.
The mixed drink that may be responsible for much of gin’s popularity is the martini. A martini consists of 3 ounces of gin and a dry vermouth, to taste (the less vermouth used, the “dryer” the martini). The drink is usually garnished either with a lemon twist or an olive
(Popular brands: Old Bushmill’s, Jameson, Tullamore Dew)
Most experts agree that Irish whisky was developed before Scotch whisky. It is believed to have been developed in the 1400’s. Irish whisky is made from a fermented mash of malted and unmalted barley, corn, rye, and lesser amounts of other cereal grains.
Scotch whisky malt is dried in ovens over an open peat fire. As a result, it has a smoky flavor. Irish whisky malt is dried in closed kilns (or ovens). As a result, it does not have the smoky flavor like Scotch.
All Irish whisky is distilled three times in copper pot stills. Most Irish whiskies are aged between three and nine years. It is aged in oak barrels that have previously been used to age sherry, brandy, bourbon, or rum.
Irish whisky is a steadily growing category. However, it remains the smallest distilled spirit category in the United States. It accounts for less than 1% of all distilled spirit sales.
In 1608, King James I granted Sir Thomas Phillips the world’s first licensed distillery. It is still operational and is called Old Bushmills.
Irish coffee is one of the most popular drinks incorporating Irish whisky. It consists of:
- brown sugar
- 1.5 ounces of Irish whisky
- a topping of whipped cream
Irish cream liqueurs are a very popular subcategory of Irish whisky products. Bailey’s Irish Crème was first in this group. It was developed in 1979.
(Popular brands: Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Malibu)
Modern day rum is believed to have originated more than 400 years ago in the Caribbean. Rum is made from water, yeast, and sugar. The sugar is derived from sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar cane byproduct. To produce rum, sugar cane is crushed. The juice that is extracted is boiled and put into a machine that spins around at high rates of speed to crystallize the sugar and separate it from the remaining particles. At this point, it is called molasses. The molasses is re-boiled and mixed with water and yeast, allowed to ferment, then distilled to produce rum. Rum may be distilled in either a pot still or a continuous still. Rum is usually bottled at 80 proof, however, some rums are bottled at higher proofs (as high as 151 proof).
There are several classifications of rum. Each classification depends on the amount of time the product is aged and/or the distillation process.
“White or “light” rum must be aged at least one year in oak barrels. It has a light, dry taste.
“Gold” or “amber” rums are aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. It has a deeper, mellower taste than light rum. Gold or amber rums receive their color from aging in the wood casks and sometimes from the addition of caramel.
“Anejo” rums are aged four to six years in oak casks. It has an even deeper and mellower taste than gold or amber rum.
“Dark” or “full-bodied” rums are aged five to seven years in oak casks and have a deep, pungent aroma and strong taste. Dark rums add the residue from a previous distillation to the molasses and then allow the combination to ferment for 5-20 days (similar to sour mash whiskey production). The fermented liquid is then distilled twice.
Some experts lump all of these types of rum into two categories: Light-bodied and full-bodied. White, gold and anejo rums are considered light bodied by these folks. Light bodied rums may be produced anywhere, but are produced primarily in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Nearly 80% of all rum consumed in the United States is made in Puerto Rico. Dark rum is considered full-bodied. Dark rums may be produced anywhere, but are found extensively in Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Martinique, and Trinidad.
(Popular brands: Dewar’s, Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal)
As the name implies, Scotch is whisky that is produced and aged in Scotland. The whisky may be bottled in Scotland, or shipped to the United States and bottled here.
The fastest growing segment of the Scotch industry today is the single malt group. A single malt Scotch is the product of a single distillery and comes from a single batch of whisky. Single malts are grouped according to the geographical area in which they are produced. They are listed below with a brief description of their qualities:
- Lowland malts: These are generally the lightest, both in flavor and in color.
- Islay: These malts are the heaviest, most full-bodied whiskies.
- Campbeltown: These malts are also full-bodied. There are few of these distilleries left.
- Highland: This group is the most numerous by far. Generally, this group is considered to have the most balance in its flavor. It has moderation in its flavor and aroma. Speyside refers to a premium single malt producing area within the Highlands. Some experts refer to Speyside as a separate group of malts.
Single malt Scotch production is an expensive process. The grain used in making single malt is specially selected barley. This is soaked in water for sprouting. The sprouted barley is dried in kilns, or oven, fired by peat and coal. This process gives the whisky a smoky flavor. Like all whiskies, the malted barley is then mixed with warm water to produce a mash. Yeast is added and the mixture is allowed to ferment. The product is then distilled twice in pot stills. The newly distilled product is about 70% alcohol and is pumped into casks. After aging three years in barrels, it is considered whisky.
Blended Scotch whisky accounts for 94% of all Scotch consumed worldwide. Blended Scotch whisky is the combination of a number of different single malt and grain whiskies. The goal is to reach a pleasant combination that softens the harsher characteristics of single malts. The grain whiskies are not neutral grain spirits, but rather grain whiskies that are distilled in continuous stills. Usually, there are 20-25 single malts combined in a blend. In blended whisky, 20-50% of the product is malt. The rest is grain whisky. “Vatted” Scotch is a blend of malts with no grain whisky added.
Out of the still, Scotch (or any distilled spirit) is colorless. Aging the product in a barrel gives the whisky color. By law, Scotch must be aged three years or more. Most brands in the U.S. are aged four years or more. If a Scotch is less than four years old, its label must disclose its age.
Scotch whisky is aged in oak barrels (often used bourbon barrels). They may, however, be aged in sherry or wine barrels to give the product a distinctive fruity flavor.
When a blended Scotch is labeled as “aged 10-12 years,” this refers to the age of the youngest whisky in the blend.
(Popular brands: Jose Cuervo, Montezuma, Sauza)
Tequila is one of the rising stars of the liquor industry. Much of its success is due to the popularity of the margarita and the rising sales of the super-premium brands.
Tequila is not made from the cactus. It is made from a plant which has a cactus-like appearance called the agave plant. By Mexican government standards, tequila must be made using a minimum of 51% blue agave plant. Typically, an agave plant is aged 8-12 years before it is harvested. The core of the plant has the appearance of a large pineapple. It is called the “pina.” This portion is removed and cut into pieces. These pieces are baked in large steam ovens and then compressed. The result is a sweet juice which is allowed to ferment and then distilled in copper pot stills at a low proof. The product is distilled a second time to reach an alcohol content of 55% or more. Some tequilas are distilled a third time. Water is added to reduce the proof. Tequilas to be sold in the U.S. are typically bottled at 80 to 86 proof.
Mezcal is the broad name for tequila. That is, tequila is actually the name of superior mexcal produced in or around the town of Tequila and the area of Tepatitlan in Mexico. Mezcal was invented by the Spanish conquistadors. They began to distill an Aztec drink called pulque, which is fermented agave juice.
Tequila is broken down into the following types:
- White: White tequila is clear in color and usually unaged.
- Gold: There are no Mexican government requirements on this product. Gold tequila obtains its color from the addition of caramel or aging six months or more is casks. Gold tequila does not have to be aged.
- Reposado: By Mexican government standards, reposado tequila must be aged in oak barrels from two months to a year.
- Anejo: By Mexican government standards, anejo tequila must be aged in oak barrels for one year or more. Tequilas aged from two to four years may be ferred to as “muy anejo.”
- 100% Blue Agave: As the name implies, tequila made solely from the blue agave plant is called 100% blue agave.
- Mixto: This is a tequila which is distilled from a mixture of 51% agave juice and 49% other sugars.
Mezcals often contain a worm in the bottle. Tequilas will not contain a worm.
One of the most popular tequila drinks, the margarita, is made with tequila, triple sec (or premium orange liqueur), and lime juice (or margarita mix). Super-premium tequilas can be enjoyed in margaritas or alone in a snifter.
Vodka is believed to have originated in either Russia or Poland in the 14th century. Its immense popularity was confined primarily to Russia, Poland, and the Baltic States until after World War II. The United States government did not classify vodka as a separate category of distilled spirits until after World War II. Today, vodka accounts for one of every four bottles of distilled spirits sold in America and is the most popular category of distilled spirits.
In Eastern Europe, vodka is usually consumed chilled and straight in small glasses. The rest of the world has primarily used vodka as an ingredient in mixed drinks. However, the new wave of super-premium vodkas has begun to increase America’s consumption of this spirit straight or on the rocks.
According to the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, vodka is a spirit without any distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color. There are a number of means to produce vodka, as long as the finished product meet these criteria.
Since vodka is neutral in flavor, it can be made from a number of ingredients. In Russia and Poland, potatoes were traditionally used in the production of vodka. Today, most brands are made from grains, including wheat, barley, rye, or corn.
To make vodka, you must distill a fermented mash of one of the food sources listed previously at high proof. Vodka is distilled around 190 proof (versus 160 proof for whiskies). This eliminates any traces of flavor remaining in the product. Then, the product is usually purified by charcoal filtering. The product continuously flows through the charcoal for at least eight hours. Using modern technology, vodka comes from the still about 95% pure. The charcoal filtering removes most, if not all, the remaining impurities. Some vodka are distilled and/or filtered multiple times to ensure premium purity. Most vodkas are bottled at 80, 90, or 100 proof.
The water used in the production of vodka is very important. Natural spring water is preferred to distilled or treated water, since water constitutes 50% or more of vodka.
Unlike whiskey, vodka in almost all instances is unaged.