Since the process of distillation was discovered, there have been many spirits that have been produced in societies around the world, from arak to zivania, though the most well known and commonly found are, of course, gin, rum, tequila, whisky and vodka. With a few exceptions, most of the history of distillation has taken place in the last 500 years, and the combination of different plants and fermented alcohols used in the process, different techniques and flavourings adopted, have given the world a varied and disparate collection of strong tasting types of alcohol. It’s good to know some background on our favourite tipples, so we decided to give you a clear overview on how these classic spirits compare.
Tracing its origins back to a herbal medicine of medieval Holland, gin was developed from genever, a Dutch liquor. Whereas genever is based on a malt wine made from mash that is blended with a juniper distillate, gin begins with a neutral spirit distilled from agricultural produce, usually grain, but potatoes or grapes can be used as well. The spirit is infused or redistilled with juniper berries, and other botanicals. Juniper is the predominant flavouring that makes gin what it is, and different to vodka. Types of gin include London dry, which usually tastes of juniper with touches of citrus. Plymouth gin, unlike London dry is limited in production to the city of Plymouth, and is slightly sweeter. Other types of gin are old tom, navy strength or new wave gin. Gin is a clear spirit that is common to cocktails such as the Martini, Gimlet, Last Word, Singapore Sling and the Vesper. The Alcohol By Volume (ABV) of gin varies between 37.5% to 50%, and popular brands include Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Hendrick’s, Aviation, Four Pillars and Botanist, and average prices range from £20 to £60 for a 70cl bottle.
Rum is distilled from either sugarcane or molasses, which is a kind of treacle made from refining sugarcane. Rum can be made wherever sugarcane is found, but most production has been in the Caribbean, where it was first distilled in the 17th century. It is also common to many Central American countries, and the different types of rums include dark and light rums, gold rums and spiced rums, which range in colour from clear to golden or brown. The distinctive taste of rum is rich and sweet, and it is used in many cocktails including the Daiquiri, Mojito, Dark and Stormy, Cuba Libre and the Mai Tai. In strength, rum is usually 40% ABV, but can be as strong as 80%. Popular brands are Appleton, Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Kraken, Malibu and Mount Gay, and average prices range from £20 to £70.
Distillation most probably arrived in Mexico with the Spanish, and the distillation of pulque, a fermented drink of the agave plant, began some time in the 16th century. Tequila and mezcal are both distilled from the agave plant, though tequila is made solely from the blue agave and an oven is used for roasting the plants, rather than a pit in the ground. Both drinks have three categories of age: ‘blanco’ for up to two months, ‘reposado’ for between two months and two years, and ‘añejo’ for over two years. The longer aged tequilas are brown in colour and have a smoother taste, while the younger ones may be clear, clean and refreshingly complex. Tequila can vary in strength from 35% to 60% ABV, and popular cocktails include the Margarita, Paloma and the Tequila Sunrise. Best selling brands include Don Julio, Patron, Calle 23 and Cabeza, and average prices range from £20 to £60.
Whisky (or ‘whiskey’ with an ‘e’ in America and Ireland) is the distillate of fermented grain mash that may be made from barley, corn, oats, rye or wheat, or a combination of these. Distillation methods arrived in Scotland and Ireland in the late middle ages, and was developed from the spirit alcohol, aqua vitae. The main types of whisky are Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, Tennessee and Rye, and they come from various parts of the world, though the largest production centres are in Scotland, Ireland, the USA, Canada and Japan. As with many other drinks, the types and the labelling can be governed by law, so strictly speaking, scotch must be made in Scotland and aged for at least 3 years, and bourbon must be distilled from 51% corn.
The different whisky types vary in flavour from smoky, fruity, sweet, peaty or maritime, and this can depend on the grains in the mash, the types of cask used, whether peat is used in the malting of barley, and the location they are aged. The colour may vary depending on the cask, but will most commonly be brown, and the strength is usually around 40% ABV, though stronger varieties may go up to 70%. Whiskies are commonly used in cocktails including the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Mint Julep, Sazerac, or the Whisky Sour. Well known brands of whisky are Laphroaig (Scotch), Bushmills (Irish), Woodford’s Reserve (Bourbon), Canadian Club (Canadian) and Yamazaki (Japanese), and average prices range from £20 to £100.
Vodka is also thought to have its origins in aqua vitae and medicines of the 15th and 16th century, before becoming widely popular as a drink in Poland and Russia. Vodka was traditionally distilled from potatoes, but today grains such as corn, rice, rye, sorghum or wheat are more commonly used. Due to the distillation process vodka that hasn’t been flavoured is clear in colour and has little flavour compared to the other spirits, but this can depend on the exact ingredients and production methods used. The strength may be anything from 35% to 95% ABV. Vodka is used in cocktails that include the Vodka Martini, Cosmopolitan, Black Russian, White Russian, Moscow Mule and the Bloody Mary. Popular brands of vodka include Smirnoff, Absolute, Grey Goose, Stolichnaya, Belvedere and Chase, and average prices are from £15 to £40.
When it comes to the delectation of different spirits, most of us have a favourite that we return to. It’s very easy to develop an appreciation for a particular islay malt or Jamaican rum. But enjoying drinks is also about keeping an open mind, and each of the spirits has a specific range of tastes, from rich, fruity and sweet to dry, smokey and salty, so all of these are to be experienced. Rather than being limited to a certain liquor, the discerning drinker will review the finer points of the various types and brands within each category, and be acquainted with the best spirits and ingredients that every good bar is well furnished with.
If you are drawn by the fascinating world of bartending, then why not have a look at one of the excellent courses that European Bartender School have to offer?