A Basic Spirits Taxonomy

Walk into any halfway-decent bar and glance at the back wall – Chances are there will be more bottles with names you don’t recognize than those you do. Recently I was in Seattle’s Vessel and did a thorough run-through of the cocktail menu – For every scotch or rum listed in a recipe, there was a Salers or pampelmousse that I needed to look up on my phone. For me that’s the fun part of going to a bar- Coming across something new with a good excuse to learn it. However, many people get uneasy and scurry back to the comfort of what they know – “Uhm… Gin and Tonic please?” Seeing as you’re reading this blog, I know you’re not one of those people.

As I’ve learned about spirits and cocktails, I’ve built a basic framework that helps me understand what I’m looking at and gives me a place to place new liqueurs I come across. It turns out Salers is an “amaro”, a class of liqueurs with common characteristics (lots of herbal notes) from the Mediterranean. And pampelmousse is a grapefruit infused liqueur in the same broad category as Grand Marnier, which itself is one of the great “sweeteners” of the cocktail world.

To help you start your own mental framework, let’s start with the basics of how raw organic materials are turned into consumable alcohol. In nearly all cases, yeast and frequently water is added to some plant matter such as wheat, rye, grapes, potatoes, or sugar cane juice. The yeast converts some of the natural sugars in the organic material into alcohol. If you did this with grapes, you’d have wine. If you did it with barley, you’d have beer. Easy, right?

What differentiate “spirits” from beer and wine is the next step – Distillation. I’ll talk about distillation in detail in a subsequent post, but for now it’s enough to know that distillation uses heat to separate and concentrate the various organic compounds in the fermented slurry. For example, if you made beer, it would have roughly 5% alcohol. However, if you took the beer and boiled it, carefully collecting certain parts of the vapor, you’d end up with the starting point for whiskey, including a much higher alcohol content.  

With the science out of the way (whew!), let’s see some specifics. Nearly all alcoholic ingredients used in cocktails fall into one of these categories:

  • Plants which are fermented then distilled. No other flavoring added other than though aging in wood barrels. Not all spirits are aged however.
  • Starting from previously distilled liquor (above), additional flavors are introduced by soaking materials such as fruits or herbs in the distilled spirits.
  • Wines infused with herbal essences.

Into the first category falls spirits including, but certainly not limited to:

  • Bourbon

  • Scotch

  • Whiskey

  • Rum

  • Vodka

  • Tequila

  • Brandy/Cognac

Some folks refer to these as “base” spirits, a useful term I’ll use later in this blog.
Into the second category are infusion-based spirits such as:

  • Gin
  • Campari
  • Grand Marnier
  • Amaros such as Fernet Branca
  • Pick your flavored schnapps variation  – Peach anybody?
  • Lemoncello
Often times you’ll hear these referred to as “liqueur”

The crucial element of an infusion based spirit is that the flavor comes from adding flavorful organic materials such as oranges, herbs, flowers, etc… and letting the alcohol pull the flavor out over time. It turns out that alcohol, being a natural solvent, does an excellent job of extracting flavors from things.

The third category above is commonly known as vermouth, although the broader category would be called “aromatized wine”. Briefly, vermouths is wine in which barks, spices and other tasty things are soaked. Additionally, a bit of distillate, typically brandy, is added. While this blog doesn’t aim to cover wines, the importance of vermouth in cocktails warrants an exception to the focus on distilled spirits in this blog.
Of course, there are spirits that don’t fall neatly into the above categories, but it’s easier to remember them as exceptions to the above. The most clear (and unfortunate) example is the trendy but oh-so-wrong category of flavored vodkas. Whipped-Cream Vodka and Donut vodka are but two of the more execrable examples:

Flavored vodkas, rums, and such frequently get their additional flavor by adding chemical flavor compounds into an existing distilled spirit.  It just seems like cheating – If you want the flavor of grapefruit in your drink, use grapefruit juice, not grapefruit vodka. We shall speak no more of these things.

A Spirits Taxonomy

As I’ve learned about spirits I’ve developed a notational system to distill the essential elements down to consistent, categorical descriptions, free of grandiose marketing stories of monks with flower baskets or ancient recipes with 200 different herbs. The taxonomy uses the key questions that could be answered for any sprit and helps make it very clear how one spirit differs from another. Here’s the basic set of questions I use:

  • What organic material is fermented and then distilled?

  • Is the resulting distillate then aged?

  • Is the distillate infused with some other flavor? If so, what?

  • Is it sweetened?

  • Is there a specific region this spirit comes from?

Before jumping into some examples, a disclaimer: In these categorizations below I’ve made very large generalizations about each type of spirit – There often are legal definitions and they often differ from country to country.  And there are countless exceptions to any attempt to categorize. Instead of trying to be a Wikipedia entry for each type of spirit, I’m aiming at the generally accepted sweet spot of the category for the purpose of introducing the concepts to people who just want to learn.

Scotch
Base organic material: Barley
Aged: Yes – Oak barrels
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: Scotland
Bourbon
Base organic material: At least 51% corn, with other grains making the rest
Aged: Yes – Charred Oak barrels
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: United States
There are certain similarities between Scotch and Bourbon – The starting materials are different, and the types of barrels have differences, but they’re similar enough to be categorized under a broader category: Whiskey, which I’ll talk much about in later posts. This is just an intro. Let’s continue:

Rum
Base organic material: Molasses, a byproduct of sugar production
Aged: Yes
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.


Rhum Agricole

Base organic material: Sugar cane juice
Aged: Yes
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.

Cachaca

Base organic material: Sugar cane juice
Aged: Optional
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No, although predominantly made in Brazil.

It’s easy enough to see that Rum and Rhum Agricole are very similar – It’s really whether the sugar cane juice was processed into molasses before fermentation. And Rhum Agricole and Aged Cachaca are very similar – It’s really just where they were made.

Brandy
Base organic material: Grapes
Aged: Typically
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.

Cognac

Base organic material: Grapes
Aged: Typically
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: Cognac region of France

It’s easy now to see that Cognac is a subset of brandy – All cognacs are brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. And referring back to the earlier examples, it’s clear that the primary difference between Scotch, Rum, and Brandy is what the starting organic material is. The rest of the production process is very similar.

And two more, just for fun:
Gin:

Base organic material: Neutral grain Spirit
Aged: Typically not
Infused: Yes- Juniper and other botanicals
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.

Limoncello

Base organic material: Neutral grain Spirit
Aged: Typically not
Infused: Yes – Lemon peels
Sweetened: Yes
Specific Region: No.

Gin and Limoncello couldn’t be further apart to the average drinker. However, initially they start out very similarly. The term “neutral spirit” or “neutral grain spirit” needs some explanation first. The “neutral” part of the name essentially means that during the distillation process, it is distilled to as high a proof as possible. At that level, there should be very little difference between spirits that started out as grapes versus one that started out as wheat. However, for it to be a neutral grain spirit, it had to have started out as a grain – wheat, rye, etc…
So, with a starting point of some very high proof alcohol, you then have a choice of what to put in it. If you add juniper berries and other things (flowers, cucumbers, etc…), you’ll get gin. But if instead you added lemon peels, sugar and water, the end result of limoncello. Obviously in both case the infusions steep for a bit and are then extensively filtered.
The possibility for more examples is endless here but I’ll save them for more targeted columns where I discuss a particular spirit category in more detail. The important thing here is that we’ve established a common lingo for describing spirits in a simple manner. 
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