Age Statements: Not Always Worth the Paper They’re Printed On?

A friend recently asked me for a recommendation for a decent quality Islay whisky. Hitting an online site to see what’s available locally, I came up with Laphroaig 10, Bowmore 12, and Ardbeg 10–all good candidates and priced within a few dollars of each other. Sending him the list, I braced for the inevitable question: “All things being equal, why wouldn’t I get the twelve year? It’s better than a ten year, right?”

While it’s true that the time a spirit spends aging has a huge impact on the resulting flavor, an attempt to reduce the complicated factors and interactions that go on inside a barrel to a single number is a hopeless oversimplification that confuses consumers. Spirit production and the resulting flavor is complicated and messy, and not readily quantifiable in every dimension. Sure, you can compare the alcohol by volume (ABV) content across two whiskies, but ten years of aging from Producer X may be vastly different than ten years of aging done by Producer Y.  Unfortunately, this fixation on aging as reduced to digits leads some producers to play a numbers game, putting big numbers on their label to draw the eye of an unsuspecting consumer.

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It’s a Gas! Preserving Your Expensive Spirits Collection

We all know that the finer things in life require a bit of care and upkeep from time to time. Got a nice car? You’re probably keeping it under cover, having it waxed, and changing the oil regularly. Love rare vinyl? You’re probably keeping those records carefully sleeved and in a spot that that’s not too warm or too chilly. Even something as basic as your iPhone gets protected by a case and screen film. In each of these scenarios, exposure to the elements has a negative effect over time.

If your experience with spirits is just buying a few bottles for mixing in cocktails, and regularly replacing a bottle when you’ve emptied it, this article might have little to offer. However, if you’re wonky enough about spirits to have a nice collection of whisk(e)y, rum, or mezcal that’s growing faster than you can reasonably (or healthfully) consume it, read on!

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Rum is made from Sugar – And so are Bourbon, Cognac, Vodka and Tequila

A recent article in Harper’s, The Rise of Rum Part 2: Reaching new sugar highs, has been making the rounds in the rum community, and not in a favorable way. While purporting to educate, promote and document rum’s recent rise in popularity, it actually does quite the opposite, with inane, and misleading passages like this:

Rum is sugar-based so it is more of an upper rather than downer. It’s suited to late night bars and rum-based cocktails like mojitos and daiquiris….

Rum has a broad appeal because its ingredients are sugar cane and molasses,” he explained. “I’ve noticed that the younger generation like a lot of sweetness in their drinks”

It’s not stuffy like cognac, overly traditional like whisky, depressing like gin, or superficial like vodka. It’s made of sunshine.

No, to be quite honest, rum is made from fermented sugar, and so is every other distilled spirit. Surprised? Read on.

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Lagavulin Brings its Ultra-Rare Whisky And Stories to Tales of the Cocktail

The early bird catches the worm. It’s day five of Tales of the Cocktail 2016, and the penultimate sessions have just wrapped up. An 8 AM alarm clock rings—what? In New Orleans?–to taste precious Cognacs from 1975, 1969, and oh… 1914, aged for 72 years. But that’s a story for another post. A brief spell back in the hotel room would be luxurious. Idly flipping through the options for the final sessions of the event, I suddenly froze: The Ultimate Lagavulin Seminar! Having visited Lagavulin on Islay just six months earlier on my fiftieth birthday, I feel a connection to the distillery, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to go to this session. My Tales media credentials had been great the past five days, getting me into sessions by way of the standby line, after all the paying ticketholders got their rightful first shots at the good seats.

Reading the Lagavulin session description again, I realized to my concurrent joy and dismay that it’s an Exclusive Tasting session. These are the crème de la crème of Tales events. Costing in the $130 range, they’re limited to just twenty people and sell out fast, sometimes even during the Tales365 presales, before they open to the public. The spirits at these sessions are exceptional and very hard to come by. Given Lagavulin’s popularity with the whisky crowd, it was a foregone conclusion that all the tickets had been sold. And who drops $130 on a ticket and doesn’t go?

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Prohibition Hangover: How the U.S. Three Tier Distribution System Keeps You from the Spirits You Want

It’s Saturday night in Tacoma, WA and I’m perched in my usual spot at the bar at Tacoma Cabana. Tiki master Jason Alexander is showing me his latest well lineup. Strangely, there’s no Plantation rums, typically the core of his lineup. I ask about their omission. “Can’t get ‘em anymore” he says. How can this be?

Plantation parent company, Maison Ferrand has been a darling of bartenders and spirits aficionados for years, selling well-regarded brands like Plantation, Citadelle Gin, Cognac Ferrand, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, and many others. You’ll find their brands on craft cocktail menus all over the U.S. However, here in Washington State, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of Pierre Ferrand products on a bar menu or liquor store shelf in recent days. But only six months ago, the situation was very different–Ferrand’s products were readily available and pouring into cocktails in bars everywhere. So what gives? The answer is a microcosm of what’s wrong with how liquor is sold in the United States.

Up till recently, Washington stores and bars would order their Ferrand products from American Northwest, a regional wine and spirits distributor. Until one day a new distributor, Crush & Cooper of Washington LLC, announced they were the new Washington distributor for Pierre Ferrand. Hmmmm…. Order fulfillment shifted to Crush & Cooper, and things were running smoothly for months, till one day when the flow simply dried up. American Northwest had filed a lawsuit to prevent Crush & Cooper of Washington from selling a number of products previously distributed by American Northwest, including Ferrand’s. The end result for Washington State consumers (at least in the short term) is that a large number of spirits are suddenly unavailable in bars or on store shelves.

How is this possible? Why does who distributes a product matter? And why can only one distributor sell a product in a given market? If the answers to these questions are a mystery, you’re likely not yet familiar with the byzantine disaster known as the Three-Tier Distribution system. If you set out to design an efficient system for getting a wide variety of goods from producers to consumers, a la Amazon.com, it would look completely unlike today’s existing Three-Tier system. The number of players and regulations involved makes it a minor miracle that anybody in the U.S. has access to more than five brands. Let’s take a look at the Three-Tier, and see how it impacts what liquor you drink.

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The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2015

2015 was a banner year for this boozy, wonky corner of the web. From in-depth coverage of the Lost Spirits game-changing aging reactor and the cane fields of Nicaragua to tons of reviews and recipes, it’s been a jam-packed year that wowed us when we took in its full breadth.  Here are the top ten stories on the blog this year:

Lost Spirits THEA reactor
The equivalent of twenty years of barrel aging in six days –these are the claims of California’s Bryan Davis. While his Lost Spirits rums had previously grabbed the attention of the rum world in 2014, the announcement that he would license his technology to other distilleries was big news in 2015, especially for the small startup shops looking to compete against established players. I covered the story extensively in 2015 and was the first to cover the initial announcement of the licensing, as well as the first with pictures and background on THEA One reactor. And as part of the coverage, I wrote a lengthy piece about the science and analysis of spirits flavors.

Flor de Caña sugar worker controversy
An article in Vice magazine about unusually high levels of kidney-disease related deaths of Nicaraguan sugar cane harvesters caught the attention of the rum and bartending worlds. Rum was dumped and boycotts announced. Here at the Cocktail Wonk blog, we covered the initial controversy and added key additional perspectives to the discussion. The problem is wider than just one rum brand, and a scientific study points to other possible causes beside too much work and not enough hydration for workers.

Minimalist Tiki
We love Tiki and rum drinks at Casa Cocktail Wonk. However, Tiki can be intimidating for the home bartender, as recipes often contain many highly specific ingredients. In the Minimalist Tiki post, I rounded up a solid set of classic Tiki drinks, methodically analyzed them, and create a prioritized list of ingredients and appropriate rum substitutions. Additional Tiki love and recipes are found in my post about Seattle bartenders and their Iron TikiTender recipes.

Great Cocktail Bar Photos with Your Camera Phone
Lots of cocktail wonks enjoy sharing their latest tipple on social media – I’m more guilty than most. However, there’s way too many dimly lit –or worse, overly lit–cocktail photos out there in the wild. And too many close up snaps of coupes with no bar ambience. Seeking to rectify these atrocities, I wrote a post with tons of tips and tricks for creating great looking bar photos with just your camera phone, rather than a professional photographer’s gear.

Suitcase Booze
Building an internationally sourced spirits collection that’s the envy of your friends is fun! There’s no need to limit yourself to a single bottle you picked up at the duty free. But what should you buy, and is it a good price? There are opportunities and pitfalls galore here–take it from someone who routinely returns from abroad with fifteen or more bottles in their luggage. There’s a ton of hard-won wisdom in my post about buying spirits on the road.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Having toured the western half of the Kentucky Bourbon trail in 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned in 2015 to knock off the eastern half. In forty-eight hours we hit up Willett (again), Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, and Four Roses. Each write-up has tons of photos and what to expect.

Using the TTB to find unannounced spirits
New releases of spirits make my heart go pitter-patter. But waiting for distilleries, importers, distributors, or your local liquor stores to tell you about them takes far too long. Why not go straight to the source and find out about them months before anyone else? In my post on how to decipher the TTB web site, I explain how every spirit sold in the U.S. must get government approval, and point toward their searchable database with label images. The site may be tricky to navigate without my tips, but once you know how to use it, it’s easy to find things like upcoming rum releases.

Tales of the Cocktail
Oooh, boy–2015 was my first year at the Tales of the Cocktail, and what an insane experience it was! From the parties and general mayhem and tons of rummy events to specialized sessions on Peruvian pisco and rare Plantation rums, it was chock full of wonky goodness. And so many great bars as well!

Rum Renaissance
The annual Miami Run Renaissance is where most of the U.S. rum nerds and overseas rum celebrities come to bask in the all the sugar cane goodness. In addition to my overall coverage of the event, I also covered the Plantation breakfast event where we learned in detail about how Stiggins’ Fancy is made, and other Plantation news.

Berry Brothers  & Rudd
Among my personal favorite highlights of the year was a private tour of London’s Berry Brothers & Rudd establishment with their spirits manager, Doug McIvor. Truly one of the greatest spirits collections in the world and with tons of history – the store and company dates back to 1698, and they’ve supplied the British Crown since 1760. Their cellars and back rooms are chock full of fabulous stories.

What’s next for the blog? While 2015 was out of control, I can’t wait for 2016! Mrs. Wonk and I depart for Scotland in January to blaze a trail through Scotch whisky distilleries in Islay and Speyside – with full coverage here, of course. We’re also planning to jump again into the fray of Tales of the Cocktail, Rum Renaissance, Midwest Rum Fest, and hopefully a few more events as well. Plus a steady stream of spirits reviews and other wonky, spirited stories as they unfold!

Boozing in Buenos Aires – Part 1, Observations on Spirits in Argentina

 

A relatively well-stocked high-end Buenos Aires Bar

My wife Carrie and I are travel junkies, always looking for the next international travel destination. Since we’re both still Workin’ for the Man, we use US holidays to take two day weekends and turn them into 4+ day weekends.  With luck and planning we can get 9 straight free days while only using three vacation days. Over Thanksgiving 2013, we jetted down to Buenos Aires with a side trip to Uruguay. As usual in our international travels there was plenty of good food (Carrie handles that part of the planning), and plenty of time at bars- my bailiwick. There’s lot to tell about this trip, liquor-wise, so I’m splitting it over several posts. This first post is my general observations about what spirits are found in Buenos Aires.

It’s been said that “Argentines are a nation of Italians who speak Spanish and think they’re British living in Paris.”, and that was certainly my experience.  There were many moments walking down the street where I snapped to with the sudden realization that I wasn’t in Europe.  As with France and Italy, wine and beer are produced domestically, are plentiful and inexpensive, and so are the dominant types of alcohol consumed. Spirits are a much less straightforward story as I discovered while talking with many bartenders and stopping into countless stores while hunting for an elusive bottle.

What I saw over and over in bars were the same well-established brands, but with many gaps that surprised me. Spirits like Fernet Branca, Campari, and Bacardi are everywhere while other well-known spirits were nowhere to be found.  I’ve heard that a large reason for this is massive taxes on imports. It’s prohibitively expensive to get certain brands, even though a competitive brand may be available relatively cheaply. I’d also bet a large number of Argentine Pesos that back room deals impact what’s available.

With some local exceptions discussed later, nearly everything I saw while scanning backbars was well-known, established brands from major liquor groups – Campari, Diageo, Bacardi, etc….

I rarely saw anything that I didn’t recognize or that I’d call boutique or artisanal like you’d see in high-end bars in the US.

The big vodka brands were well represented including the usual rogues gallery of flavored vodkas – no surprise there. The gin selection is decent, likely because Gin and Tonics seem to be the rage, as they are in Spain. One surprising find for me was Bols Ginebra (genever) as I’m a big genever fan. Bols isn’t owned by a major liquor group like Diageo, but I saw it in stores everywhere. More striking was its price – About US $3 for a liter. You read that right! I constantly re-checked the shelf label, thinking I had misread it.

As with most other international locations I’ve been to, the high end liquor in Buenos Aires is Scotch, although a relatively limited selection compared to what I see in the US. The big American bourbon brands seemed woefully underrepresented, with Jack Daniels being the dominant player. I don’t recall seeing Tequila anywhere and certainly no mezcal.

Being a rum aficionado, I was quite interested in what rums were available. Sadly, the basic Bacardi variations (Silver, Gold, Bacardi 8), and Havana Club were consistently the only rums I saw on bar and store shelves. The only exception was at a private dining club where after dinner the proprietor rolled out a special covered wooden cart with about fifteen sipping rums, of which he was obviously very proud of. Alas, while a nice selection, there was nothing I couldn’t readily get at home. I’m sure his collection was acquired the hard way, one bottle at a time from friends or from his own travels.

The Italian influence on the available Argentine spirits is quite strong – Campari group products are huge in Argentina, with Campari, Aperol, Cynar and Cinzano vermouths nearly everywhere.  Some of them are now being made in Argentina so they were extremely inexpensive relative to what I’d pay at home. A 700 ml bottle of Campari for US $6? Yes please! Interestingly, for a country that consumes as much vermouth as Argentina (the Italian influence again), I never saw a bottle of Carpano Antica Formula anywhere, despite its Italian provenance and the very high esteem that cocktailians hold for it.

And what of Fernet Branca? You may know that Fernet Branca is huge in Argentina and it’s frequently said that Fernet and Coke is the national cocktail. What you might not know is that Fernet Branca is made in Argentina, in addition to Italy of course. As with other locally made spirits it’s very inexpensive by US standards. I purchased a liter of it for 82 pesos, which works out to about US $10 at the prevailing “blue dollar” rate. What really surprised me was that Fernet Branca has competitors in Argentina, and that they’re even more insanely inexpensive. In the little bodega across the street from our hotel, I saw two or three Fernet competitors.  For US $3, I purchased a half-liter of Fernet Capri just to consume with Coke in our hotel room. It was literally so cheap that even if it was horrible I was only out $3. It was a reasonable facsimile in case you were wondering.

Hotel Cocktails! The Coke nearly cost more than the Fernet Capri.

Besides Fernet Branca there’s also a handful of other spirits made in Argentina that I consistently saw. Given the Italian-affinity of the country, the majority fall into the amaro/bitters category. One exception people seem particularly proud of is Principe de los Apostoles Gin, which is made with Yerba mate, eucalyptus, peppermint, and pink grapefruit. It’s relatively new to the scene, very popular and I’ll have more to say about this gin in a subsequent post.

Another non-amaro-style spirit made in Argentina is rum. There’s an Argentinian brand called Isla Ñ that I’d hoped to pick up. Unfortunately, despite much looking and asking, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Most people had never heard of it, and the one who had dismissed it as not being particularly good. I found this rather strange given the intense Argentine pride I saw elsewhere.

Tracking down novel bottles for your collection while in Buenos Aires requires tenacity and planning. Spirits are treated as an offshoot of wine so finding a wine store that happens to carry a decent spirits collection is your best bet. Searching for Vinoteca is a good place to start. There weren’t any large “liquor stores” like BevMo or Total Wine and I didn’t encounter a single store that focused predominantly on spirits.

No single store had a fairly complete selection of spirits, at least for the indigenous spirits I was after. There is a few chains (“Winery”, “Ligier”) with a number of shops throughout the city, however their spirits selection, while large by Argentine standards, didn’t seem well stocked with Argentine-specific spirits.

Typical Argentine liquor store. About 1/5th is devoted to spirits.

On the other hand, many grocery stores carry an assortment of local spirits, so if you’re focused on bringing back unusual bottles the trick is to scope out a number of locations, including grocery stores.

Hunting spirits in grocery stores. Prices are in pesos.

The best store we found was in Palermo, Malambo Vinoteca Y Almacén Criollo. The owner (or at least he seemed to be) spoke reasonably good English, was very helpful, and once he understood my mission (“Bring home unusual, local spirits!”), pointed out several bottles I would have missed otherwise. I was surprised to learn that some bars will actually sell you an entire bottle, although we didn’t take an opportunity to do so before it was too late.

Stay tuned for my next post on all the cool bars and cocktails we experienced in Buenos Aires!

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.