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. 

Episode 1 – In which the blogger becomes an opinionated drinker


The life of a cocktail wonk is full of first-world problems.  Finding enough shelf space for the 40+ bottle rum collection leaves barely any room for the whiskey reserves, and the assorted gins have to fend for space in various nooks and crannies around other bottles. The large format ice cubes are never quite as clear as they should be, and you’re always just one ingredient short of some amazing recipe you saw online. How did these become my recurring dilemmas?


wasn’t born with a silver bar spoon in my mouth. My obsession with all things cocktail and liquor related is fairly recent. If you’d have asked me eight years ago what the difference between scotch and bourbon was, you’d have received a blank stare. These days I’m hunting for the perfect wood chips to experiment with aging cocktails in jars, and optimal baking points for maximizing wood sugars.  While I love to geek out about esoteric corners of the cocktail world, I’ve also found joy in giving interested people a gentle, understandable introduction to drinking with awareness of what they’re consuming. That’s what this blog is about.
My earliest recollection of anything booze related was the cupboard over of my parent’s refrigerator. I remember well the bottles of Galliano, amaretto and Gordon’s gin but I can’t say I ever saw anything approaching “mixology” while growing up, although I’m pretty sure the Galliano was used for a “Harvey Wallbanger.” – Look it up. I suspect my parent’s liquor cupboard was a haphazard collection of gifts and one-off purchases, most likely for some holiday recipe.  No, my aptitude for spirits certainly didn’t come from early life experiences.
In my late teens my family took a Caribbean cruise. Since the drinking age was 18 on the open ocean back then, I ordered a Pina Colada because it looked pretty. WOW! Holy crap! This is awesome! Looking back, it was my affinity for all things sweet that had much to do with my newfound love for rum, coconut and pineapple. I was so enamored with the magical Pina Colada that I figured out how to make them at home – eventually friends started requesting them at parties as witnessed in the photo above.
I was a master cocktail craftsman, or so I believed. With the Pina Colada mastered, I tried other things, often involving Malibu and whatever else looked interesting and was available. I was never brought up for crimes against mixology but should have. My cocktail awareness was still mostly of the “let’s get drunk” mindset.
After college my professional life took off, leaving little time to think about drinking as anything other than something to do with friends on the weekends, instead focusing all my enthusiasm into software development. Starting out in tech support in 1988, I became obsessed learning the PC architecture and programming, so much that through sheer enthusiasm I worked up to doing real software development. My enthusiasm lead to writing magazine articles about programming, which turned into books, then programming seminars.  I was travelling all over the world, writing and speaking about programming while still holding down a “normal” software development job from 9-5. My special talent during those many years was taking complicated topics (How Windows works, CPU architecture, debuggers), and simplifying them down to where they could be relatively easily conveyed and understood.
In my early 30s I found myself on a United Airlines first class flight from Hawaii. The drinks were free, but I had no idea what to order – Pina Coladas weren’t an option. The kind flight attendant suggested a Mai Tai:

My first sip was WOW!  Something magic, and I was in love with this drink. Today I recognize that what knocked my socks off was orgeat, the almond syrup frequently used in tropical drinks. My love of Tiki was sparked there, but wasn’t self-sustaining yet.

Shortly thereafter my personal life went through upheaval – A divorce, a new job (Microsoft!) , a move across country, and a new marriage let me focus on other parts of life I’d ignored while living and breathing computers and software. Still I missed having a hobby now that computers weren’t something I thought about nearly 24×7.

In 2004 I met one of my now closest friends at a party in downtown Seattle – We hit it off immediately and a few days later my wife and I were at his swank Belltown pad. He offered a cocktail and I was blown away when he produced a perfect Cosmo – Swank!!!  Not only did he use a real cocktail shaker, he had an actual ice maker in his kitchen! Things clicked as I realized that “real” cocktails weren’t  that complicated – Over the course of many more Cosmos on many more evenings, I came to the conclusion that I could do this as well. I was fortunate in that soon thereafter my wife and I bought an older house and set out to renovate it. There was an auxiliary sink and counter downstairs and we had the inspiration to turn this into a dedicated bar area – Refrigerator, ice maker, sink, fancy counter, nice cupboards, the works. My only real regret is that I thought space for 50 bottles would be enough. Hah!

At the time my cocktail interest were still leaning somewhat towards you could call “girl drinks” – In addition to the Cosmo and Pina Colada, think “Lemon Drop” and you have the idea.  While living in a small apartment while waiting for the major construction on the house to be completed, my wife gave me a book by Beachbum Berry – “Sippin Safari”. Scanning the many recipes, I realized two things. First, I could easily make a Mai Tai now that I knew the magic. Second and more importantly, I started seeing the pattern of Tiki drinks – Almost without fail they have rum, lime and some sort of syrup. All the many exotic drinks- Jet Pilot! Navy Grog! are just variations on the basic skeleton. I started forming a list of essentials that I knew would enable me to make all sorts of tiki drinks, and experiment on my own with new combinations.

I was also fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in Seattle. We lived not far from Zig Zag – A bar now internationally famous and the one-time home of Murray Stenson. On my first visit there I scanned the menu and didn’t recognize most of the ingredients. Although definitely not Tiki-focused, I was intrigued by an even wider variety of exotic sounding ingredients that I knew nothing about. Discovering them all was a challenge I eagerly took on. With many Zig Zag visits, along with other great Seattle bars like Rob Roy, Liberty, and Tavern Law, my understanding and appreciation spirits and cocktails and techniques rapidly gained momentum.

In 2008, with our renovation completed, my own home bar was ready to roll:

With a dedicated space to play in and a good set of bartending essentials, I now have my own laboratory to play and learn in. In fact, if you look to the left in the photo you can see some of my science experiments. Almost every night I’m trying out a new recipe or improving on a favorite. As the interested drinker and reader, you don’t necessarily need all this however. All you need is a curious mind and a willingness to try new things. Hopefully this blog will inspire you to discover your own passion.

The Cocktail Wonk Manifesto – An opinionated overview of drinking for people who think

The world of cocktails and spirits can be overwhelming. Most folks enjoy a good drink but put them in front of a cocktail menu more complicated than an Applebee’s and they freeze – “Uh… Gin and tonic, please?”  I can’t count how many times somebody has told me “I don’t like brown liquors” or “I don’t drink gin”.  Weil, maybe you had a bad college experience or perhaps your only experience with rum was  Bacardi silver, in which case I beg you to give the many finer rums another chance. These encounters are an opportunity for me to challenge long held beliefs and perhaps turn somebody onto something they might love.

The world of spirits aspires to make their products appear artisanal – Everything is unique and special – A flower grown just for you! But the reality is that the multitude of different spirits out there can be easily categorized and understood.   Here, I’ll shed some basic, commonsense categorization of sprits and highlight differences between categorically related spirits. After all, it’s obvious that Triple Sec, Orange Curacao and Cointreau are all roughly the same thing, right?

Beyond the spirits are cocktails. There is no shortage of fancily (or badly) named drinks.  Web sites and mobile apps advertise their 1000s of recipes (as if that’s a good thing). However, most of them are crap. Good drink recipes are gold. Here you’ll learn the classic patterns and the variations that are almost effortlessly easy to improvise on once you know how things fit together. Likewise, too many recipes call for a particular brand of spirit. Without knowing the basic classification of a spirit or ingredient, it’s hard to know what else could be substituted, perhaps for even better effect.

The overarching goal here is to quantify, simplify, and apply a rigorous approach to understanding cocktails.  I’m a big fan of Nathan Mhyrvold and his “modernist cuisine” approach to cooking – demystifying and explaining in scientific terms what was previously just a nebulous “art”. On the other hand, even without Nathan’s budget, I believe anybody with some enthusiasm can put together a small home bar that impresses your friends with the classy drinks you make. Just stay away from the whipped cream vodka!

While I don’t work in the spirits industry, my prior experience doing deep dives into topics has made me realize how passionate I am about learning about all things drinking related – from bottle sizes to creating pure ice at home to aging your own cocktails. This enthusiasm for all things liquor has spilled into other areas of my life such as travel – If it’s at all drinking related, you’ll see it here sooner or later!