Vodka is a clear spirit which can be produced from anything containing starch or sugar - including potatoes, sugar beet molasses and, most commonly, grain. Over the past forty years vodka has grown from relative obscurity in the west to become the biggest selling spirits category.
Calvados is a French brandy made from apples (though it can also contain pears). The name is an appellation controlee, meaning that calvados can only be produced in defined areas of North-Western France. (Calva, the French shortening of calvados, is used to denote an apple brandy other than Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée Calvados.)
Cognac is a fine French brandy (eau-de-vie) from the region that surrounds the little town of Cognac in southwest France. Like champagne, its mere name suggests luxury and indeed it is the undisputed king of all brandies.
Named after the town of the same name about forty miles west of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the cooked and fermented juice of the agave (pronounced ‘Uh-Gah-Vee’), a spiky Mexican plant which resembles a cactus.
Gin is potable spirit flavoured with juniper and other botanicals (such as coriander, angelica, lemon and orange peels) either by compounding or distillation. More simply put, all gins are basically neutral spirit, (high strength vodka) flavoured with juniper and various seeds, berries, roots, fruits and herbs.
Bourbon is as American as the Stars and Stripes, the Grand Canyon and pumpkin pie, but there are some common misconceptions as to what exactly bourbon is and how it is made. Bourbon is a specific category of America whiskey and to be labelled a 'bourbon', it must be produced according to a strict set of rules. The following 'ABC' is a handy reminder of these specific criteria.
Nicknamed the ‘Green Fairy’, Absinthe is a bitter, aniseed-flavoured green liquor distilled with anise, fennel and wormwood. It has a reputation to challenge that of a Class A drug and for nearly a century was thought by most to be illegal in the UK and it was indeed banned across most of Europe and North America.
Beer, cider and perry are fermented alcoholic drinks, each with a colourful and lengthy history of production and consumption. Enjoyed today as much as centuries ago they form part of the social culture in a number of countries around the world.
The spectrum of rum ranges from light, vodka-like extra-light white rums through to characterful cognac-like aged rums with Navy, Dunder and such like in between. If that were not enough, in addition flavoured rums include spiced, vanilla and orange. Rules? Anything goes – well almost...
Advocaat (or Advocaatenborrel) is a traditional Dutch liqueur made from eggs, sugar and spirit (traditionally brandy but also neutral spirit), usually with vanilla and sometime also with fruit. With an alcohol content typically 14% to 20% alc./vol., this rich, creamy drink has a texture and flavour reminiscent of custard or eggnog.
Agave syrup (also called agave nectar) is a sweetener which can be used in place of sugar and honey when making cocktails, and pairs particularly well with tequila, the spirit from its parent plant. It is as much as two-thirds sweeter than sugar but is less viscous than honey.
The word akvavit, like the word whisky, originates from the alchemical term 'water of life' - in Latin, aqua vitae. It is also known as aquavit. This flavoured white spirit is popular in Scandinavian countries, especially Denmark, where production centres on the town of Aalborg, its place of origin some 400 years ago.
Allspice Pimento Dram is a spicy liqueur made by steeping pimento berries in rum. Pimento Dram is a dried, unripened berry from a West Indian tree called Pimenta dioica, which is related to the eucalyptus.
An Italian liqueur with an almond-apricot flavour. The flavours of the bitter almond and the apricot marry together well as they are both from the same fruit genus, Prunus. Bitter almonds are the kernels of the Prunus amygdalus amara from which amaretto's slight bitterness comes.
Amaro is both the Italian word for bitter and the name of a bittersweet style of liqueurs traditionally from Italy. Amari (the plural of amaro) are usually deep tawny brown in colour and brandy based and flavoured with herbs, spices and other botanicals.
Apricot brandy is a common term for the most popular style of apricot liqueurs. This is a confusing as most of these liqueurs are actually made by macerating cherries in neutral spirit (vodka) rather than brandy and then sweetening with beet sugar. Some apricot brandies might also contain brandy or be brandy based but in most markets this is not a legal requirement.
Armagnac is a fine brandy from South West France. It is distinguished from Cognac by its use of single continuous distillation rather than double batch distillation. This, and the use of different grape varieties, soil and climatic conditions, produces more characteristically robust, characterful brandies.
Blanche has long been consumed in the Armagnac region but you had to know a distiller in order to obtain what was flavoursome hootch. However, in 2007 this unaged Armagnac spirit was officially recognised by the French authorities and brought under Armagnac's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée.
Baijiu (白酒) or Shaojiu (烧酒) is a Chinese distilled alcoholic beverage between 40-60% alc./vol. Baijiu literally translates as 'white alcohol' and this clear spirit is most commonly distilled from fermented sorghum bicolor (a grass species cultivated for its edible grain) or maize, but also glutinous rice, wheat, barley and other grains.
Barley wine has nothing to do with grapes. Instead it is the strongest of beers, with alcoholic strengths approaching those of wine (7 to 12% alc./vol.). Usually dark, ruby red or chestnut coloured, it is a full-bodied, rich and fruity beer often released by brewers as the show piece of their winter range, making it the perfect winter warmer, excellent for sipping by a roaring log fire.
As the name (which incidentally is pronounced 'barolo kee-NOT-oh') suggests, Barolo Chinato is an aromatised wine is based on Barolo wine, the famous red "wine of kings" from Italy's Piedmont region. This is fortified with an infusion of quinine and other herbs and spices. Quinine is 'china' in Italian, hence the name 'chinato'.
Beer eau-de-vie is traditionally made in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and France, typically by smaller breweries and beer brewing monasteries working in conjunction with local distillers. Beer is seldom produced especially for this purpose, instead it is usually a brewery's regular beer which is simply sent to the distiller, or distilled in-house.
Bourgogne Aligoté is an Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) white wine produced from the Aligoté grape variety in the France’s Burgundy region. The wine tends to be light and acidic in style and usually unoaked as the grape does not age well. Notes of apples, lemons and herbal notes are characteristic.
Brandy is distilled from fermented fruit (not grain). The name brandy comes from northern Europe, where ‘brand’ means to burn, and is a reference to the heat used in distillation. Most brandies are distilled from fermented grape juice (i.e. wine). However, they can also be distilled from other fruits - notably plums, apples and cherries. Most wine-making areas also produce brandy.
Cherry 'brandy' is traditionally the largest category of cherry liqueurs. A confusing term as most of these liqueurs are actually made by macerating cherries in neutral spirit (vodka) rather than brandy. Some might also contain brandy, but in most markets this is not a legal requirement. Cherry brandy liqueurs tend also to be flavoured with spices such as cinnamon and cloves.
Cocktails are made from practically anything which is edible, alcoholic or otherwise. The range of spirits and liqueurs available is vast, as are the variety of juices, fruits and vegetables. If this did not already present bewildering potential combinations, bartenders also use herbs, spices, sugar and practically anything retailed in a jar, can or packet. Where should the home bartender start?
Coconuts are the fruit of the coconut plant Cocos nucifera, which belongs within the Arecaceae family of palm trees. Coconut palms flourish in coastal tropical regions with different species occurring all over the tropics. In just the same way that terroir affects the taste of grapes, the taste of coconut water varies according to the saline content of the soil and distance from the sea shore.
Cream of coconut is a non-alcoholic sticky goo not be confused with coconut cream. Cream of Coconut is made by mixing coconut juice, sugar, emulsifier, cellulose, thickeners, citric acid and salt and is sold in 15oz/425ml cans.
Crème de cassis is a blackcurrant liqueur which originated in France and is made by both infusion and maceration. The original recipe for a crème de cassis was thought to have been formulated by Auguste-Denis Lagoute in 1841 in the French Dijon region. Many of the best examples are still produced in this region which is now famous for cassis.
Falernum (pronounced 'Fah-Learn-Um') is a sweet liqueur or syrup (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) from the Caribbean which is used to sweeten and flavour cocktails. Syrupy in consistency, falernum is always made with lime and sugar but is usually also flavoured with ingredients such as cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and almonds. It can be clear or have a light green/yellow to golden amber tint.
Floc de Gascogne is a fortified aperitif wine from France's Gascony region, an inland area between Bordeaux and Toulouse, stretching to the Pyrenees famous for producing Côtes de Gascogne wine and Armagnac. Usually 17% alcohol by volume, Floc is similar to the Cognac regions rather better known Pinot des Charentes.
If you missed The Art of Shim by Dinah Sanders now would be a good time to invest, because vermouth, amaro, sherry and port have cemented themselves as brilliant base ingredients for low abv cocktails. In fact, says Mal Spence, the category is so complex that there's more going on in terms of flavour than your average spirit.
Fruit cups, quintessentially English summertime thirst-quenching drinks, were invented by the Victorians and were originally a mixture of fruit, liqueurs and spices with a base spirit of gin and usually made in the kitchen for home consumption. The best-known modern day commercial brand of fruit cup is Pimm's No. 1.
Garnishes are used to decorate cocktails and are often anchored to the rim of the glass. You’ll find more about garnishes and how to prepare them in the ‘Cocktail’ area of this website but here under ‘Beer, Wine & Spirits’ we have listed a number of commercially available products used for garnishing cocktails such as jarred cherries and coloured salt.
Also known as jenever, jeneva, geneva and hollands is a juniper-flavoured spirit from Holland and Belgium. Helpfully, the van Dale Dictionary, Holland’s equivalent to the Oxford English, lists the first published use of the word ‘genever’ in 1672 (spelt with a ‘g’). The various different spellings stem from the French word for juniper being ‘genièvre’ while the Dutch word is ‘jineverbes’.
Gentian liqueurs tend to be bright yellow and taste on the bitter side of bittersweet. As the name suggests, their flavour comes from an infusion and distillation of gentian root, usually the yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) variety, although the roots of blue Hungarian (Gentiana pannonica) red gentian (Gentiana purpurea) and spotted gentian (Gentiana punctata) may also be used.
Grappa is an Italian marc brandy made from the fermented skins, pips and stalks (known as pomace, marc or vinaccia in Italian) left after grapes have been pressed to extract juice for wine making. It may be bottled after distillation or matured in oak or other woods. Grappa originated in Italy and, in the E.U. to be termed a grappa, a brandy must be distilled in Italy from Italian grape pomace.
To produce a decent (i.e. distilled) gin requires a two stage process – first a base ‘neutral spirit’ is made and then this is flavoured by through re-distillation with seeds, berries, roots, fruits and herbs and spices – collectively known as ‘botanicals’.
Kümmel is a sweet clear digestive liqueur is distilled from grain or potatoes and flavoured with caraway seeds, cumin, fennel, orris and other herbs. Kümmel is said to have been developed by the Dutch distiller Lucas Bols in the late sixteenth century, with the first written recipe dating back to 1575.
Mastiha, pronounced 'mahs-TEE-ha' and variously spelt Masticha, Mastichato Chiou, Chios Masticha is a Greek liqueur flavoured with mastic, a semi-transparent resinous sap gathered from the evergreen Lentisk bush, although it can also apply to a strong spirit similar to ouzo or tsikoudia.
Mixers, minerals and juices are hardly the sexiest items gracing the shelves and fridges of your average bar. However, they are equally important as the beers, wines, spirits and liqueurs. After all where would the G&T be without tonic or a Scotch & soda without that refreshing sparkling water?
Often described as a sweet or 'cordial' style of gin, ‘old tom’ gins were overwhelmingly popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when gin was more pungent due to the limited rectification (purification) of the base spirit possible in the copper pot stills at that time.
Curaçao liqueurs are traditionally made from the dried peel of the small bitter Curaçao orange, named for the island of Curaçao. As Curaçao was a Dutch colony, it supplied oranges to the liqueur makers of Holland, but curaçao liqueurs are now also produced from bitter oranges of other origins.
Pisco is the Peruvian National spirit. It is made by distilling wine fermented from the fresh must of eight specific varieties of vines to produce a clear, transparent brandy. Peruvian pisco stands out due to its traditional artisanal production methods and consequently tends to be more expensive than Chilean pisco and is considered by many the premium style of pisco.
Pronounced 'puh-cheen', this spirit has been produced in Ireland since the 1600s, when potatoes were first harvested. Sometimes known as 'Irish Moonshine' or 'Mountain Dew', the original Gaelic name Poitín is a diminutive of the Irish word 'pota', meaning 'little pot', highlighting the small-scale production in pot stills. Poitín has been anglicised to also be spelt poteen.
Red wine is made from dark (red or black) grape varieties and can range in colour from intense violet, typical of young wines, through to brick red for mature wines and brown red for older wines. The colour depends on the grape variety used, the vintage characteristics, the health of the grapes, the wine making methods, the wines PH and the amount of time it has spent in tank, cask and bottle.
Root beer originated in North America and remains most popular in North America. Historically made using the root of the sassafras plant with that being its primary flavour, there is no standard recipe. Root beer can vary from mild and easy drinking to strong and more challenging, but to give a very general definition it is a sweetened, carbonated beverage.
The spectrum of rum ranges from light, vodka-like extra-light white rums through to characterful cognac-like aged rums with Navy, Dunder and such like in between. This already huge diversity of style and flavours is further bolstered by flavoured rums, including: spiced, vanilla and orange. The following defines the key categories:
The long connection between the Royal Navy and rum can be traced back to 1655 and Vice-Admiral William Penn's expedition to the West Indies. In addition to his own flagship, Penn's fleet consisted of 37 men-of-war carrying 3,000 soldiers. His mission was to pursue Cromwell's aggressive policy of colonial expansion in the Caribbean against the Spanish who were also pursuing a similar policy.
Rum is termed 'light' or 'heavy' depending the level of flavour components or 'congeners' - products of fermentation that are not ethyl alcohol. The level of these (esters, aldyhydes and lower alcohols) is dependent on the length of the fermentation and the purity to which the rum is distilled. The fewer congeners, the lighter the rum; the more congeners, the heavier it will be.
Sometimes described as a rice wine, sometimes as a rice beer, sake shares qualities of both. It is fermented from specially developed rice and water by brewmasters (‘toji’). But, although sake is brewed like a beer, it is served like a wine and, like a wine, can either be dry or sweet, heavy or light. But it is slightly more alcoholic than wine, and much more boozy than beer, at 14-18% alc./vol..
Until the 1830s almost all Scottish whisky was made exclusively from malted barley and produced in pot stills – i.e., it was what we would today call ‘malt whisky’. However, two developments brought about ‘Scottish grain whisky’ and ‘Scotch blended whisky’. The first was the development of a new type of still, the Coffey still, the second was the repeal of the British Corn Laws.
Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey is unique to Ireland and particularly identified with the Midleton Distillery, County Cork. It is made from a mash of malted and unmalted barley, which is then triple distilled in copper pot stills within a single distillery. The inclusion of unmalted barley to the mashbill along with triple distillation defines the character of this style of Irish whiskey.
Sparkling wine can be red, white or rose, be any alcoholic strength (up to the mid-teens), have any degree of sweetness and any amount of fizziness. The character of the foam can vary in terms of size, consistency and persistence of the bubbles. Bone dry sparkling wine is labelled as brut, sparkling wines labelled as sec are not quite as dry and medium sweet sparkling wine are labelled as doux.
Easily misunderstood as a pretty wilderness south of the mainland and famous for the Beaconsville mine collapse that left two men trapped a kilometre underground for two weeks, Tasmania is commonly referred to by the rest of Australia as a hippie backwater. But the world's 26th largest island is home to a well-respected and growing craft whisky industry.
Triple Sec refers to a style of orange flavoured liqueur which is clear and typically between 20 and 40% alc./vol., although better quality examples are usually between 38 and 42% alc./vol.. Triple sec liqueurs tend to be clean, strongly zesty orange and more straightforward in flavour than other styles of orange liqueur.
Vermouth is a fortified wine, part of the ‘aromatised’ wine family, flavoured with aromatic herbs and spices. It is distinguished from other aromatised wines due to its being flavoured with Artemisia absinthium (absinthe wormwood). Vermouth is a staple cocktail ingredient, appearing in a huge percentage of both classic and contemporary libations.
Vodka was practically unknown in America until well into the 20th century. Even by 1939, when Charles H. Baker Jr.'s excellent book, The Gentleman's Companion, was published, the author noted that vodka was "unnecessary to medium or small bars." How things have changed.
While the greater proportion of vodkas sold are unflavoured, flavoured vodka has been around for as long as vodka has been distilled - originally to make poor quality spirit more palatable or for perceived medicinal purposes.
Polish vodka is traditionally made from rye and while rye is still the most popular base ingredient, Poland is also noted for its potato vodka. Stobrawa potatoes are favoured as this variety has a high starch content and is therefore easier to ferment. Contrary to popular belief, it is more expensive to produce vodka from potatoes than from grain.
The Russians are believed to have been producing a kind of spirit since the end of the 9th century. Like early spirits made in Poland, it was probably made by freezing wine or mead. The first recorded Russian distillery, at Khylnovsk, over 500 miles to the east of Moscow, appears in the Vyatka Chronicle of 1174.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 caused many Russians to flee their homeland and these exiles spread their knowledge and enthusiasm for vodka to the new countries in which they settled. One such émigré, Vladimir Smirnov, ended up in France where he established a small distillery close to Paris and, giving his last name a French twist, created the brand we know today as 'Smirnoff'.
The word ‘whiskey’ derives from the Gaelic ‘uisque beatha’, meaning ‘water of life’ and whiskies are distilled in countries around the world including Scotland, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and Japan. The spelling varies between countries with the ‘e’ either included or omitted (though ‘whiskey’ is the spelling for whiskies in general).