You may not realize it, but your favorite beverage alcohol brands, be they spirits, wine or beer, all start with the same natural process.
The common denominator for all types of beverage alcohol is fermentation, which is nothing more than the natural decomposition of organic materials containing carbohydrates and the conversion of the sugars in those carbohydrates into ethyl alcohol. Different cultures in different parts of the world used whatever source of carbohydrates was most common in their neighborhood. France, Spain and Italy were all wine producing countries where grapes were plentiful, as a result they developed a tradition of distilling wine or the leftovers from the winemaking process and gave the world cognac, armagnac, brandy de jerez and grappa. In the British Isles, grain was more plentiful and as a result, the first whiskies developed. Sugar cane is plentiful in the Caribbean and became the raw ingredient for rum.
Fermentation occurs in nature whenever the two necessary ingredients, carbohydrate and yeast, are combined in a liquid and it was probably the accidental combination of the two which resulted in the first beverage alcohol. The liquid in which the fermentation takes place is also sometimes called the mash. Fermentation stops when the sugars in the mash are depleted or when the alcohol level reaches about 14% and kills the yeast. In making beer and wine, fermentation is the most important part of the process.
For distilled spirits, however, that’s just the beginning. After fermentation, the liquid is then distilled one or more times, which reduces the original water content and greatly increases the alcohol content. Where beers on average have an alcohol content ranging from 2% to 8% and wines from 8% to 14%, distilled spirits are usually in the range of 35% to 50% alcohol, although individual products may be either higher or lower. Distilled spirits labels often list proof in addition to alcohol content by volume. The proof level is always twice the alcohol content. (A bottle of 100 proof bourbon, for example, has an alcohol content of 50% by volume.)
You’ve Got To Have Sugar
The carbohydrates used for making distilled spirits are of two basic types: those containing a high concentration of natural sugars and those containing other carbohydrates that can easily be converted to sugars by enzymes. Among the most commonly used materials with high sugar contents are grapes, sugarcane, agave, molasses and, not surprisingly, sugar itself. Starches that can easily be converted to sugars include grains such as corn, rye, rice, barley, wheat and potatoes.
After combining carbohydrates and yeast together in a liquid base and allowing it to ferment, the next step is distillation. The secret behind the distillation process is that the boiling points of alcohol (173.3°F) and water (212°F) are different. When a liquid containing ethyl alcohol is heated to a temperature between these two points the alcohol vaporizes. This vapor is then captured and condensed, with the condensate have a higher alcohol concentration than the original liquid. Some spirits types undergo more than one distillation in order to impart certain desired characteristics.
The earliest stills were composed of a heated closed container, a condenser and a receptacle to receive the condensate. These evolved into the pot still, which is still in use, particularly for making malt whiskeys and some gins and brandies. The biggest problem with pot stills is their relatively small capacity.
The flavor profile of a pot still product is more complex than that of a continuous still product of the same alcohol content although on the other hand continuous stills offer a greater consistency of product from batch to batch. In attempting to take advantage of the best of both worlds, many distilleries use both column and pot stills.
Basic Points About Distilled Spirits
- Must start with a liquid containing carbohydrates and yeast that have undergone fermentation.
- Any source of carbohydrates can be used, including most grains and sugars.
- Fermented mash must undergo distillation in either a pot or column still.
- Distillation possible because of different boiling points of ethyl alcohol and water.
- Final product may or may not undergo barrel aging before bottling.
Whiskey is produced around the world, although there are four basic types, named for their countries of origin–Irish whiskey, Scotch whisky, American whiskey and Canadian whisky–each of which will be addressed below. What they all have in common is that they begin with a mash of water and grain to which yeast is added to induce fermentation. All whiskies are distilled at less than 190 proof and then allowed to age in wooden barrels. Some whiskies, most notably Scotch require an extra first step of malting (soaking the grain in water until it begins to germinate and then drying it in kilns) before creating the mash.
Another important thing to remember about whiskies is the importance of spelling. The Irish and Americans spell whiskey with an “e”, while the Scotch and Canadians use a variant spelling–whisky.
By many accounts, although the Scots may dispute it, Irish was the first whiskey. According to legend, monks fleeing the barbarian onslaught on the European continent brought the alembic, a type of pot still, with them to the Emerald Isle. These monks had discovered that when a mash of barley and water was fermented with yeast and then heated in an alembic, the alcohol in it could be separated and retained. The resulting product was dubbed uisge beatha, meaning “the water of life,” by the Celtic population. That term eventually became whiskey in English.
IRISH WHISKEY FACTS
Today Irish whiskey is made from a fermented mash of malted and unmalted barley, corn, rye and lesser amounts of other cereal grains. Part of the barley used is malted, but unlike the Scots who dry their malt over an open peat fire to give it a smoky flavor, the Irish dry their malt in closed kilns, which eliminates the peaty, smoky flavor that characterizes most Scotch. All Irish whiskies are triple-distilled in copper pot stills and are aged three to nine years in reused sherry, brandy, bourbon or rum oak casks. Irish whiskies are
full-bodied and possess a smooth malty flavor.
Scotland is undoubtedly one of the world’s classic whisky-producing regions. It is blessed with a combination of natural resources and climate that has proven ideal for the production of this spirit.
The earliest official reference to whisky-making in Scotland appears in the late 15th century, although Highlanders had been operating stills for several hundred years by then. Throughout all these years, Scotch whisky was distilled using the pot-type still, resulting in whisky in small batches.
Making Scotland’s malt whisky is an expensive, labor-intensive process that involves several general steps. The grain used in the mash for making single malt whisky is specially selected barley, which has been soaked in water for sprouting. The sprouted barley is then dried in kilns fired by peat and coal. This kilning process imparts a distinctive smoky character to the spirit. As is the case with other whiskies, the malted barley is mixed with warm water to produce a mash which is fermented with the addition of yeast and then distilled. The newly distilled spirit (about 70% alcohol) is then pumped into casks. At this point it is designated as “plain British spirits,” but after three years in the barrel, it can be called whisky.
| SCOTCH WHISKY FACTS
Produced by more than 100 Scotch distilleries, each single malt has a style and flavor all its own. It is also important to note that each single malt is the product of a single distillery and comes from a single batch of whisky.
In the 19th century the technological advancement of the continuous still led to the establishment of large Lowland grain distilleries. This new still worked continuously and could accommodate grains other than malt, allowing the production of lighter-bodied whiskies from less expensive grains. Then in the 1850s the practice of blending whiskies from a number of distilleries to produce a product of consistent quality and taste first emerged. These whiskies were marketed by the blenders under proprietary labels and were in essence the first real Scotch whisky brands.
Although single malts have attracted a great deal of interest in recent years, well over 90% of the Scotch consumption in this country can be attributed to brands of blended whisky.
As anyone who has ever sipped a fine single malt is aware, these highly flavorful whiskies can be an acquired taste. The object of blending has always been to “soften,” in a sense, the harsher characteristics of the individual malt whiskies with the intention of producing a whisky with widespread appeal.
As the word implies, blends are the result of mixing different whiskies together, including both single malts and grain whiskies. Located mainly in the Lowlands, the 14 Scottish grain distilleries produce grain spirits (which are in fact whiskies, not, as is sometimes misinterpreted, neutral grain spirits), made primarily from corn (maize). They are distilled in tall, column stills, a method that is faster and less expensive than the pot still.
Obviously, there are numerous variables which determine the ultimate character of a blended Scotch, such as the quality of the barley, the amount of peat used in the malt kiln, the length of the second distillation and the blender’s judgment about when each particular cask is ready to be added to the blend.
This last step is, according to many experts, an art as well as a science. Each Scotch house has its own closely guarded blend, and while certain whiskies are not compatible, the bringing together of the right combination of malts and grains will determine the characteristics of the brand. Usually there are 20 to 25 different single malt whiskies used in a blend, and although the exact proportions are not known, anywhere from 20% to 50% malt whisky will be used in a blend, with the rest being grain whisky.
Scotch whiskies age at different rates depending on where they were distilled as well as the location and the conditions in which they mature. Throughout the years of maturation, the whisky, which coming out of the still is a colorless spirit, gradually becomes more complex. Its color changes too, taking on an amber tint from the wood of the cask.
By law, all Scotch whisky must be aged at least three years, and few brands enter the U.S. without being aged at least four years. Those that are less than four years old must carry an age statement on the label. The spirits are normally aged in oak casks, frequently casks that have been used for bourbon-aging in the U.S. Many distillers also use barrels that once held sherry or wine. The majority of single malts spend a minimum of five years in casks, although most are aged at least eight years, and some for much longer. In blends, when a Scotch is aged 10 years or 12 years, the number refers to the age of the youngest whisky in the blend.
As is also the case with Canadian whisky, Scotch can be bottled in the country of origin or it can be shipped in bulk to the U.S. and bottled here, which can be much more cost efficient.
Although several styles of whiskey have been produced in the U.S. from the colonial period until the present, only one–bourbon–has been officially identified as America’s native spirit. Since a 1964 act of Congress made that distinction, we will begin our look at American whiskies with bourbon.
According to Federal regulations, for an American whiskey to be labeled as bourbon it must be made from a mash containing between 51% and 79% corn. If the corn content is higher, the product must be designated as corn whiskey. Bourbon is a straight whiskey and, according to the law, must be distilled at 160 proof (80% alcohol) or less and must be aged a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. As a practical matter, though, most bourbon is aged at least four years and often longer. Since it is a straight whiskey, no blending is permitted and there are no additives, with the exception of water to reduce the proof. Most bourbons are marketed as 80-proof products, but some, particularly the newer boutique, small-batch, single barrel and barrel proof products are much higher in alcohol content.
| AMERICAN WHISKEY FACTS
Often associated with bourbon, the sour mash method is simply a technique of fermentation that uses part (at least 25%) of the spent mash from a previous distillation in the new batch of fermenting mash. A sour mash must ferment for between 72 and 96 hours. One of the advantages of the sour mash method is that it provides a dimension of consistency from one batch of whiskey to another. The sweet mash yeasting method, on the other hand, uses only fresh yeast for fermentation.
By law, bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the U.S., but the vast majority of it is produced in Kentucky, where it must be distilled and warehoused for at least one year in order to carry the “Kentucky Bourbon” designation on the label.
Another whiskey designation, similar to bourbon, is Tennessee whiskey. Although its grain content need only be comprised of at least 51% of any grain, corn is usually used. Basically it is made in a similar manner to sour mash bourbon but Tennessee whiskey also includes an extra step in its production process — the distilled spirit is filtered through maple charcoal in large, wooden vats before aging in order to remove impurities. The most prominent Tennessee whiskies are Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel.
The other large category of domestically-produced whiskey is American blended whiskey, which is comprised of brands which have been created by carefully blending straight whiskies with grain spirits. When considering blended whiskies, the important thing to remember is that they are built. The straight whiskies that go into them are distilled and aged to take a planned part in the blend. Every blend on a store’s shelves has a number of straight whiskies in its formula. By law, a blended whiskey must contain a minimum of 20% straight whiskey. A premium brand may contain as many as 75 different straight whiskies and grain neutral spirits. The purpose of blending is to create a balanced, light-bodied whiskey, with a richness in taste and an individual character of its own. Balance is achieved because the blending art assembles a variety of elements into a unique and distinctive product. Another hallmark of blended whiskies is their consistency of taste.
In the making of Canadian whisky, the Canadian government does not mandate a specific grain mixture, proof level for distillation or type of barrel for storage, preferring to let each individual distiller make those decisions. According to U.S. federal regulations, however, Canadian whisky must be produced in Canada according to that country’s laws, must contain no distilled spirits less than three years of age and must be a blend. Canadian law simply states that the whisky must be produced from cereal grain.
In compliance with that regulation, Canadian whisky may be distilled from a fermented mash of wheat, corn, rye and/or barley. A common misconception about Canadian whiskies, and American blended whiskies for that matter, is that they are rye whiskies. In reality, however, Canadian distillers use seven times more corn than other grains. But because Canadian distillers have been allowed to develop their own methods, it is important to remember that each distiller’s recipe calls for different amounts of the individual grains with the exact proportions being kept as closely guarded secrets.
| CANADIAN WHISKY FACTS
All Canadian whisky must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years, although most spend from six to eight years in the barrel. After aging, the whisky is dumped into huge blending vats. This is the stage at which the art of the blender is put to the test. One of the many tricks of the blender’s trade is the use of whiskies of various ages in order to produce a consistent blend from year to year (the bottle label can only carry the age statement of the youngest spirit used). That’s why a bottle of Canadian whisky produced today is likely to have the same taste profile as a bottle of the same brand purchased 10, 20 or more years ago. After blending, the whisky is returned to barrels to allow the newly combined whiskies to marry. Only then is it bottled and sold.
As a rule, Canadian whiskies are light-bodied, slightly pale and have a reputation for being mellow. What many people, even in the business, don’t realize is how big the Canadian category is. Accounting for 11.5% of all distilled spirits consumption, Canadian whisky trails only vodka in terms of its share of the market.
At its most basic, brandy is a distilled spirit made from wine or a fermented fruit mash. When used alone the term brandy refers to grape products, other brandies will have the fruit name attached as well. Almost all brandies are aged and virtually every wine-producing country also produces brandy.
The most highly regarded of the world’s great brandies is cognac which can only be made from grapes grown and distilled from within the specially-demarcated Cognac region, about 100 miles north of Bordeaux on the coast of France.
The St. Emilion (also called ugni blanc), folle blanche and colombard are the three grape varieties used. Cognac is always distilled twice in small copper potstills and then aged in French oak casks for aging. The minimum aging period for cognac is two and a half years, but the vast majority of cognacs age for much longer periods, with the best XOs maturing for two to three decades or more.
Virtually all bottled cognacs are blends of many different spirits. A particular VSOP brand may be the end result of the blending of as many as 50 cognacs. The purpose of blending is to maintain a precise standard of taste and quality from batch to batch.
Armagnac, also from France, differs from cognac in a number of ways, the most obvious being a single distillation. Armagnac also often carries a vintage date on the label, referring to the year that the brandies were distilled. All brandies used in the blend must, by law, come from that single vintage. Cognac only rarely uses vintage years as an identification, preferring instead to use a lettering system.
| BASIC FACTS ABOUT BRANDY
Despite the renown of it’s neighbor to the north, more brandy is produced in Spain than in any other European country. And of that production, some 95%, comes from Andalucia in the south, especially from the town of Jerez de la Frontera. What separates these Spanish brandies from those produced elsewhere is the utilization of the solera system in the aging process. Under this system of oak cask aging younger brandies are continually married with the mellower, older brandies from previous vintages. The end result are fine brandies that combine the best qualities of each of the individual components into one consistent product representative of the style of the producer.
American brandies are divided unequally between the giant producers like Gallo, Christian Brothers, Paul Masson and Korbel and the minuscule, boutique distillers of Oregon and California. Many critics have noted improvement in domestic brandy production in recent years, allowing these products to compete with those of any other region in the world. A great deal of brandy is also produced in Mexico, including the world’s best-selling brand, Presidente.
There are many other brandies available in this country, although most have relatively small audiences. They include calvados from France and applejack from the U.S. made from apples; grappa made in Italy and now in California; Metaxa and ouzo from Greece; pisco from muscat grapes and produced primarily in Peru; slivovitz, a golden-brown plum brandy produced in the various Balkan countries; kirsch, produced from cherries in Alsace, Germany and Switzerland.
The cordial and liqueur category is the largest and most diverse in terms of the number of brands, flavors and alcohol content. It is also one of the largest as far as total case sales. Products in the category encompass virtually every flavor imaginable and are used as after-dinner drinks, aperitifs, digestifs, components of classic cocktails or even as a flavorful enhancement to foods.
A cordial or liqueur, the terms are used interchangeably in this country and always appear together in governmental regulations, is made by combining distilled spirits with a variety of flavorings and adding sweeteners.
Cordials and liqueurs are usually thought of as sweet and in fact by definition they must contain at least 2.5% sugar by weight although most cordials are considerably higher in their sugar content and many contain up to 35% of a sweetening agent. The sugar may be beet, maple, cane, honey, corn or a combination of these. If the sweetening accounts for less than 10% by weight of the finished product, the resultant cordial may be labeled “dry.” Most cordials and liqueurs contain between 17% and 30% alcohol by volume although some brands are over 50% alcohol. One of three methods is usually used to extract the flavors needed to produce a cordial. They are: infusion or maceration; percolation; and distillation.
Fruit flavors are extracted either by infusion, where crushed fruits are steeped in water, or maceration, in which they are steeped in alcohol. Either process can take up to a year for the water or alcohol to absorb almost all of the aroma, flavor and color of the fruit. Once the liquid is drawn off, it’s stored in a tank for several days and then filtered. The fruit then undergoes distillation to extract whatever flavor remains. This distillate may then be added to the original liquid to give it more character. The final step before bottling calls for the addition of syrup made from sugar or another sweetening agent to reach the desired sweetness level.
| CORDIAL & LIQUEUR FACTS
Percolation, which is sometimes referred to as brewing, is similar to the process for making coffee. It is used to draw flavor from leaves and herbs while distillation is used to extract flavor from seeds and flowers. In this process, the flavoring agent is placed in the upper part of an apparatus which contains a spirit in the lower part. The spirit is then pumped up over the flavoring agent and allowed to percolate through it over and over again for several weeks or months. The flavor and aroma are thus extracted from the flavoring agent which then undergoes distillation. The distillate may then be mixed with the percolate which is next filtered, sweetened and bottled.
Distillation uses heat to extract the flavor from such agents as anise, caraway, orange peel and mint. After the flavoring agent has been steeped in alcohol for several hours, it is placed in a copper pot still with additional spirits and distilled. The colorless distillate is then sweetened with syrup and usually colored with vegetable coloring or food dye before bottling.
Generic liqueurs are those produced and marketed by several suppliers under the same universally used name. Some of the more common varieties are amaretto, sambuca, triple sec and peppermint schnapps. Proprietary liqueurs are those brands usually produced from a closely guarded formula and sold under a trademarked name by only one producer. Famous proprietary liqueurs include Kahlúa, Cointreau, Drambuie, Benedictine and Grand Marnier.
RUM & TEQUILA
All distilled spirits are made from water, yeast and sugar in some form. With rum, the sugar is ready-made since, it must be distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane by-products at less than 190 proof. Rum can be made anywhere, although more than 80% of the rum consumed in this country is produced in Puerto Rico.
The two main types of rum are light-bodied (generally produced to be dry with a subtle flavor) and full-bodied (a more aromatic variety, and the style of much, but not all, Jamaican rum).
Light-bodied rums are generally produced in column stills and distilled with an alcohol content of 80% or more. The spirit then spends at least one year in oak barrels. At this point, the rum is clear and normally designated as “white” rum. Another type of light-bodied rum, aged in wood at least three years and, with caramel added for color, is termed “gold” or “amber.” A third type of light-bodied rum is añejo, aged in wood from four to six years, and sometimes longer.
In contrast, full-bodied rums are made using a different process. Skimmings from previous distillations — called “dunder” — are added to the molasses in the fermentation vats. This is followed by a natural fermentation of five to 20 days. The fermented liquid is then distilled in pot stills, and then redistilled. Only the middle rum from the distillation is taken, at between 140 and 160 proof. This process results in a very flavorful, aromatic spirit that, in the case of Jamaican rum, is almost always blended. Before bottling, this full-bodied rum normally requires at least five to seven years of barrel aging.
| RUM FACTS
About 125 years ago, several of the distillers around the town of Tequila in the central Mexican state of Jalisco began making a superior form of mezcal. They used the whole heart of a plant indigenous to the region: the blue agave. Today the majority of tequila production still takes place in this area, although legally tequila can be produced anywhere within the state of Jalisco as well as in defined areas of four other Mexican states (Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarity and Tamaulipas).
On average, a gave plants are about 10 years old before they can be harvested for tequila production. Called the piña, the core, which sometimes weighs upwards of 100 pounds, is trimmed, cut into chunks, then baked in huge steam ovens. A sweet juice (aguamiel or honey juice) is extracted by steaming and compressing the piña. The juice is fermented for several days and then distilled at low proof. Generally speaking, it is then double distilled to achieve an alcohol content of 55%. Of course some producers distill to a lower pr