What's Inside This Guide
- 1 Before we learn about any single spirit we need to know exactly what a spirit is…
- 2 Vodka
- 3 Gin
- 4 Whisky
- 5 Tequila
- 6 Brandy
- 7 Rum
- 8 Conclusion
Before we learn about any single spirit we need to know exactly what a spirit is…
SO, what is alcohol or distilled spirit?
Well, the first thing you need is juice – it could be the juice from an apple, a potato, or a piece of wheat (anything you can get natural sugars from).
The next thing you need is some yeast to eat the sugar in the juice and excrete it into alcohol (you can think of booze as a special sort of yeast poo).
This is the basic gist of how to make beer and wine – but you can only get around 16% alcohol with this method, so for a stronger alcoholic drink, you must distil it!
Distillation is the act of removing water from the liquid and can be done in a still – which looks a lot like an old wood burner with a squiggly line at the top of it. Put the crude wine or beer in the still, heat it up (alcohol has a lower boiling point than water) so that the alcohol evaporates through the top of the still but the water stays in the bottom.
The alcohol will condense in the squiggly part of the still and Tadaaa – a higher proof alcohol comes out. Every time you distil, you get a cleaner product that is higher in proof than the last distillation. After a couple of distillations, you will get a product that is of a higher proof than most consider palatable (like maybe 150 or 160 proof), and that’s when water is added to bring it to a preferred proof.
For example, most vodkas are 80 proof. Obviously then, water plays a big part in the flavour of the spirit, in particular in plain vodka, where there are no other factors playing into the flavour of the spirit.
A rough guide: To get the ‘proof’ just times the percentage by 2
Right, let’s move on to the spirits that we work with every day.
Sit back pour yourself your favourite alcohol and get ready to better yourself through knowledge. By now you already know which way that alcohol was made.
Since vodka’s introduction into the West, it’s boasted of being tasteless & odourless.
Indeed the US government initially defined vodka as a clear, neutral spirit so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without discernible flavour or aroma.
Vodka’s earliest campaign in the West even claimed to “leave you breathless”. So, denied its heritage and introduced as the white whisky, vodka was a successful iconoclast and a certain hit with the young but denied any recognition of its own product realities.
Now, the EU defines vodka as a spirit in which the characteristics of their raw materials are selectively reduced and this defines, more accurately, many of the vodkas that emanate from the East and some of the more recent vodkas created in the West. These remain the purest of spirits while retaining some character from their raw materials.
Vodka, the world’s most popular spirit, remains pretty functional in the East where, historically, it’s usually been drunk neat, a refuge from life’s horrors and an aid to the digestion of fatty foods. In the West vodka’s been drunk more as a lifestyle statement than because of what’s in the bottle. So long as it was clean and neutral, few had reason to know about vodka’s product realities except perhaps its alcoholic strength. The future looks very different as Westerners now call for so-called vodkas with character, whether they be traditional vodkas from the East or vodkas with taste, texture and aromatics, now distilled in the West.
Vodka is probably the world’s oldest spirit but Russians and Poles disagree about the origins and neither has the definitive evidence to support their claims. Russia gave us the word ‘voda’, meaning water and ‘vodka’ meaning ‘little water ’ though Poland has similar words ‘woda’ and ‘wodka’. The diminutive ‘ka’, when used in the middle ages, meant better, a description most likely true of vodka because water, at that time, not only tasted bad but could be very unhealthy too.
What is true is that Poland was distilling vodka for medical use by the 11th century and, by the 17th century, vodka was Poland’s national drink.
In Poland, 3 copies of a lifestyle book, dated 1405, contain mention of how to infuse your “vodka” and in 1534 a Polish encyclopaedia of medicine & science explained how to distil herb vodkas and suggested using vodka to cleanse the skin after shaving or to rub on after a bath to remove unpleasant odours!
Making vodka was less restricted than in Russia and in 1546, King Jan Olbrecht issued a decree allowing every citizen the right to make vodka. As a result distillation was very much a family affair, and by the sixteenth century there were 49 commercial distilleries in the town of Poznan alone. In the centuries that followed vodka distillation and consumption became established at all levels of Polish society and today Poznan remains a major centre for production of vodka.
In Russia alcohol production was first documented in the 9th century, but spirits were thought to have arrived in Russia through Italian traders in the 14th century.
Early distillations were likely for medicine or even gunpowder rather than for drinking but only a century later, a monopoly on distillation and sale of spirits was imposed in Moscow, suggesting that, by then, levels of consumption were already considerable. In the 1540s the Russian Tsar Ivan ‘the Terrible’ established his own network of distilling taverns, making sure that profits went straight into the Imperial treasury. He outlawed taverns that were outside his control and banned distilling by potential rivals. Always needing support from the nobility, however, he did allow them to continue distilling vodka.
High alcohol vodkas developed in cold Northern countries because in cold temperatures only high levels of alcohol ensured that the drinks remained liquid. Better still and much to everyone’s surprise, the higher the level of alcohol, the more palatable the spirit. Distillation, however, was an imperfect science and so, in these early years, impurities remained in the finished spirit.
Successive rulers maintained their monopoly on vodka distillation but continued to grant distilling rights to the nobility and government officials. As their knowledge grew, the nobility tended towards the production of quality vodka while the peasantry made vodka of sorts for themselves, usually adding flavours to mask the raw spirit.
From the beginning of the 17th century it had become customary for vodka to be served at Russian Imperial banquets and all formal meals began with bread and vodka. Vodka was also drunk at religious festivals. Peter the Great was renowned for his hospitality and love of drinking and, in his time, the Governor of Moscow was known to have trained a large bear to serve pepper Vodka to his guests or to remove the guests’ clothes, if they refused their drink.
In 1863 the government monopoly on production was repealed and Pyotr Smirnov, among others founded his distillery in Moscow. Until then vodkas had remained far from pure and the product of single distillation in pot stills but the Smirnov family pioneered charcoal filtration and, in the 1870s, were the first to use the continuous distillation process.
Success followed quickly with Smirnov, now the vodka of the Czars, reputably soon selling more than 4 million cases p.a. in Russia, thanks, in part, to the authoritarian Russian governments being more afraid of people thinking than drinking and so turning a blind eye to the widespread drunkenness. To assist the war effort, vodka distillation was banned in Russia in 1914. 3 years later the masses, no longer so drunk, rebelled and overthrew their government, no doubt encouraging Stalin to rediscover the ‘benefits’ the Czars had seen in cheap vodka during his reign of terror.
In Sweden a distilling prodigy, Lars Olson Smith introduced continuous distillation and began to produce spirits with exceptionally low levels of impurities, particularly his Absolut Rent Brannvin, launched in 1879. Success earned him the title ‘King of Spirits’ but, still, vodka was not to gain broad success across Western Europe until the second half of the 20th century.
First the Smirnov family fled the Russian Revolution and set up in Europe, changing their name to Smirnoff. They were not successful and sold their recipe to a family friend who had escaped to America. The recipe for Smirnoff arrived in America in 1934 and, though again, not initially successful, the ‘vodka’ experience of troops meeting Russian soldiers during World War 11 and clever marketing in the West, transformed vodka from a curious speciality from the East, into a fashion icon. From the 1950s onwards, Smirnoff drove the ‘breathless’ revolution and vodka became a global and stateless, truly international spirit, to be enjoyed more for the alcoholic kick it added to a mixer than for its own character.
It wasn’t until the approach of the 21st century that Westerners began to show interest in what was in the bottles but today, alongside neutral western vodkas, numerous traditional vodkas from the East are to be found as well as vodkas, distilled in the West, proud of their character, whether sourced from spring waters, local raw materials or process.
A choice can now be made between vodkas that represent a lifestyle choice and those, from the East & the West, that offer distinct product realities, whether in the vodka itself and/or in the vodka’s heritage and provenance.
THE RAW MATERIALS
Vodka is a spirit drink produced from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin, obtained following fermentation with yeast from either potatoes and/or cereals or other agricultural raw materials.
The raw material must possess fermentable sugars or starch capable of being converted into fermentable sugars. The low alcohol wash is distilled and/or rectified so that the characteristics of the raw materials used and the by-products formed in fermentation are selectively reduced.
This process may be followed by re-distillation and/or treatment with appropriate processing aids, including treatment with activated charcoal, to give it special characteristics. The methanol content shall not exceed 10 grams per hectolitre of 100% vol. alcohol. In 2008 the EU Parliament rejected a proposal by Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Sweden and Denmark to tighten the legal definition of vodka. These countries wanted vodka to be defined as a spirit made only from potatoes or grain. The EU did not agree but did specify that vodka made from anything other than potatoes or cereals, shall bear the indication “produced from…”, supplemented by the name of the raw material(s) used to produce the ethyl alcohol.
The usual choice is grain but potatoes, molasses and fruit are used and what local nature provides has historically defined the dominant raw material in any one region. Economics however can influence a choice, for example, between molasses and wheat and relative yield can influence a decision on the use of any particular grain.
Even though the finished spirit will be distilled to high levels of alcohol, today’s distillers can choose to produce a vodka that’s pure and yet still retains some of the quality and character of the raw materials.
Rye is the grain, used almost exclusively in Russia until the late 19th century and it remains the major cereal used in Poland. Rye provides sweet, slightly nutty vodkas, leaving peppery kicks on the finish and oily texture on the palate.
Wheat is the more usual choice outside Poland, preferably soft versus hard and Winter versus Summer wheat, sown in the Autumn and harvested the following late Summer or Autumn. Wheat’s starches are readily converted into sugars and wheat tends to lend a particularly delicate sweetness to vodka with undertones of aniseed and subtle creaminess.
Maize/Corn is used In America, where it is the native grain but when its price is low, corn may be the first choice elsewhere instead of wheat. Corn tends to deliver a delicate palate yet notably creamy texture.
Six Row Barley is the choice in Finland as it offers quality starch combined with low levels of fatty oils, resulting in a clean, crisp dryish character with the slight nuttiness typical of barley.
Mixed Grains is a blend of grains, sometimes with potatoes too, to capture and enhance the best of each ingredient.
Potatoes are not indigenous to Europe. They were imported from the 15th century and were not used for vodka until the 19th century. They are wrongly dismissed as an inferior source of alcohol. Special high starch varieties are cultivated for vodka production in specific micro-climates such as along the river Vistula and the Baltic coast. They remain a more costly option than grain because their preparation is labour-intensive and they produce 30% less spirit than a comparable quantity of grain. They produce vodkas that are full-bodied, rich in style and full of creaminess.
Molasses, obtained from sugar cane or sugar beet, have been used extensively in the West, usually when they’re cheaper than grain and when cost is a factor in production. They produce a clean and pure spirit but often the vodka can taste a little sweet on the palate.
Grapes are a relatively recent extension to Western-style vodkas. They retain more flavour and aroma than grains when rectified and the result is a, richly textured, highly aromatic vodka, distinctively fruity and fresh.
Water, according to a Polish saying, ‘breathes life into vodka’. It’s used in the mash and for dilution prior to bottling. Accounting for as much as 62.5% of the bottled vodka, differing water sources whether glacial, spring or mineral, can deliver significant variations even between vodkas distilled from the same raw materials. Prior to use, water may be softened through the removal of calcium ions and other hard minerals by deionisation and filtration. Any minerals that remain in the water will be noticeable in the finished vodka either in taste or discolouration.
Milling/shredding of grains/potatoes facilitates the process of converting the starch into sugars
Wort is a thick, sweetish, hot liquid in which the raw material is cooked to break down the walls of the starch
cells and to release enzymes to convert the starch into fermentable sugars.
Yeast is added and fermentation converts the sugars into alcohols, producing a beer-like liquid of 6-8% abv. Rapid fermentation must be avoided so that sugars or yeasts are not left in the wash to burn during distillation. The ‘wash’ will now contain ethanol, esters, aldehydes, acids and fusel oils, otherwise called congeners.
Wash is converted through Column Distillation into a high proof raw spirit. The greater the number of columns through which the spirit passes, the higher the level of ethanol, the greater the absence of congeners and the more neutral the finished spirit that exits the final column.
Pot stills are used to produce vodkas, particularly traditional vodkas where some flavour retention is the goal.
Column stills are the more usual choice. They are efficient volume producers and more able to reach the high temperatures required to rectify a spirit and to attain the levels of ethanol, around 96%, required for a spirit to be ‘neutral’.
Rectification is the process of removing congeners from a spirit and increasing its level of neutrality. Spirit is pumped through additional columns, all with perforated plates positioned to remove the alcohols and impurities that condense precisely where the plates are positioned, ultimately to capture only the pure spirit above 96% abv on the imperforated spirit plate. Some, however, will not use the many columns required to rectify to 96% abv. and retain, instead, some of the raw materials’ character. If the process is too fast, the final spirit can be adversely affected. Hurried rectification may result in the incomplete removal of impurities and unwanted smells remaining in the final spirit.
After Distillation vodkas may be filtered and purified again before dilution to the required strength.
Filtration may be used to remove all remaining impurities or just to ‘polish’ a spirit. More than any other spirit, quality vodka prides itself on its purity and smoothness. Distillation may be sufficient when spirits are able to age, for years, in wood but rectification is required to remove much more from a spirit that rarely enjoys any maturation. Charcoal, particularly charcoal made from hardwoods such as the silver birch, is the most usual filter because charcoal is very absorbent, particularly when activated (See Principles of Distillation). Some may tip charcoal into holding tanks to absorb impurities as the charcoal descends through the distillate. Others will pump the spirit through numerous columns, packed with charcoal, taking considerable time for it to exit through a final membrane filter. Quartz sand is another popular filter medium in many countries and a large number of other filters are used. As some may well be chosen more for their marketing than their filtration values, it is important to evaluate whether a filter is used to purify, polish or help to market a vodka.
There are two legal classifications of London gin – ‘Gin’ and ‘Distilled Gin’. ‘Gin’ is a flavoured spirit with a minimum strength of 37.5% abv with the main flavour being juniper. A ‘Distilled Gin’ must be made by a process in which the juniper and other natural flavourings are distilled with the spirit in a pot still.
There is also an Appellation around Plymouth Gin in that it must be made in Plymouth.
Appellation = a legal term which is centred around geographical location
Gin has a long and dark history starting in Italy in the 11th Century, when monks were flavouring distilled spirit with juniper.
The first recognizable ancestor of gin is credited to a Professor of medicine at Holland’s Leyden University called Dr. Sylvius.
British soldiers fighting in Holland during the 17th century found the spirit, which they called ‘Hollands’ and may have brought it home. It is the ‘Hollands’ that gained the nickname ‘Dutch Courage’ as it gave the English soldiers the heart and resolve to fight away from home.
Its true English popularity came when William of Orange became King of England in 1689 (King William III). He declared war on the French and supported the war by banning all French imports, which included brandies and wines. With no Cognacs or wines, rums had not yet been established and whiskies being drunk only by the Scots and Irish, Genever (abbreviated to Gin) became the drink of choice.
To re-enforce this, the government passed a law 1690 encouraging the distillation in England of brandy and spirits from corn. This meant that anybody could distil grain spirit for an extremely low tax. Hundreds of back-street distilleries sprung up with only a handful making good products.
By the 1720s, London’s streets were awash with gin, much of it made with bad or poisonous ingredients and sold cheaply from street vendors. It was nicknamed ‘mother’s ruin’ as many addicted women neglected their children in favour of getting dosed up on gin.
To tackle this problem, the government passed a series of laws from 1729 to restrict the sale and distillation of gin while encouraging beer production and sale. By the 1760s the situation was under relative control with the poorer classes back drinking beer in back-street taverns.
In 1825, the government again tried to free the trade in spirits. This time, to compete with beer taverns, the gin sellers opened up large, opulent establishments known as ‘Gin Palaces’. The hard liquor was a welcome change to the repressive factory conditions of the industrial revolution in England. Unfortunately, as before, entire families were getting drunk in these new venues so taxes were raised to make spirits expensive and beer cheap again.
There are several different ways of making Gin. In all these ways, the gin producer has to buy the neutral alcohol base from an outside supplier. If it is a grain spirit, it is usually from wheat or barley, however, the neutral spirit can come from any source.
Cold Compounding – This is the process used in making cheaper (supermarket) gins rather than distilled gins. A neutral spirit is used as a base to which oils and flavour essences are added to give the notes of juniper and other botanicals. The flavours are not ‘fixed’ into the spirit and are therefore lost very easily once the bottle is opened. This process makes a gin often referred to as ‘bath-tub’ gin.
Distilled Gin – The aim of making a gin is to extract the essence of the botanicals into the spirit and then reduce its abv with water before bottling. Different gin producers will use different botanical recipes and methods of infusion but they will use one of the following methods:
One-Shot Method – With the one-shot method, juniper and the other botanicals are macerated in the neutral spirit and water according to the distillers’ recipe. This maceration my go on for up to 48 hours. The botanicals are strained off and the spirit is poured into the still. The distillation occurs in a copper pot still. Some producers will distil with the botanicals in the still to further fix the flavours in the gin. Water is then added to the gin before bottling.
Two-Shot Method – This is a quicker method and saves on still usage (therefore more economically viable). In this method, a much stronger mix of botanicals is used in the maceration and distillation process. This is used as a concentrate and mixed with neutral spirit alcohol to increase the final volume. Water is then added to the gin before bottling. The main brand using this method today is Gordon’s Gin.
Vapour Infusion Method – With this technique, the botanicals are not macerated with the neutral spirit. They are placed in a basket or cage in the neck of the still. The alcohol vapours pass over them during distillation and pick up the flavours for the gin. The main brands using this method today is Bombay Sapphire and Hendricks (the Carter head Still).
WHAT IS OLD TOM GIN?
Old Tom Gin (or Tom Gin or Old Tom) is a lightly sweetened Gin popular in 18th-century England that now is rarely available. It is slightly sweeter than London Dry, but slightly drier than original gin
The name “Old Tom Gin” purportedly came from wooden plaques shaped like a black cat (an “Old Tom”) mounted on the outside wall of some pubs above a public walkway in the 1700s England. After a pedestrian deposited a penny in the cat’s mouth, they would place their lips around a small tube between the cat’s paws. From the tube would come a shot of Gin, poured there by the bartender inside the pub.
Old Tom Gin was formerly made under licence by a variety of distillers around the world; however one was recently re-launched by Hayman’s distillery based on an original recipe. The first written record of Old Tom Gin being used in the Tom Collins cocktail was the 1891 book, The Flowing Bowl: When and what to drink by William Schmidt.
BOURBON + RYE Definition
Bourbon– Bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA, but it is mainly native to the Southern state of Kentucky. Only Bourbon from Kentucky can advertise the state in which it is made (Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey). It must contain at least 51% corn but no more than 80% with the other 20-49% comprising of a combination of rye, barley and wheat the (recipe of grains is known as mash bill). It cannot be distilled to a strength greater than 80% abv and must be aged in new American White Oak barrels (that are often charred on the inside) at a strength no greater than 62.5% abv. It must be aged for a minimum of two years and bottled at a strength no lower than 40% abv. No colouring, flavouring or sweetener can be added to Bourbon.
Rye– This is a whiskey that is made with at least 51% Rye in its mash bill but with other flavour grains including a significant amount of corn as Rye has a spicy quality to it. There is generally no minimum ageing period but to be called Straight Rye it must be aged for at least 2 years in new Oak Barrels.
BOURBON + RYE Brief History
Distilling has occurred in American since the first settlers arrived there.
Originally, brandy from apples and honey wines were made, although from the 1650s rum was being distilled from molasses from the Caribbean.
Grain distillates first started to be made towards the late 1700s when Thomas Jefferson offered plots of land below Virginia (effectively Kentucky) for pioneer settlers providing they built a permanent structure and harvested a crop for at least three years.
Most of the early settlers were Scottish or Irish immigrants escaping famine and oppression in the British Isles. Many of them were small-hold farmers who had previously farmed Rye and Wheat. They soon found that corn was a more suitable grain for the conditions in Kentucky and soon started to produce a surplus.
Transportation of this surplus to market was impractical due to travel time and the fact that the corn deteriorated quickly during travel.
The answer lay in distillation, as whiskey was easily transported and far more profitable per unit. Whiskey also had the benefit of that it would improve with age and movement – corn would not.
The whole area from northern Kentucky through Southern Indiana into Northern Tennessee exists on a limestone plateau, which is one of nature’s best water filters. This meant that very high-quality water was being used in distillation and dilution to bottling strength. It also meant that there was excellent transport means via the rivers (Mississippi and Ohio) network for sale of the whiskey. The towns of Bardstown, Loretto and Louisville became centres of whiskey production that remain so today.
It is said that Elijah Craig was the first man to create the first real Bourbon. He was the first to use the charred effect inside of the barrels, which means the ageing process was sped up, which gave the whisky more of a vanilla and chocolate taste and aroma. Others credit the creation of bourbon to Dr. James Crow, he created and perfected the sour mash process.
BOURBON + RYE Production
When making whiskey, a Bourbon producer must first determine the ‘mash bill’ of the whiskey.
This is the recipe of grains that they will use.
Bourbon must be made with at least 51% corn, but this is usually more like 70% in practice. The remaining balance is made up of a mix of ‘small’ or ‘flavour grains’ (usually barley, rye or wheat).
The grains are ground down into a grist (the same as in Scotch). This grist is then cooked with limestone water in a pressure cooker to reduce the starch in the grain into fermentable sugars.
The ground grains are added in a specific order during cooking to get the highest yield of fermentable sugars.
Corn is added first, then rye or wheat and finally barley as the sugars convert at different temperatures. This is then termed ‘mash’.
Yeast is then added. Yeast is one of the most important variables in Bourbon production with each distiller using their own yeasts.
Finally, all Bourbons add an essential ingredient – Sour Mash.
Sour mash is the acidic residue from the previous batch of whiskey made. Generally, about 25% of the mash is held back for the latest batch, mixed in, and then 25% is taken out for the next batch. This ensures consistency.
Single Malt Scotch – This term refers to the whisky being from a single distillery, from malted barley distilled in Scotland. It can be a blend of different casks of different ages but only from the one distillery.
Blended Scotch – For a Blended Scotch, the whisky still has to come from Scotland but it can be a mix of distilleries and grain types.
It must be made in Scotland from grain grown in Scotland. Aged a minimum of 3 years in Scotland and bottled at no lower than 40% abv.
SCOTCH Brief History
Whisky has been produced in Scotland for hundreds of years. The Gaelic “usquebaugh”, meaning “Water of Life”, phonetically became “usky” and then “whisky” in English.
According to the Scotch Whisky Association, no one knows exactly when the art of distilling was first practised in Scotland; it is known that the Ancient Celts practised distilling, and that the liquid they produced — known as uisge beatha (“water of life”) — evolved into Scotch Whisky.
The first taxes on whisky production were imposed in 1644, causing a rise in illicit whisky distilling in the country. Around 1780, there were about 8 legal distilleries and 400 illegal ones.
In 1823, Parliament eased restrictions on licensed distilleries with the “Excise Act”, while at the same time making it harder for the illegal stills to operate, thereby ushering in the modern era of Scotch production.
Two events helped the increase of whisky’s popularity: first, a new production process was introduced in 1831 called Coffey or Patent Still; the whisky produced with this process was less intense and smoother. Second, the Phylloxera bug destroyed wine and cognac production in France in 1880.
There are five main stages to the production of Single Malt Whisky; Malting, Mashing, Fermentation, Distillation and Aging.
Malting is the process by which the barley is steeped in tanks of water for 2-3 days to start germination of the grain. This germination converts the starches in the grain into soluble sugars that are easier to break down by the yeast. This process must be stopped at the correct time so that the grain does not use up too much of the starch for its own purpose. After soaking, the grain is spread out on the floor and constantly turned to help dry it out ready for peat smoking. Modern methods of malting use troughs and hot air to dry the grain, although the traditional method is to do it by hand that takes more time but gives a better, fuller flavour as the peat flavours can attach themselves easier to the barley. The barley is fully dried in a peat smoke kiln. This reduces the water content from around 45% to 4.5%. The area from which the peat is taken affects the flavours greatly and contributes to the individuality of the single malt.
The next stage of the production process is called Mashing. This is done when the grains are completely dry. They are ground down into a powder (called ‘grist’) and mixed with warm water (in a ‘Mash-Tun’) where natural enzymes in the grain convert the starch into sugars. The resulting solution is known as ‘wort’.
Fermentation occurs when the wort is transferred into a vat (or ‘washback’) and yeast added. The fermentation process takes between 48 and 60 hours and creates a sour beer known as ‘wash’, which is between 7-9% alcohol.
Scotch Whisky is usually double distilled in pot stills; although there are a handful of scotches that triple distil.
The first distillation occurs in a larger still called a ‘wash still’. It makes a ‘low wine’ of approximately 20% alcohol.
The second distillation occurs in a smaller still and creates a distillate of approximately 70% abv. As with all pot-distilled spirits, the heads (‘foreshots’) and tails (‘faints’) are cut to leave the ‘heart’ of the first and second distillate. The head and tails are added back into the low wines for re-distillation.
SCOTCH What Is Peat?
Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter. Peat forms in wetland bogs, moors and peat swamp forests. Peat is harvested as an important source of fuel in certain parts of the world. This is what give the whisky it’s smokiness.
Scotland was traditionally divided into four regions: The Highlands, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown.
Speyside, encompassing the Spey river valley in north-east Scotland, once considered part of the Highlands, has almost half of the total number of distilleries in Scotland within its geographic boundaries; consequently it is officially recognized as a region unto itself.
Campbeltown was removed as a region several years ago, yet was recently re-instated as a recognized production region.
The Islands is not recognized as a region by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and is considered part of the Highlands region.
The Islands, an unrecognized sub-region includes all of the whisky-producing islands (but excludes Islay): Arran, Jura, Mull, Orkney and Skye — with their respective distilleries: Arran, Isle of Jura, Tobermory, Highland Park and Scapa, and Talisker (Although more closely related to the Islay region).
Campbeltown– once home to over 30 distilleries, currently has only three distilleries operating: Glen Scotia, Glengyle and Springbank, the latter two owned and operated by the J. A Mitchell family. Springbank is the oldest independent distillery in Scotland.
SCOTCH Flavour Profile Of The Regions
Islay-The whiskies of the distilleries along the southeastern coast of the island, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg, have the strong peaty character which is considered to be characteristic of the Islay malts, Many describe this as a “medicinal” flavour. They also possess notes of iodine, seaweed and salt.
Highland- The character of the far North Highland malts are greatly influenced by the local soil and the coastal location of the distilleries. They tend to be light-bodied whiskies with a spicy character and a dryish finish, sometimes with a trace of saltiness. Malt whiskies from the Central, Southern and Eastern Highlands are quite a mixed bunch. They are generally fruity and sweet but not as sweet as the malts found in Speyside. They are lighter-bodied and sweet and just like other Highland malts, they tend to have a dry finish.
Lowland- Lowland region whiskies are mellower than whiskies from the neighbouring Highlands, and are very much appreciated by those new to malt Whisky and experienced malt drinkers alike.
Speyside- The huge selection of Speyside malts offer a variety of strengths and can generally be broken down into two categories, the heavy, rich sherry flavoured malts and the more complex light floral flavoured malts. Speyside malts are essentially sweet whiskies, although some can have a little peaty character with just a slight whiff of smoke.
Campbell Town- The Campbeltown single malts are very distinctive, tending to be full-bodied, renowned for their depth of flavour and also for their slightly salty finish. With peat adding a hint of flavour similar to that found in an Islay malt.
Islands- Due to the location of the Islands distilleries their whiskies tend to have a coastal feel to them. They are slightly more peaty in character than most highland malts but not to the extent of peatiness that you will find in Islay malts. The peatiness is generally softer and sweeter than there stronger cousins from Islay.
SCOTCH Blended Whiskies
Blended Scotch whisky constitutes over 90% of the whisky produced in Scotland. Blended Scotch whiskies contain both malt whisky and grain whisky. They were initially created as an alternative to single malt whiskies which were considered by some to be too harsh. Master blenders combine the various malts and grain whiskies to produce a consistent “brand style”. Notable blended Scotch whisky brands include Bells, Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker, Whyte and Mackay, Cutty Sark, J&B, The Famous Grouse and Chivas Regal.
One advantage to a blended whisky it that it will always taste the same every year. Whereas single malts can slightly alter depending on weather conditions and the quality of barrel etc. Blends should always be the same, as the Master Blender can change the recipe of the blend. For example, a blender may put a different amount of one whisky in the blend to keep the taste consistent to the taste of the previous years blend.
What is Tequila?
Tequila is a Blue Agave-based spirit made primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, 40 miles northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands (Los Altos) of the western Mexican state of Jalisco.
Tequila is most often made at a 38–40% alcohol content (76–80 proof), but can be produced between 35–55% alcohol content (70–110 proof). Though most tequilas are 80 proof, many distillers will distil to 100 proof and then dilute it with water to reduce its harshness. Some of the more well-respected brands distil the alcohol to 80 proof without using additional water as a diluter.
The origins of Tequila date back to 250-300 AD when Aztec Indians first fermented the juice of Agave plants to make ceremonial wines.
This original wine was called ‘pulque’ and was made by fermenting the sap (aguamiel – honey water) from the heart of the Agave.
The yeasts used originally were naturally found in the air and produced a wine of 8-12% abv. In 1519, the Spanish conquered Mexico and brought the technology of distillation with them, which they had learned from the Moors.
Within ten years of being in Mexico, they had probably started to make the first rough Agave spirits known as Mezcal or Mescal wine.
Over the following years, the techniques were improved and modernized with new laws governing the production and labelling of Tequila to protect the national spirit of Mexico.
The Agave is a member of the lily (Amaryllis) family, although it is often mistaken for a cactus. Mezcal can use any type of Agave from wild to farmed varieties. Bacanora must use the Agave yaquiana and be made in Sonora in the north of Mexico.
Sotol must use the Agave dasylirion wheeleri and is made in the northern states of Chihuahua and Durango.
Tequila must be made in clearly defined and specific areas – the entire state of Jalisco and areas in the states of Guanajuanto, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.
Each distillery that adheres to production regulations is given a NOM number (Norma Oficial Mexicana de Calidad). The regulatory body known as ‘The Consejo Regulador del Tequila’ awards this NOM. It was established in 1978 and is made up of Agave growers, Tequila producers and representatives of the federal government.
All brands of 100% blue Agave Tequila will have a NOM on the label. It is not a guarantee of quality, only of authenticity.
Between the third and sixth year of growth, shoots (mecuates or hijuleos) are removed from the ‘mother’ plant to propagate new plants. At maturity, a tall flower stalk begins to grow from the middle of the Agave. This growth is cut off, which forces the sap to remain in the heart of the plant (or the piña).
This piña then swells to an un-natural size ripening ready for harvest. Most ripe piñas weigh between 70 and 200lb at the time of harvest, although some specimens have been recorded as heavy as 400lb.
At harvesting (jima), the long, sharp, spiky leaves (pencas) are removed (barbeo) by the harvesters (jimadores) using long handled knives (coas). This exposes the piña, which looks a lot like a giant pineapple and one can tell it is mature and ready when red, bloodlike spots start to appear on the pina.
The harvested piñas are sliced into sections before being steam baked traditionally in a stone oven (‘horno’) or more recently in a stainless steel container (autoclave).
The baking takes between 24 and 72 hours in a hornos and 8-14 hours in an autoclave… The baking process converts the starchy sap in the piña into sugars such as fructose and glucose that can be fermented.
Many believe that the real taste of the tequila is only imparted when the traditional method is used. The piñas are left to cool for 24- hours and are then crushed in a traditional stone mill called a ‘Chilean Mill’ or ‘tahona’.
This mill is made from a circular stone pit with a stone wheel pulled around the pit by an ox or donkey. Modern distilleries now use industrial crushing machines to do the job, as they are quicker and more consistent.
Fermentation juice from the previous batch is mixed in to give a consistency and continuity of flavour. After mixing the previous juice, some is taken out ready for the next batch.
The older methods of fermentation use natural yeasts present in the air to start the chemical processes. The modern methods use cultivated yeast strains as they, again, give a greater continuity to the product.
The fermentation takes between 36 and 72 hours. At this stage of Tequila production, the liquid is known as ‘mosto’ and is roughly 5-7% alcohol.
The ‘mosto’ is then double distilled in copper pot stills.
The first distillation (or destrozameinto) makes a product called ‘ordinario’ which is roughly 20% abv.
Only after the second distillation can it be called Tequila. A handful of distillers distil a third time (e.g. Corralejo).
The Tequila leaves the still after the second distillation at around 40-55% abv. As with most other spirits, the heads (cabeza) and tails (cola) of the distillate are cut from the heart and re-distilled with the mosto while the heart ( el corazon) is used for.
It takes roughly 8kg of agave to make 1 litre of 100% tequila
Tequila is categorized according to the percentage of Agave spirit and the length of time it has spent in wood.
Mixto – A spirit that is a blend of no less than 51% blue Agave. The other 49% can be molasses, brown sugar or any other sugar type.
100% Agave aka Tequila – A pure blue Agave Tequila. No sugar can be added during production and no other spirit can be blended in after distillation.
Blanco – Also known as ‘silver’, ‘plata’, ‘blanco’ or ‘white’ Tequila. It is clear but can be aged in oak for up to 60 days.
Gold – Also known as ‘oro’ or ‘joven abocado’ (‘young and corrupted’), gold Tequila is made in the same way as Blanco tequila only with the addition of caramel flavour and colour tho it can also have a blend of aged tequilas within it.. This colour is added to suggest age and add smoothness..
Reposado – This term literally means ‘rested’. A reposado Tequila is aged for between 60 days and one year in wooden barrels or larger tanks (‘pipons’)
Anejo – Mexican law states that if a Tequila bears this title, it must be aged in government (CRT) sealed oak barrels for over one year. The barrels must be no larger than 600 litres. The most popular type of barrels are old Bourbon casks.
Sangrita & Verdita
Sangrita (meaning “little blood”), whose origin dates back to the 1920s, is a customary partner to a shot of straight tequila blanco; a non-alcoholic accompaniment that highlights tequila’s crisp acidity and cleanses the palate between each peppery sip.
The basic conception of sangrita is to complement the flavour of 100% agave tequila, which is also peppery and citrusy in taste.
Traditionally, sangrita is served with tequila blanco, but it can also accompany tequila reposado. The tequila and sangrita are each poured into a separate shot glass (or caballito) and the two are alternately sipped, not chased. Sangrita is used in a drink known as “The Mexican Flag“, where three separate double shot glasses are filled with lime juice, tequila and sangrita.
Real sangrita from the Lake Chapala region of Jalisco is made with Seville orange, lime and pomegranate juices, with chili powder or hot sauce added for heat. However, many popularized modern sangrita recipes have included a good amount of tomato juice in the mix. There is no set rule on what sangrita should contain, but it can feature a blend of orange, lime, tomato and/or pomegranate juices, or pomegranate-based grenadine with the addition of something spicy (hot sauce or fresh/dried chilli), and sometimes white onion and salt
Brandy is a spirit created by distilling wine and cognac is brandy from the cognac region of France. More expensive brandies and all cognacs are aged in wooden casks to soften the flavour and add character.
A.C. must be aged two years in wood
V.S. stands for Very Special and must be aged three years in wood
V.S.O.P stands for Very Special Old Pale and must be aged five years in wood
X.O. stands for Extra Old and must be aged at least six years in wood
Rum is a spirit that’s distilled either from fermented molasses (a viscous by-product of the sugar industry) or freshly pressed sugar cane juice. Because of its base material, molasses-based rums generally have a sweet note and flavours of molasses, banana and tropical fruit (their complexity is ramped up by ageing them in barrels), while those made with sugar cane juice (like Rhum Agricole and Cachaca) have pronounced grassy and vegetal notes. Rum is made in sugar cane producing countries, especially those in the Caribbean. Very aged versions are generally sipped neat, while unaged and lesser aged spirits are mixed in classic, Tiki and modern cocktails.
While rum has its roots in the Caribbean, there is evidence that dates back thousands of years of fermented drinks made from sugarcane in India and China, and the sugar cane plant originates in the Far East.
However, rum as we know it was first distilled in the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean in the seventeenth century, and existed because sugar cane cuttings were brought there from Europe.
There are records of “kill-devil”, as rum was called as early versions were quite fiery and crude, being produced on Barbados around 1647. In the mid-nineteenth century, the first commercial rum distillery was created on Puerto Rico.
Rum production quickly spread to Colonial North America, with the first distillery established in 1664 on present-day Staten Island and another in Boston three years later.
Before the American Revolution, rum was New England’s most prosperous industry. The need for sugar cane and molasses became a major factor in the slave trade and led to increased taxation from the British via the Sugar Act (which helped lead to the American Revolution.)
Eventually, restrictions on sugar imports from the Caribbean and the rise of American whiskey led to a decline in production in North America.
STEP 1: SUGAR CANE HARVEST & JUICE EXTRACTION
As a general rule, rum can be divided into those produced by distilling sugar cane juice, and those made from molasses. Obtained by crushing sugar cane, sugar cane juice deteriorates very quickly, and so needs to be fermented as soon as possible, and then distilled to produce agricultural rum. The canes are harvested manually or mechanically at the age of 11 months, before they flower.
The leaves and tops of the sugar canes are left in the fields. The bases are quickly transported to the sugar refinery to avoid any of the sugar being lost. The bases of the canes are then ground into fibres and hot water is added to extract the sweet juice. The pressing process results in two products: cane juice for the production of rum, and the bagasse, consisting of the fibrous residue, which is used as fuel. In the case of molasses-based rum, the sugar is extracted from the cane juice and then transformed into molasses.
STEP 2: CANE WINE AND FERMENTATION
Yeast is then added to the mash (molasses diluted with water or sugar cane juice), which is then fermented and gradually converted into alcohol until it eventually produces a sugar cane wine containing around 8% to 10% alcohol. A fundamental stage in the development of the flavours of the future rum, the fermentation of the sugar cane wine is conducted in various ways in different parts of the world, resulting in a very broad aromatic range. There are three types of fermentation:
Spontaneous fermentation- This relies on the yeasts and micro-organisms naturally present in the atmosphere or in the sugar cane juice. Such fermentation takes place in open vats and takes between 1 and 2 weeks. Small distilleries, especially those in Haiti, still practise spontaneous fermentation.
Controlled fermentation (batch) – Usually carried out in batches, this kind of fermentation uses laboratory-grown yeasts that are added to the sweet liquid. Some distilleries cultivate and maintain their own strains of yeast that they protect, like a trademark. Such fermentation is spread over 2 to 3 days and enables the production of a consistent percentage of alcohol and range of flavours.
Controlled fermentation (continuous)- This is a growing trend in the rum industry. It involves keeping a fermentation vat permanently filled, with the continuous addition of more molasses. This enables the yeasts to be kept active by removing a quantity of the mash, whose sugars have already been digested by the yeasts, from different sections of the vat.
STEP 3: CHOICE OF STILL
Like many other spirits, rum can be distilled in a column still, continuously, or in a pot still (used by the more traditional producers). The type of distillation practised is often influenced by the country’s colonial history. Former British and French colonies still use copper pot stills, while those of Spanish origin tend to prefer column stills. The type of rum produced very much depends on the distillation method: in basic terms, heavier rums tend to come from pot stills, while lighter rums are produced by column stills.
Pot still – batch distillation: this ‘batch’ distillation technique requires regular stopping of the still so that it can be cleaned and allowed to rest before loading with another batch for distillation. This is the most traditional of distillation methods.
Column still – continuous distillation: usually consisting of two or four columns, each one feeding the next, this type of distillation does not require any interruption, with the columns being continuously supplied. Consisting of different levels of concentration, through which the steam circulates, this technique enables the rum’s aromatic profile to be monitored and controlled. Only its lightest vapour in terms of flavour reaches the column’s final level. The heavier vapour remains at the lower levels.
STEP 4: AGEING
Since there are no legal regulations, the ageing process and associated designations vary from one producer to another. While most ageing takes place in old bourbon barrels, rum can also be aged in cognac barrels and new oak barrels.
Special cask finished rums are quite rare; these are usually produced by Italian and French merchants, who use Banyuls, port, sherry and Madeira barrels to impart flavour to the rum. There is no required minimum period, but few rums claim to be aged for more than 8 or 12 years. Matured at the site of production, the barrels are exposed to extreme weather conditions, resulting in considerable evaporation.
THE RUM REGIONS
Rum is made in any sugar-producing country, including those in the Caribbean, South American, United States, India, Philippines and Australia.
Within the Caribbean, there are distinct styles of rum depending on the region:
CUBA- originated white rum, which is clear, unaged and relatively neutral in flavour. Other “Cuban-style” rums are made in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Brazil
GUYANA- produces rums with Demerara sugar, and its hot and humid climate results in complex spirits that are usually coloured with caramel to be gold.
BARBADOS- rum is elegant and fruity.
JAMAICA- creates rums using a low-strength distillation, resulting in strongly scented and flavoured white spirits boasting flavours of tropical fruit, and darker rums that are full-bodied and bold with nutty notes, and may sometimes be described as wild and funky.
While rum can be produced anywhere in the world, the most well-known rums come from the Caribbean and South America. Shaped by colonial history, the Caribbean’s rum production consists of three main types: Spanish, British and French. This influence is apparent in the names given to the rums, and enables an understanding of the three characteristic styles.
WE HOPE THIS AS WET YOUR WHISTLE!!!
Now that you know this – take a moment to glow in the fact that you now know more than most Bartenders.
PLEASE COME AND TALK TO US ABOUT ANYTHING IN THE COMMENTS OR DIRECT EMAIL THAT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. TAKE THIS KNOWLEDGE WITH YOU ONTO THE BAR… KEEP WANTING TO KNOW MORE ITS WHAT SETS YOU APART FROM THE REST