Triple distilled, neutral grain spirit base (created through double or triple column still distillation), and cut with distilled water.
Grain spirit is distilled a final time in a pot still with botanicals including:
Juniper Berries (grow on evergreen bushes) Juniper Oil (distinctly peppery and herbal)
Coriander (seed of cilantro plant, herbal aroma, tart, grapefruit like)
Anise (licorice flavor)
Cassia (somewhat bitter, like tonic water)
Caraway (similar to dill)
Other ingredients floral notes, vegetal notes, even tea flavors; flowers, vegetables and tea might also be a part of the recipe.
Highly prized juniper berries are grown and aged for several years in Tuscany.
Gin: London Dry Gin
Can be made anywhere though strongly associated with Great Britain. Juniper and/or citrus tend to dominate the botanical profile. 37.5-55% ABV (traditional strength is 47% ABV.
Gin: Genever or Hollands Gin
Produced in the Netherlands, Belgium and small parts of France and Germany. Yellowish color, may be distinctly sweet, (in opposition to London Dry), and can be powerful and oily. Made mostly from the pot-stilled barley/rye distillate “malt wine,” usually with grain neutral spirits blended in, it’s always more malty/grainy/cereally than herbal or fruity/spicy. 35-50% ABV.
Gin: Plymouth Gin
Plymouth, England is home to a single gin distillery, Blackfriars. Lower in alcohol than London Dry varieties but owns an earthy richness that is unique. 41.2% ABV.
Gin: “New” or “International Style”
Diverse, made all over. 40-55% ABV. Other botanicals than juniper tend to dominate.
Gin: Arnaud de Villanova
Gin’s inventor. Credited with developing the European practice of distillation in the 13th century A.D. (perhaps acquired from Muslim scholars: Geber and Avicenna).
His first products were grain spirits, distilled with juniper berries. (Juniper known for health properties. Juniper masks for protection from the plague and kidney ailments).
Gin: 15th-17th Century, Dutch History
Dutch officially invented the spirit - called “Genever”. British turned the word into “geneva” and then abbreviated it to “gin”.
15h-17th centuries: Dutch dominated international trade and commerce. Major European powers (British, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch) wanted to find the fastest/most direct route to the spice regions of eastern Asia. The Dutch East India Company was particularly successful.
British nicknamed drink “Dutch Courage” - they frequently hired Dutch mercenaries. The Dutch mercenaries were known to drink copious amounts of genever.
Gin: 17th Century, Port of Rotterdam
Located near superb called Schiedam: Warehouses full of fruits, spices.
By 17th century, 400 pot stills created to utilize goods - juniper as main ingredient.
Gin Craze: “Mother’s Ruin”
English Government allowed unlicensed gin production and imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits (in an attempt to sway people from purchasing French Brandy and outdo gin producers of Holland).
Gin became popular with the poor. Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London, over half were gin shops. Gin was blamed for various social problems, and may have been a factor in higher death rates.
The negative reputation of gin survives today in terms like “gin mills” “gin joints” to describe disreputable bars or “gin-soaked” to refer to drunks, and in the phrase “mother’s ruin”, a common British name for gin.
1736 Gin Act
After the “Gin Craze” burnt itself out in England, gin became celebrated as something essentially British. England shut down home distilling through Parliamentary laws and built beautiful gin palaces to lure the populace into a more controlled—and taxable—setting. Gin Punch became one of the sporting drinks of the upper class at home while for the protectors of the Empire in the far-flung tropical regions of India and Africa gin and quinine-water became the tonic drink (as in, medicinal) of choice.
Gin: Early 1800s
English gin’s style had distinguished itself from the malty, rich Dutch style. Where the Dutch worked to make the best, most flavorful (pot still) base spirit they could and then flavored it simply with juniper and small amounts of other spices, the English relied on a base spirit that was redistilled and filtered to remove as many traces of the base material as possible—which was then flavored with a complex mix of botanicals and then, usually, sweetened. This style was known as “Old Tom” gin.
Gin: Charles Tanqueray
1830s, created the distinct style of London Dry Gin. Crisper and lighter than the genevers and even Old Tom gins. With the introduction of continuous stills, the distilleries in the Lowlands of Scotland were fired up. Ironically, much of the grain whisky they made (and still make) wasn’t intended for Scotch whisky but instead for the gin distilleries of England. With the help of the neutral spirit they provided, London Dry Gin had become by the end of the nineteenth century the preeminent, defining style, produced by dozens of distilleries, each with its own proprietary blend of botanicals.
Gin: Spread of Production
In the U.S., distillers began making the new London Dry style, which was much cheaper to produce than the malt-rich Dutch style. In Ireland, Cork’s Watercourse Distillery had a tradition of gin-making dating back to 1798, with its own special botanical formula, but didn’t launch its Cork Dry Gin, or “C.D.C. Gin” (so called after its maker, the Cork Distilleries Company), until 1941, when the distillery installed a column still that enabled it to make a true dry gin.
Gin: Decline and Resurgance
Since the explosion of vodka in the 1970s, gin production reached an all time low.
Now, after three decades of decline, there are suddenly dozens of new brands. Some of the gins in the market are rootier, more idiosyncratic, and Plymouth Gin, an icon among English gins that almost disappeared, is reborn. Genever is coming back to the world stage after a century of eclipse (naval embargos during the First World War and German occupation during the Second effectively destroyed its foreign markets).
Bols recently reintroduced their classic genever back to the global market. There are even contemporary versions of Old Tom Gin available again.
Gin: Rules and Regulations
Gin is originally a European product, these are the EU rules. American Gins do not necessarily need to follow these rules (some have embraced these regulations as their own. Either out of respect or to sell spirit in EU).
Gin is classified by geographic origin and style.
Considered PDO’s, or Geographic Indications of Origin, and have their own sets of rules and regulations. There are currently nine other PDO’s for Gin in the EU: two of which are German, one each from Spain and Lithuania, and the remaining five from Slovakia.
London Gins: London Gin, or London Dry Gin, is a style that can be made anywhere.
Plymouth Gin: Must be made in the town of Plymouth, England
Genever/Genievre/Jenever: Must be made in The Netherlands or Belgium
Classifications for the use of the word Gin, which are, in ascending order of specificity:
Distilled Gin, to
London Distilled Gin (insert the word Dry as preferred), which is a type of Distilled Gin, that must be distilled to a minimum of 70%, then re- distilled in a traditional (pot) still with botanicals that are all natural plant materials, of which the Juniper must be predominant.
New Western Dry Gins are basically defined, according to Ryan Magarian’s thesis on the subject of Gin and its style sub-categories, as Gins that, while embracing Juniper, focus as much or more on their complement of other botanicals, although no specific rules or legislation has yet been universally approved for this designation.
Martini (1800s): originally a gin drink. Old Tom and Vermouth. Dry Martini (1890): Plymouth or London Dry Gin and Vermouth.
19th century, most Americans imbibed was Hollands, not Old Tom or London Dry. But in the last quarter of the 1800s, the trend was toward lighter, dryer drinks. Old Tom gin began to edge out genever.
Gin: “The manmade drought of Prohibition”
Aged spirits were prohibitively expensive/mostly unavailable.
Bathtub gin - demanded no long barrel aging and no exotic ingredients. just bootleg moonshine and juniper extract
(purchased from Sears Roebuck’s, J.C. Penney’s or Montgomery Ward’s mail-order catalogues - all ranked such juniper products amongst their top ten sellers).
Dozens of gin-based cocktails date from these years. The classic cocktails utilize gin, not vodka. But gin’s spicy, ever-changing aromas and flavors are still too much for some drinkers, and may provide too much of a challenge for lazy bartenders.
Gin - Principal Cocktails: London Dry Gin/Plymouth Gin
Dry Martini Tom Collins Gin Rickey Gimlet Gin & Tonic
Gin - Principal Cocktails: Holland Gin
Old-Fashioned Gin Cocktail
Neutral spirit distilled to such a high proof that very few congeners, fusel oils, aromas and flavors remain.
Made anywhere and made from virtually anything.
Russia and Poland were the most renowned and historically important early producers of vodka in large volumes. The focus of the Russians and Polish upon filtration in the late 1800s and early 1900s influences to this day many of the world’s other vodka producers.
Vodka generally distilled to higher than 95% ABV then filtered. (can still maintain aroma and flavor)
Flavored vodkas are neutral spirits that have been flavored - synthetic flavor and aroma. Few producers actually use the real ingredients because it is more challenging/Natural ingredients are more expensive.
There are no limits on the raw materials that can be utilized to make vodka. Most people use common grains, like corn, rye and wheat, as well as vegetables and fruits, including potatoes, grapes and sugar beets, to distill to a very high proof (often 195-proof) and then cut the distillate with distilled water to 80-proof, or 40% ABV.
Lately, higher proof vodkas are emerging in some markets. Their greater weight and intensity offers a talented bartender a chance to make very textured cocktails while retaining the sleek, congener-light character that was vodka’s original reason to exist.
Gunnysacks, diamonds, silver, quartz, sand, paper, tightly woven cloth, charcoal (maple, birch) filters are often utilized to filter the distillate in an attempt to mellow it, or in
an attempt to offer the marketing group more talking points in a sales meeting.
The more distillations and filtrations, the more the characteristics of the base materials are stripped away.
“Vodka”, is a Russian diminutive of a Polish phrase, “zhiznennia voda” - “water of life”.
The term “water of life” appears over and over again in the history of spirits: Eau de Vie (in French), Akvavit (in Danish), aqua vitae (in Latin) and even in the word “whiskey,” which derives from a Celtic term, uisce beatha. That “uisce” word was eventually slurred by English-speakers into the word “whiskey,” but remains an echo of the earlier “water of life”.
The idea was that spirit or “water of life” was a purified form of water and was safer to drink than most of the communal water.
Poles may have created vodka before the Russians, since the Russian word for it is a derivative of a Polish word. Scandinavian producers may have participated in vodka ’s earliest stages as well.
Vodka was being produced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A.D. in Poland as well as Russia and Scandinavia. Surprisingly, the records show that the nobility initially distilled their vodka out of grapes or wine. That was a foolishly expensive way to make vodka when grains were widely available for the sustenance of their peoples and lands.
In Russia, vodka remains a vital force and countless Russian leaders have utilized that power for political purposes. Ivan the Terrible nationalized all distilleries; Ivan the Great went further still and nationalized the bars where vodka was served. Private distilleries persisted, but only amongst the wealthy and powerful. After the Russian Revolution, these distilleries were nationalized.
Once Communism fell, President Boris Yeltsin was known to nip a glass or two but, most importantly, private enterprise returned to the business. Now, there is a profusion of new brands coming from the former Soviet Union, mostly owned by wealthy and powerful entrepreneurs.
As an export product, vodka is relatively new. While some European bars, particularly in Paris, stocked it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American bars barely knew what it was. Charles Baker’s Gentleman’s Companion, one of the most popular drink books of the 1930s, opined that “vodka is not necessary to a small or medium sized bar.”
Vodka began seeping into the global mainstream first through Bohemian circles in Paris, London and New York, among which it had been growing in popularity since the turn of the twentieth century. In the 1940s, however, the exotic eastern European firewater captured the imagination of the Hollywood set and the rest is history. The stars had vodka parties, the Jet Set attended, and vodka became chic.
In the mid-1950s, John Martin of Heublein, a major beverage supplier/distiller based in Connecticut, pushed vodka forward in the U. S. with Smirnoff Vodka, which was originally Russian. One of the most successful campaigns for their brand was, “Smirnoff…it will leave you breathless.” In the era of the three-martini lunch, this was a good thing if you planned to go back to work that afternoon.
By the late 1950s, the Bloody Mary was a standard eye-opener (back when eye-openers were standard fare), the Screwdriver was a typical afternoon refresher, and those James Bond martinis were becoming cool to drink. By 1967, vodka surpassed gin to become the number one white spirit in the U.S. In 1976, vodka became the number one spirit, white or brown. By the 1980s, what had happened in America was happening globally: vodka was edging out many of the traditional, local spirits.
Why? Not because it leaves you breathless, but because it’s not supposed to have the kick and character of most other spirits, so you can have a drink without being bothered by flavor. While we’re not sure where the advantage in that is, that’s because we’ve learned to acquire the taste for those traditional spirits. For young drinkers who haven’t, vodka was and is tremendously alluring. No muss, no fuss, put it in a soft drink and boom, you’ve got booze! Manufacturers have been happy to encourage this trend, since vodka is far cheaper to produce than cognac, malt whiskey, rye, rhum agricole, oude genever, gin or any other traditional spirit.
Principal Vodka Cocktails
Vodka Martini • Cosmopolitan • Bloody Mary • Screwdriver • Vodka & Tonic
Though vodka is a neutral spirit, one of the more remarkable aspects about tasting vodka is that, though as much flavor has been removed as possible, we tasters still find flavors. Having removed everything else, what should be left is yeast, water, and the grain or other material from which the vodka is made.
Vodka presents one of the greatest challenges you’ll have as a taster. But before you despair of finding flavor, put three vodkas next to each other. Smell, taste and compare them. While putting words to the differences requires some artistic license, you will definitely find those differences.
You’ll taste them to see if they are:
• Clean or dirty
• Dry or slightly sweet
• Smooth or aggressive
• Gentle or powerful
• Oily, grainy or soapy
• Rich or thin
• Soft, sharp or burning
It should taste like its ingredients, and that means it may smell and taste of bread dough (yeast, grain, nuttiness). It may taste even of minerals or of earthiness.
Rum and Cachaça –What:
Rum is any distilled spirit created from sugarcane. The vast majority of rums are produced from molasses, the by-product of refining sugarcane into raw sugar. The minority, principally Brazilian cachaça and French rhum agricole, are produced from the juice of sugarcane after it’s pressed. Molasses can be used to make light, soft rums (as Cuba and Puerto Rico are known for), or dark, pungent rums ( Jamaica’s reputation was made due to this style), as well as everything in between.
The variables that can differentiate one style from another include such obvious matters as the time in oak and the type of oak (or other woods, in the case of Brazilian cachaça), whether pot stills or continuous stills are employed, whether flavors or spices are added, and perhaps less obviously, whether molasses, cane syrup or the freshly extracted juice of the cane is used to create a fermentation.
Techniques and styles vary not only from country to country, but often within countries. Jamaica is known for dark and heavy rums. But in fact, the most popular rum in Jamaica is a white rum with a high proof, 124 degrees, called Wray & Nephew.
In the rundown that follows, you’ll note that the decision to use molasses, cane juice or syrup might be the most important factor in the style of the rum.
Rum and Cachaça –Where:
Rum is made anywhere sugarcane is grown and in many other countries besides. You don’t need to grow cane to make rum. Two hundred and fifty years ago, rum was widely produced in both England and New England, all from molasses imported from the Caribbean. Even today, much of the molasses that Caribbean and other countries utilize for rum production is supplied by Brazil.
Most consumers believe that rum is solely a product of the Caribbean, and indeed most of the famous names in rum are island based. But quality rums are produced on every continent (well, okay, not Antarctica) and
in a myriad of styles. Moreover, the sugarcane plant doesn’t originate in the Caribbean, as most believe, but hails from somewhere in the Far East, perhaps Indonesia. A distilled spirit from sugar cane may have been the basis for what is the earliest known large scale distilling; it took place in what is now modern- day Pakistan over 2,500 years ago.
Cachaça is made from sugarcane juice and comes only from Brazil, the world’s largest sugarcane producer. It is bottled from between 38 percent to 51 percent alcohol and is produced by as many as 30,000 small distillers. An incredible 98 percent of all cachaça is consumed in Brazil. Cachaça comes in a trio of classifications: unaged (1 year in wood), aged (2 to 12 years in wood), and yellow (immature spirits that have caramel or wood extracts added so they can appear older).
Rum and Cachaça –When:
The rum we know today probably has its origins in desperation. Early Spanish and Portuguese settlers in Central and South America, as well
as the Caribbean, had no wine and needed alcohol. We don’t exactly know how and when but they were creating a rudimentary distillate from molasses within a few decades of their arrival in the New World. Once again, there is no “ah-hah!” moment to declare New World rum’s time of birth. But the pangs are evident in the names chosen to depict the fiery spirit: “kill-devil”, “demon rum”, “rumbullion” and “rumbustion”, the latter two terms used to connote mayhem.
The popular image of pirate juice is closer to the truth than any other popular image. Rums were distilled from molasses that might have been left to spoil for weeks, and then fermented. Straight from the still, these
Sugarcane rums were either consumed on the spot or went into barrels and on to ships. The barrels were probably empty before a few weeks had passed.
From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, lots of rum was being distilled in New England and particularly in or near Boston and coastal Connecticut. Ships laden with sugarcane, only recently arrived from the Caribbean or America’s Southeast, wouldn’t transport sugarcane back to England. Instead they would drop their loads in New England and take back a far more concentrated form of sugarcane: raw sugar.
With all the leftover molasses, the early American colonials made their own kind of rum, but it too must have tasted like the same hot liquid
that the pirates were drinking. Meanwhile, back in the mother country, connoisseurs of Punch were developing a taste for rum and initiating the process that led to the taming of this fiery spirit. To soften rum’s heat,
you either need a careful fermentation (that wasn’t happening centuries ago), a selective distillation (nobody’s throwing out perfectly good pirate juice), filtration (that’s a late nineteenth century innovation) or long barrel aging.
Originally, no one was willing to wait for it to age in barrel long enough for the spirit to soften. That would change: as one English epicure noted in 1737, “in order to make Rum palatable to any Person of nice Taste, it must be carefully kept in a good Cellar for several years.”
That aged rum was becoming increasingly available. In Barbados in the seventeenth century, so much rum was being produced that plenty
of it was available for sale elsewhere. Some of those barrels took enough time to transport that the rum they contained took on the elements of well-aged rum: honey, caramel, and vanilla, as well as a gentler nature. Barbados rum was famous enough that George Washington insisted on a barrel for his inauguration, and it was highly prized on the London docks.
Other islands saw similar growth in reputation. Jamaican distillers started their fermentations with molasses from a previous fermentation, to more rapidly initiate the fermentation in a batch of fresh molasses. Those rums were far funkier in aroma, and the Jamaicans, too, learned
to age them in barrel as long as possible to soften the weirdness. In some cases they added spices and flavorings, and most islands did the same for at least some of their rums.
The Demerara river region of British Guyana was noted for its Jamaican-style rums as well. It didn’t hurt that the Royal Navy was issuing its sailors a daily dram of old rum, blended from Jamaican and Demerara sources, a practice that didn’t end until 1970.
The French Islands used only cane juice since Napoleon owned sugar beet factories in France capable of producing raw sugar. With no home market for refined sugar, the French Islands were free to use the juice itself. As a result the rum produced on the French Islands (Martinique, Guadalupe, Marie Galante) as well as on former French possessions such as Haiti is something different from other rums. Cane juice rums can be more herbal and vegetal, but also more tropical in fruit character. Today, not all rhums (that’s how the French spell it) are made from cane juice, but the best are. They’re referred to as rhum agricole, or “agricultural rum” (as opposed to rhum industriel, or “industrial rum,” which is made from molasses).
By the late nineteenth century, Cuba had emerged as a sugar producing dynamo (as usual, made possible either by slave labor or slavery like conditions) and all that leftover molasses had to be used. Don Facundo de Bacardì began filtering his rums through charcoal, as vodka producers were famously doing, and thereby created a gentler rum. Later, he and his competitors employed continuous stills to make something closer to vodka.
After the Cuban Revolution, the Bacardi family escaped to Puerto Rico. Today, the rules of Puerto Rican rum production demand that no rum can be distilled below 160-proof. For some, that means the rums are more boring and have less of the character of traditional rum. To many, lighter, gentler rum is exactly what they want. As with all things about flavor, preference is personal.
Meanwhile, in Cuba, rum production continued with the flagship export brand (to everywhere but the U.S.) assuming the old pre- Revolutionary brand of Havana Club and retaining the richer, more full- flavored character of pre- Revolutionary Cuban rums.
But rum’s resurgence may be tied to its distinctive flavors rather than to its ability to seem like vodka. The cocktails that have epitomized rum drinks: Rum and Coke, Piña Colada, Daiquiri and such might be ideal for the neutral-style of rum. But the two drinks that have brought rum back to the cool side of the pool are the Caipirinha and the Mojito. Both demand that bartenders re-learn the old-fashioned practice of muddling.
Certainly, one of the largest selling and most important segments
of rum is the flavored rum category. Rums such as Malibu (created in Barbados in 1980), Cruzan and Captain Morgan have revolutionized and revitalized the industry. Most popular flavors include coconut, mango, passion fruit, spiced, vanilla, citrus and others.
And a Caipirinha requires cachaça, a Brazilian rum made only from cane juice and often aged in unusual indigenous woods, like freijo, cedar, imburana, cherry, and jequitiba. Those barrels smell as unusual as they sound, but the exotic, tropical, herbal aromas of cachaça add funk and excitement to the smell of a great Caipirinha.
Principal Rum and Cachaça Cocktails
Daiquiri Mai Tai Rum Punch Cuba Libre Piña Colada Caipirinha Mojito
Tasting Rum and Cachaça
As usual, the best way to find flavor and identify differences is to put several rums next to each other. But the amazing variety of rums means that three aren’t enough. Instead, place one rum from each of the dominant styles next to each other: spiced, flavored, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, cachaça, Barbados, and Martinique (to name only a few). Smell, taste and compare them. Now add in some of the others that are out there—and see if they seem similar to one of the dominant styles. Try several brands all in the same style—differences can be strong here too.
All the while you’ll taste them to see if they are:
Clean or dirty Dry or slightly sweet Smooth or aggressive Gentle or powerful Oily, grainy or soapy Rich or thin Soft, sharp or burning
It should be clean and dry and not bitter and not sweet, unless it is sweetened and flavored rum.
Tequila and Mezcal: What?
Both Tequila and Mezcal are distilled spirits made from the agave plant. Both terms are tightly defined and controlled by the Mexican government. Most major countries honor and protect these regulations and definitions, with the sole exception of the United States—which is unfortunately tequila and mezcal’s largest foreign market.
Tequila is sold in six styles, mostly based upon the aging of the spirit. Gold, or joven abacado, is a sweetened and caramel-tinged spirit; it’s the cheap stuff. It is usually made from a blend of sugars from agave and molasses from sugar cane, so it’s called mixto. By law, a mixto must derive no more than 49% of its sugars from anything other than agave, though as we have noted above, the U.S. Government is unconcerned with enforcing these laws.
If a Tequila is not a mixto, then it will be made from 100-percent agave. Some Tequila producers will label their product “100% Agave” and some will state “100% Blue Agave” or “100% Puro de Agave”. Blue Agave is one of the hundreds of types of agave growing around the world, and it thrives in tequila country. But if you’re seeking quality, “100% agave” ought to be good enough. Most, but not all, mixtos are forgettable, at best; many 100% agave tequilas are unforgettable.
Tequila (100% agave or mixto) that has aged no more than two months is called blanco or silver. Tequila that has aged for two to twelve months in any sized oak container is called reposado, or “rested.” Añejo means that the tequila has aged in small (600 liter) oak barrel for one to three years. Extra Añejo connotes that the tequila has stayed inside small (600 liter) oak barrels for more than three years.
Tequila and Mezcal: Where?
Tequila is produced in the five Mexican states of Jalisco (where the town of Tequila lies), Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacan and Tamaulipas. By law, a distillate made elsewhere in Mexico the same way and from the exact same materials cannot be called Tequila. Mezcal is primarily made in Oaxaca, but seven other states have also earned a Denomination of Origin: Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas and Michoacan. Other agave spirits with official Mexican DOs include Bacanora from Sonora; Raicilla from the area around Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco; Tuxca from Tuxcacuesco, Jalisco; Comiteco from Comitan, Chiapas; and Sotol from Chihuahua.
One hundred percent agave tequila is usually made from the blue agave, otherwise known as “tequilana weber, subvariety azul.” Mezcal can be made from espadin, cirial, cupreata, arroqueño, tobala, salmiana, tepestate, tobaziche and other agave varieties. But that’s not the only thing that separates mezcal from tequila. Another key difference between tequila and mezcal is how the agave hearts are cooked.
In Tequila, the halved agave hearts (called piñas) are steamed in autoclaves (these are stainless steel pressure cookers used for the cheap stuff) or baked in ovens or hornos. Baked is better. Piñas, so-called because they resemble large pineapples, can weigh 25 to 50 kilos.
With mezcal, the past is still present. The traditional way to cook agave hearts is to dig a pit, and fill it with hot rocks as well as the fronds (pencas) of the agave plants and the agave hearts. These will roast (and smoke) for days, if not weeks. The resulting spirit is very smoky and earthy, compared to the tidier baked notes of tequila.
Tequila and Mezcal: How?
Despite common misunderstanding, the agave is not a cactus. Rather, it is but one of a family of succulents from the lily family, with more than 400 species. Agave’s botanical name is agavacea, the Greek word for royalty, and at maturity (minimum of 5 to 6 years) develops a sap called aguamiel within its piña.
Some books erroneously state that aguamiel is fermented into a kind of milky beer called pulque and then is distilled. WRONNNNNGGG. Pulque cannot be distilled since it turns into something like gum in the pot still.
To make tequila or mezcal, the agave hearts are cooked and shredded (or sometimes shredded then cooked) but they must be cooked before fermentation. The juice of the agave hearts is pressed out and then fermented; now the fermented juice can be distilled.
Tequila and mezcal may be distilled either in continuous stills or pot stills. Most of the best are only in pot stills or small hybrid stills. They come out of those stills at fairly low proof, compared to spirits such as vodka and even whiskey. As a result, tequila has a lot of flavors and aromas and can seem very intense to most people. Nonetheless, wellmade tequila can finish with a gentler, tart, and almost mild character, despite its assertive aromas.
Some mezcals are distilled in ancient, even primitive clay pot stills. These medieval contraptions probably enhance the smoky flavor, but mezcals can be no less seductive in their finish, even if the first flavors are wild and crazy.
Tequila and Mezcal: When?
Although Tequila is a truly Mexican spirit, it is accurate to describe its creation as a Spanish invention. But there is a heritage and history associated with this elixir dating back over a thousand years. Before the Spaniards brought the art of distillation to Mexico in the early 1500s, the Aztecs consumed a wine-like liquid called pulque, made from the fermented syrup extracted from the heart of agaves plants. Spaniards called it Vino de Mezcal. Though consumption of pulque was reserved almost exclusively for religious rites, the agave plant (aka, maguey) was utilized by Mexico’s native peoples for everything from food and drink to shoes, soap, building supplies, rope and even medicine.
Tequila’s fame rose north of the border more slowly. While a handful of border U.S. states—Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, California—joined in, the rest of the U.S. was ignorant of tequila’s charms until Prohibition. During that time, any spirit was good spirit, and tequila gained some notoriety, at least in gossip and print.
It’s erroneous to assume that only the Margarita put tequila on the world consumer’s map, but it did a lot to popularize the strange Mexican spirit. Lots of people have claimed credit for the drink’s creation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Daisy was a standard bar drink, with citrus juice, a syrup or liqueur sweetener (such as orange curaçao) and a spirit base. In the 1920s and 1930s, a drink called the Tequila Daisy was popular in the bars of Tijuana and elsewhere in Mexico.
Before we let Margarite Sames take all the credit for inventing the drink (that’s just one of many stories), we should note that the Spanish word for “daisy” is margarita. In any case, the Hollywood set of the 1930s partied heartily with Tequila Daisies or, if you prefer, Margaritas. Even today, the Margarita is the single most popular cocktail in the United States. It’s done a lot for tequila, even if some Margaritas seem to have very little tequila in them.
Despite U.S. intransigence in protecting the name, more than three quarters of tequila and mezcal exports are sold in the U.S. And tequila and mezcal dollar sales growth in the U.S. outstrips any other category over the last decade, at least by percentage.
It took a little longer for tequila to conquer the rest of the world, although it’s worth noting that the 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book, from London, contains ten recipes for tequila drinks. But it really wasn’t until the 1970s that tequila began making inroads in European markets, where its growth was driven in no small part by the association that it had acquired with the counterculture and the rock and roll lifestyle.
Principal Tequila Cocktails
Tasting Tequila and Mezcal
As usual, the best way to find flavor and identify differences is to put several tequilas and mezcals next to each other. Mezcal should be readily identifiable by its characteristic smoky smells. Blanco, reposado, añejo and extra añejo will often be easy to spot by color alone, with añejo and extra añejo being deeper in color. So turn the lights down a bit and see if you can smell the differences.
One of the most interesting distinctions to agave spirits is that the site where the agave is grown seems to be expressed in many Tequilas and Mezcals,. It’s especially noticeable in blancos and reposados, before the barrel has a chance to cover up more subtle differences. High elevation tequilas are often more citrusy in the mouth and nose (lemon, lime, and grapefruit) and can have a smell that some people call “wet sidewalk” or “wet cement”.
Check to see if they are:
• Clean or dirty
• Dry, salty, tart or slightly sweet
• Smooth, spicy or aggressive
• Gentle or powerful
• Fruity, floral, vegetal, earthy and/or herbal • Rich or thin
• Soft, sharp or burning
If they are aged in oak, they can have all of the above flavors as well as spices, coconut, vanilla, chocolate, ash and other barrel/woody smells. Tequila can be very complex and powerful but it should be clean and dry and not bitter and not sweet.
Earlier we wrote that the word “whiskey” is derived from the Gaelic
term “uisce beatha”, which means “water of life.” But the term “whiskey”, as it’s spelled both in Ireland and the U.S. (“whisky’, if you’re in Scotland, Canada or Japan— although it’s worth noting that this convention is recent and completely arbitrary) connotes that a grain spirit has been aged in oak long enough to take on new aromas and flavors, most of which come from the barrel itself. These smoky, spicy notes define the taste of whiskey (the generic spelling we’ll use for convenience) for most people.
As so often with rules, the time required in barrel for a grain spirit
to earn the title of “whiskey” varies from country to country. While differences other than barrel aging requirements exist among the world’s many whiskeys, it is a whiskey’s time in barrel that does the most to define it. Most whiskey distillers postulate that up to 70 percent of the flavor of their whiskey comes from the barrel in which it is matured.
We’ll also address the issue of where the barrel has been aged, but for the moment, it’s enough to state upfront that every whiskey in the world is made from only three easily obtained ingredients: grain, water and yeast.
Whiskey is a grain spirit that has been distilled in continuous and/or pot stills and that is aged in barrels for some specified period of time. In its essence, whiskey is a beer that has been distilled to high proof and then has been aged in oak. A recent trend in the U.S. involves small, artisanal (as they identify themselves, often accurately) distilleries marketing white or unaged whiskey. To date, there has been no breakthrough product of this description, but it bears observing.
Whiskey is made all over the world. One way to think of whiskey production holds that anywhere that beer is made, whiskey can be made.
In the U.S., North American blended whiskey (see below) is the number one category of whisky in sales volume; Canadian whisky is close behind. However, in the U.S., the fastest growing spirit category of all since 2000 has been Irish whiskey. In 2009, Irish whiskey again enjoyed double-digit growth, from San Francisco to Boston. In Scotch whisky, single malt whisky sales remain strong while blended whisky sales (see below for definitions) are stable. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey sales are robust, though bourbon is only now gaining the dominance and reputation it so surely deserves.
In Great Britain, Scotch whisky dominates the market, as it does in much of the world. In Ireland, though, it is of course Irish whiskey that rules as this dynamic industry expands. The addition of a fourth whiskey distillery, Kilbeggan, brings new hope and inspiration to Irish whiskey’s international audience.
Other, non-English speaking countries also produce whiskey; none are more deserving of our attention than Japan, though Japanese whisky (as they spell it) will remain little known for the foreseeable future. There are also quality whiskeys from Brittany in France (a Celtic area), Germany, Sweden, Austria, Australia and India.
Of the major whiskey-making countries, only Scotland makes a big noise about the particular district or area where a distillery sits. Why? Because with all but a handful of other spirits (cognac, armagnac, tequila and mezcal), where a spirit is distilled doesn’t have a profound impact upon the flavors in that spirit. Indeed, with Tequila and mezcal the region where the agaves are grown is far more important than the particular location of the distillery.
In Scotland, though, the distillery’s address has something to do with the flavors in the whisky. We can argue as to why. Is it the water they use?
SPIRITS & LIQUEURS
Is it the temperature of the water they use? Is it the proximity to the ocean and the preponderance of the salty, briny sea air on some islands? These are no small details because they impact the character of many blended and single malt Scotch whiskies. In other words, the whiskies from
The Glenlivet Distillery in Speyside are unique and emblematic of that particular place in the Scottish Highlands.
Some outdated books divide Scotland’s distillery regions into groups such as Speyside (a classic area around the Spey River in east-central Scotland), the Lowlands (where all those grain whiskies are made), the Western Highlands (some of them are fairly fruity, but isn’t that from the old wine barrels they use?), the Islands (with their briny, salty, sea air derived intensity), and Campbeltown (with a touch of everything to it).
Paul Pacult, one of BAR’s partners, knows a good deal more about these things than most other living humans and he no longer buys into such a fragmentation. For Paul, it’s as simple as talking about inland distilleries (they tend to be a bit more elegant, and often show the peppery floral note redolent of heather flowers and other vegetation) and the maritime distilleries that so often burst with the aromas of the ocean. Everything else is due to something other than location.
Scotch and Irish Whisk(e)y – When:
If Scotch whisky is viewed as a benchmark of whiskey making, it’s worth noting that a century ago, Irish whiskey was king. That’s not to say
that whiskey in Ireland necessarily preceded whisky in Scotland since the actual history of each is sketchy. There are lots of hints at spirit production in Ireland possibly as early as the twelfth century A.D. and in Scotland by the thirteenth century, but the first irrefutable proof is
a Scottish tax record from 1494 A.D.: “To Friar John Cor, by the order of the King, to make aqua vitae, eight bolls of malt”. The good friar wasn’t cooking up a little medicine for scrapes and cuts; eight bolls is the equivalent of over 1,100 pounds of malted barley. Somebody was thirsty.
Consequently, bits of circumstantial evidence point to the leap of faith that there must have been substantial distillation happening prior to that record, albeit smaller, less commercial endeavors. Some historians believe that Irish Celtic monks visited the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) some years before Friar John was filling his still and brought back with them the secrets of boiling fermented liquids. The Muslim rulers of Spain and Portugal were well versed in the distilling arts, and their alchemists made medicines and perfumes in their stills.
It stands to reason with current knowledge that Irish travelers, perhaps clergy, brought the concept back to Eire where monasteries were the
sites of large-scale beer brewing (as well as cheese making and other
￼necessities of life). At some point, monks began distilling their beers. Many historians, including BAR’s resident whiskey maven Pacult, believe that the Irish brought the concept of distillation to the Scots, possibly in either the thirteenth or fourteenth century.
In any case, by the middle of the 1500s, when it was still something
of a rarity in Scotland, whiskey was so well established as the drink of the Irish people that the English occupying authorities felt the need to pass regulations against its excessive use. Eventually, the English wised up
to the revenue potential of this new industry. That fact goes a long way toward explaining how until recently distillation was a cottage industry in both Ireland and Scotland. The health and vigor of both countries’ spirits industries were purposefully hampered by British tax laws. As little more than colonies of England, the two were not supposed to offer any competition to England’s wares. Taxes and tariffs saw to that.
One notable Scottish exception is Ferintosh, a distillery along the Scotland’s eastern coast. During one of Scotland’s many brief and bloody rebellions, the owners of Ferintosh threw their lot in with the English Crown. From 1690 to 1784, when the excise law was changed, Ferintosh was alone in being allowed to export its Scotch whisky to England. The rest were forbidden to export. They were welcome to consume their whisky and to trade it with their neighbors, so long as they paid an onerous tax upon every drop they distilled. But they were never to sell
it the outside world, unless they first paid taxes and then sold it to an English middleman who would earn all the profits.
In the years before the laws were changed in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, thousands of Scots were imprisoned for producing and/or smuggling spirit to England and Europe by land or sea. By 1824, much of the illegal activity was quelled by changes in Parliamentary legislation that made it easier and cheaper to become fully licensed. Unsurprisingly, smuggling convictions plummeted by the 1840s.
Not everyone was happy with the new rules. In order to produce whisky, a distillery had to purchase a license and the license came with some strings. For one, you had to house and feed an exciseman (tax collector) on your premises so that the Crown could be assured that you weren’t playing any games with those rules. That was bad enough. But housing a government man on your property meant that all your neighbors had to either go legal and buy a permit (and house a revenue man of their very own) or give up distilling illegally, as some had been doing for centuries.
George Smith, proprietor of The Glenlivet Distillery, so angered his fellow Speyside distillers that he traveled (and even slept) with a pair of pistols at his side. It wasn’t bluster; some of his neighbors swore bloody
SPIRITS & LIQUEURS
revenge for bringing the government into their midst along the river Livet. The pistols came in handy; there are two well-known episodes during which they saved his life.
But Parliament had finally ended most illegal distillation in Scotland, and planted the seeds of a mighty, global industry. Still, Scotch whisky was more or less a small cottage industry until the development of continuous stills. Those stills were fired up and cranking out neutral grain spirit in
the Lowlands and it only took a few enterprising individuals to utilize the cheaper, neutral spirit in the pursuit of a cheaper, easier to sell spirit.
Their names are still common today: Andrew Usher, Chivas, Johnnie Walker, Ballantine, Dewar, Buchanan and a number of other grocer/ merchants who simply wanted to blend their purchased single malt whisky barrels into something very consistent, affordable, large scale and, well, brand-able. In other words, they could create a whisky, put their names on it, and never have to do anything other than go shopping.
Clearly, it worked. In 1901 a British court decided that any whisky created in Scotland could theoretically be called Scotch whisky, regardless of whether it was made in a pot still (like single malt) or a continuous still (like grain whisky). Since then blended Scotch whisky sales have crushed the sales of single malts, and today dwarf the whisky sales of any other country’s output.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, things developed rather differently, to the point that, thirty years ago, the industry was dying. After a wildly prosperous nineteenth century, when the distilleries of Dublin, Belfast and Cork turned out vast quantities of high-quality pure pot still whiskey, both to supply a massive domestic market for export to America and all corners of the British Empire, the twentieth century hit the Irish distillers like
a sock full of shillings—the Irish rebellion of 1916, Prohibition in America, two World Wars, a worldwide Depression, the Troubles in the North, heavy emigration from the Republic, and a domestic shift away from whiskey to the cheaper beer. The list of commercial disasters and misfortunes is a long one.
By 1980, the 30 working distilleries that the island had supported
in 1900 had been culled to just two, both of them owned by the same company: Bushmills in Northern Ireland, which made Old Bushmills, and the Midleton distillery in County Cork in the Irish Republic, which made everything else, from Jameson’s to Power’s to Paddy to Redbreast. Long- established distilleries such as Locke in Kilbeggan, which had been in operation since the mid-eighteenth century, were closed and silent.
Neither of the working distilleries was much interested in the kinds of well-aged top-shelf bottlings that appeal to whiskey connoisseurs. They focused instead on lighter, younger blended whiskeys that were priced to
￼compete with Johnnie Walker Red Label, White Horse, Dewars and all the other Scotch blends that had dominated the world market for Celtic whiskey since the turn of the century. Now, there’s nothing wrong with blended whiskeys, per se. But there is an irony here: the whole reason the Scots turned to making them in the first place, back in the mid-nineteenth century, was to have something more like what their cousins across the Irish Sea were selling.
Traditional Scotch whisky, as we’ve seen, was the sort of thing that those who loved it loved well, but it definitely wasn’t for everybody. The solution Scotland’s whisky-merchants hit upon was blending. The Irish, on the other hand, had no need to monkey around with blending and column stills (while column stills were in operation, particularly in Ulster, their product was marked for export and didn’t find its way into Irish whiskey until the mid-twentieth century).
Irish distilling boasted a number of differences in they way they did things from the Scots, such as much larger pot stills, which yield a lighter spirit; triple distillation (likewise) and the use of hot air rather than
peat smoke to dry their malt made for a whiskey that was smoother and cleaner-tasting (and cheaper to make) than Scottish pot-still whisky.
Yet, Irish whiskeys had far more body and flavor than the insipid grain whiskey—particularly since Irish distillers generally mixed their malted barley with raw barley, oats and rye, which gave it a pleasing, spicy graininess. On the strength of this, Irish distillers were able to resist the economic advantages of blending until the late 1930s, when they were finally forced to install continuous stills.
Whisk(e)y – How:
Rules and traditions vary from country to country so it’s best to take whiskey data one country at a time in this order: Scotland, Ireland, United States, and Canada.
Whisky – Scotland
Scotland is justly viewed as the epicenter of whisky making in the world. Walk into a bar anywhere (outside of the U.S. and Ireland) and if you ask for a whisky, the bartender will point at a wall of Scotch bottles. What precisely are they showing you?
Scotch is a distilled and aged in wood grain spirit: distilled either from relatively inexpensive grains (such as corn or wheat) or from malted barley. If you’ve double- (or occasionally triple-) distilled the barley beer in pot stills at a single distillery, the whisky you make from that malted barley beer is called a single malt whisky.
If you’re using corn or wheat, you’re probably using continuous stills and distilling to neutral grain spirit levels (say 190-proof or so). In other words, you’re starting to close in on vodka territory. But regardless, if you aged that spirit into a whisky, you would call that whisky a grain whisky because you made it from a grain, and not from malted barley or “malt”.
Back in the production module we discussed how beer was made: grains were allowed to become warm and wet and they would sprout, believing spring to be at hand. As they prepared to sprout, latent starches would be converted into sugars. The brewmaster would roast those grains at that very moment, in order to halt the sprouting process and capture those sugars. The grains would then be ground up, boiling water added, and the sugary cereal/soup would be ready for yeasts to convert those sugars into alcohol.
In beer production, the amount of time the grains are roasted helps determine the style of beer. Dark beers such as Guinness have been roasted until they are dark and chocolaty. In Scotch production, the roasting can be equally as influential. Here’s why: for much of Scotland’s history, the only fuel they had available was peat; coal was too expensive and forests were cleared for farming by the time the Romans invaded Britain in the first century B.C. Peat is compressed vegetation that’s halfway to becoming coal. Damp, it’s cut from the ground and allowed to dry. When you burn it, it’s intensely smoky.
So malted barley used for Scotch has traditionally been roasted over smoky fires and the resultant whisky smells smoky. There’s no other word for it, though we spirits writers like to talk about the brine and the salt and the earth and the leather and the smell of the sea. But we’re mostly just talking about the smokiness imparted to the grain during the roasting. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that not all Scotch whisky is made from peat-smoked barley.
Scotch production regulations are particular about the grains you use. When the semi-sprouted and roasted grain is barley, it’s referred to as malted barley; in Scotland, a “malt whisky” can be made only from malted barley. If any other grains are used, it must be called “grain whisky”. If the malt whisky comes from a single distillery (as opposed to blends from several distilleries), it’s called a “single malt whisky”.
The vast majority of Scotch whiskies (95 percent) sold in the U.S. and the rest of the world are not single malt whiskies. They are “blended Scotch whiskies”. A blended Scotch whisky is comprised of at least one single malt whisky and a large dose of grain whisky.
This may seem confusing, so hang on. You already know what a single malt whisky is. Great blended Scotch whiskies have many single malt whiskies blended into them; the idea is to capture as much complexity as possible by adding a bit from some of the best distilleries around Scotland,
￼from legendary places such as Speyside, Campbeltown and the islands. But almost all of the blended Scotch whiskies have far more grain whisky than single malt whisky in them. So a very serious blended whisky may be comprised of 40 percent single malts (from a bunch of places, to gain complexity) and 60 percent grain whisky. A blended Scotch whisky intended for the well in someone’s bar probably has only ten or twenty percent single malt whisky in it.
So the grain whisky is a huge factor in blended Scotch whisky. And most grain whiskies are distilled to the sort of proof that we associate with vodka. In other words, most grain whiskies don’t have a lot of flavors and aromas, at least not compared to single malt whiskies. That said, without the filtration and multiple distillations that vodka undergoes, they still manage to retain some grain flavor.
But here’s the kicker, single malt whiskies have too much flavor for a lot of people. One hundred and fifty years ago, there were few blended Scotch whiskies and few people outside of Great Britain drank Scotch. Once distillers began dumping grain whisky into those powerful and flavorful single malt whiskies, well, then sales started to really take o. Blended Scotch, it can be stated, turned Scotch whisky into a national industry with global implications.
And if single malt whiskies are much sought after for their often intense personalities, it’s worth remembering that a great blended whisky contains a lot of those personalities, softened with a dose of grain whisky. Sure, the single malt might be more singular, but the community of personalities contained in a great blended whisky is likely to be far more complex than a single malt. Don’t be a whisky snob!
So the categories of Scotch whisky are:
• Single Malt Whisky: a whisky made of malted barley, double distilled in pot stills (only one malt distillery, Auchentoshan in the Scottish Lowlands, triple distills) at one distillery, distilled no higher than 70 % abv, and aged in oak barrels for a legal minimum of three years. At present there are about 100 malt distilleries operating around Scotland.
• BlendedScotchWhisky:awhiskymadeofmaltwhisky(doubledistilled in pot stills) and grain whisky (probably distilled in continuous stills to a very high proof) and aged in oak barrels for a legal minimum of three years. • Blended Malt Whisky (formerly known as Vatted Malt Whisky): a blend comprised only of at least two single malt whiskies, instead of products of only one (single) distillery, and aged in oak barrels for a legal minimum of three years.
• GrainWhisky:awhiskydistilledfromanygrain(typicallyeitherwheator corn), usually distilled in continuous stills, and aged in oak barrels for a legal minimum of three years. There are around eight grain distilleries in Scotland.
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￼Barrel usage and selection are crucial. You will most frequently see used bourbon barrels, but there are many producers who love to add
the dried fruit characteristics that can be leached out of used sherry barrels. In truth, sherry barrels were adopted a century ago because all sherry was once shipped to England in barrels (not in bottles as is legally required today) and the empty barrels were cheap and plentiful. While used bourbon barrels are still relatively cheap, used sherry barrels are not. Sherry producers no longer ship their product in barrels, and typically don’t want new barrel aromas and flavors; they’re perfectly content to keep using the old barrels until they break.
By law, all whiskies made in Scotland must be aged in wood barrels for a minimum of three years, though most are aged for much longer. So Scotch producers have to buy the barrels new and loan them to the sherry makers, who will hand them over after a decade or two of use. Just for the record, they make the Scotch producers pay for shipping too. Not a bad deal.
Also, two other salient points regarding Scotch whisky. One, the age statement on the bottle (18 Years Old, 21Years Old, for example) is the age of the youngest whisky used in that particular bottling, no matter the type of Scotch whisky. Two, in addition to the normal bottlings of single malts issued directly by distilleries, there is, of late, another type of single malt offering, called merchant bottlings. These are whiskies that have been purchased by the barrel from brokers or malt distilleries and then aged and bottled by independent merchants/agents, such as Gordon
& MacPhail, Duncan Taylor, Scott’s Selections, Cadenhead’s, Compass Box, Murray McDavid and many others. What makes these offerings intriguing is whether or not they mirror the established style of the distillery. Anyway, be aware of them for your customers’ education.
Whiskey has been produced in Ireland perhaps since the twelfth century A.D., and certainly since the fifteenth. Speculation espouses the concept of Christian monks trained either in Salerno, Italy or in Spain as the prime movers of distillation in Ireland. English invading forces are said to have reported back to King Henry II in the 1170s about how the Scots- Gaels produced a potent liquid made from “boiling”, which carries the clear implication of distillation. Whether or not it was beer or wine that they were boiling will never be known. That said, it appears likely that
in twelfth century A.D. Ireland the distillation of liquids occurred. After great success and then a great crash, detailed above, the Irish whiskey industry is showing great signs of resurgence.
Before World War One there were hundreds of whiskey distilleries dotted across Ireland. Two world wars, the Irish Civil War, the Great Depression and the U.S. Prohibition drastically changed forever the landscape of Irish distilling. Right now, there are only four distilleries running in Ireland, Jameson-Midleton in County Cork (Republic of Ireland), Old Bushmills in County Antrim (Northern Ireland), Kilbeggan Distillery in County Westmeath (Republic of Ireland), and Cooley Distillery in County Louth (Republic of Ireland).
But that’s double the number there were twenty years ago, and Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirits category in U.S. and several other global markets, more than doubling in the past five years. Irish whiskey’s natural mixability accounts for much of this dramatic growth. What’s more, many new bottlings of fine, well-aged whiskey are available, and whiskey connoisseurs are rapidly coming to understand and acknowledge that some of the finest whiskeys made in the British Isles and indeed the world hail from the Emerald Isle.
Some whiskey books foolishly claim that all Irish whiskey is triple distilled with unmalted and malted barley in pot stills. That’s false. Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley—the three main distilleries operating in Ireland, the newly-reopened Kilbeggan being the fourth—all make whiskeys that are triple distilled from 100 percent malted barley while Jameson, the leading Irish whiskey in the world and unquestionably a more representative Irish whiskey than any other, is based not only upon pot still barley whiskey, but also upon corn or wheat “grain whiskeys” that have been distilled to a higher proof in continuous stills. Again, as with blended Scotch whisky, adding some grain whiskey to the blend makes for a milder, easier-to-drink spirit. Less aggressive flavor and easy drinkability aren’t negatives, especially when you’re trying to compete with the vodka monster.
If the Scots, to some cynical observers, have been annoyingly specific about which grain you can use and which kind of still is to be used, the Irish have been less vocal about their industry’s standards. They allow both pot stills and continuous stills into their production methods and they allow malted barley and unmalted barley, as well as any other grain you like (they used to use a lot of oats and rye but now they use wheat and corn almost exclusively), and you can use any sort of barrel you like. Occasionally, the malt used is peated as with many Scotch whiskies, but in general it is not.
Like whiskey producers the world over, used bourbon barrels are the most common aging vessels in Ireland. Bourbon producers are required by law to use brand new white oak barrels for all new spirits, so there are a lot of used barrels hanging around the yard. And much as their Scottish neighbors across the Irish sea are, the Irish are now playing with not only used sherry barrels, but also used port and Madeira barrels, used wine barrels, and anything else that sounds interesting and can be bought reasonably. The Scots too have expanded their barrel palate to these and other kinds of oaks. Like Scotch, Irish whiskeys must be matured in barrels for a three-year minimum.
Also, small pot stills in Ireland are usually larger than the biggest pot
still in Scotland. Why is that important? Because big pot stills, like those at Midleton Distillery that produces Redbreast, allow for the distillation process to happen many times inside the large pot; it’s a little like a continuous still, in which a series of chambers allows a succession of individual pot distillations to happen. Instead, the massive Irish pot stills allow the vaporized spirit to knock about inside the pot, often re-condensing on the still’s sides and sliding back down to be vaporized yet again.
That means the spirit that comes out of a big still tends to be cleaner, lighter and less heavily aromatic than the spirit that comes out of a small still. Between the lack of smoke and the bigger stills, Irish whiskey justifiably has a reputation for being softer and milder than most single malt Scotch whiskies.
There are four fundamental kinds of Irish whiskey:
• Single malt whiskey: made from 100 percent malted barley in a pot still in a single distillery. Bushmills leads the way in this category, but Midleton and Cooley also make some.
• Grainwhiskey:continuousstillsmakethislightwhiskeyofwheatorcorn. • Pure Pot Still whiskey: made from malted and unmalted barley in a pot still. Redbreast is the classic.
• Blended Whiskey: A marriage of single malt and/or single pot-still and grain whiskeys. Jameson and John Powers are examples of single pot-still and grain whiskey blends, while Bushmills’ blends are single malt and grain whiskey. Paddy and Tullamore Dew are blends of single pot still, single malt and grain whiskeys.
Makers of Irish whiskey, unlike Scotch whisky, typically do not use peat to roast their grains. As a result, the smoky/ ash-like note so evident in Scotch is rarely present in Irish whiskeys, though there are a couple of exceptions from Cooley Distillery.
Whiskey: Bourbon and Tennessee – USA
Some people might complain that we’ve lumped these two great whiskeys together, but only a few details separate one from the other and it makes complete sense to address both varieties simultaneously. Both bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys, the greatest whiskeys made in America, require that the producer use only brand new charred oak barrels for aging (customarily, these are made from American white oak). Both utilize corn as the dominant grain in the mashbill (the recipe that contains the grain ratios), along with a little bit of barley and either wheat or rye in similarly small amounts. Both whiskey types carry the sweet character of corn, along with the burnt and smoky wood-like notes of charred barrels. Both demand a legal minimum of two years in those barrels, but anything less than four years in barrel must be spelled out on the label. And, both are distilled to no higher than 160-proof (80 percent alcohol) and bottled at no less than 80-proof (40 percent alcohol).
While Kentucky is the state most identified with bourbon, bourbon can legally come from any state in America. Virginia has long been a whiskey- distilling stronghold. Ironically, Bourbon County, Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon two centuries ago, has no working distilleries at this time. The majority of bourbons are products of continuous distillation first and then a second distillation in a kettle-like still called a “doubler” or “thumper”.
Tennessee sour mash whiskey is made only in Tennessee. And Tennessee whiskey production has one more little wrinkle. In the mid- 1800s, the founder of Jack Daniel distillery, Alfred Eaton, introduced
a filtration step, utilizing little cubes of charcoal from the local sugar maple trees. The “Lincoln County Process” requires only that the spirit be filtered through sugar maple charcoal prior to aging, though the two Tennessee distilleries ( Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel) each employ huge round vats through which the unaged spirit is gently dripped, or in which the spirit soaks. The idea is to remove a few more congeners and render the spirit smoother, but some people think the Lincoln County Process adds a charcoal note to Tennessee whiskey as well.
Otherwise, bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys have much the same flavors and aromas. Another small detail: bourbon requires at least 51 percent corn in the mashbill, though there may be as much as 80 percent; Tennessee has the same minimum of corn but demands that corn fill no more than 79 percent, perhaps in hopes that the small grains (as they call wheat and rye) will produce a slightly lighter, gentler whiskey.
Last, both of these varieties of American whiskey are considered “sour mash” whiskeys, or whiskeys in which a small portion of each fermentation (the “backset”) is held back and then added to the next mash. This innovation was created and promoted by Dr. James Crow in the 1830s and remains a staple production step to this day. The sour mash concept ensures a large measure of character, continuity and consistency from batch to batch.
Rye Whiskey – USA
Rye whiskey was the favored spirit of colonial America since rye was the grain of choice in the eighteenth century. Just a few years ago, mainstream rye brands were hard to find, but cheap if you found them. Rye whiskey
is the hottest thing flowing across American whiskey bars right now, fuelled by cocktail geeks who have noted that the classic Manhattan recipe (among others) calls for rye whiskey, not bourbon. Today, rye is hard to find because of demand and thus is ever more expensive. Whiskey producers aren’t stupid, but the process of making whiskey is slow, so until there are more rye whiskeys on the market, the prices for those that are available will keep going up.
The rules for rye whiskey are exactly the same as for bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys, except that the mashbill now requires a minimum of 51 percent rye (though it’s usually more), while corn and barley make up the remainder.
Bartenders are learning that rye offers another desirable weapon behind bars; instead of the sweet ponderousness of corn, there is a lighter, spicier character to rye. Cocktails made with rye can seem crisper and more peppery than those made with corn. Rye whiskey sales are growing at nearly 50 percent annually over the last two years, making it one of the hottest spirits categories in North America.
Bonded Whiskey – USA
The old-timers still buy these, but Bonded Whiskeys are fewer in number
and farther between sightings. Not long ago, producers created whiskeys bottled in bond; the tax on the whiskey wouldn’t be paid until the whiskey was sold and “released from bond”. It would (and still must) come from a single distillery and needs at least four years barrel aging. But all that is less important than the tradition of selling that bonded whiskey at 100-proof.
So when you see a whiskey bottle that says “Bottled in Bond” or “Bonded Whiskey”, you’re looking at a 100-proof (50 percent alcohol) whiskey, which is a couple more gears on the crankshaft than the usual 80-proof that fills most whiskey bottles. Use with respect, but expect a gutsier, more intense whiskey.
Straight Whiskey – USA
Not to confuse the issue, but the term “Straight Whiskey” applies to any whiskey that has been distilled to no higher than 160-proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof and contains at least 51 percent of one type of grain in the mashbill. So straight whiskeys include bourbon, Tennessee, corn and rye. It’s similar to what we will cover in the Brandy module: Brandy is a kind of distillate made from wine and a spirit category. Cognac and armagnac are types of brandies.
Corn Whiskey – USA
You don’t see much of this category anymore. A corn whiskey follows all the same production rules as Tennessee, bourbon and rye except that,
if aged in wood at all, it must be placed in previously used charred oak barrels or uncharred new ones, and a mashbill with a minimum of 80 percent corn is necessary.
Whisky – Canada
Grain distilling in Canada is almost as old as grain distilling in the
￼￼United States, dating to the late 1700s. At first, the whiskey being made in England’s Canadian colonies was indistinguishable from what was being made in Pennsylvania or Maryland or any of the other colonies that would become the United States. Pot stilled, rye-heavy, rough and unaged. In the early and mid nineteenth century, however, under the impetus of pioneers such as Thomas Molson, William Gooderham, James Worts, Henry Corby and Joseph Seagram, Canadian whisky (note the preferred spelling) began taking on an identity of its own. It’s worth noting that all of those men were all Englishmen, as opposed to the Germans, Scotsmen and Irishmen who dominated the industry south
of the border, and they set up their distilleries in an English way—they tended to be large, technically advanced and with a preference for clean, pure spirits to rough, funky ones (the majority of England’s distillers were actually rectifiers, who took raw spirits from elsewhere and redistilled them into things like gin and “British brandy,” a rectified grain spirit flavored to resemble brandy).
In any case, in the early nineteenth century Canadian distillers such
as Molson and Gooderham & Worts were making two main types of whiskey, a pure barley-malt whiskey for export to Britain and American- style rye and corn (and also wheat) whiskeys for local consumption.
As yet, there was little market for either of these products in the United States. That changed with the American Civil War, when Canadian whiskies flooded in to make up for the shortfalls the war caused in domestic production. By the end of the century, the firms led by Harry Corby and Hiram Walker (an American, ironically, who for most of his life commuted every day to his Canadian distillery and offices by taking
a boat across the Detroit River from his home on the American side) were exporting considerable amounts of a new kind of Canadian blended whisky to the United States and indeed to markets around the world. This new whisky, a Canadian version of the blended whiskies that were turning Scotch into a global spirit, was basically what we think of when we think of Canadian whisky today: a fairly light, mellow and well-aged product made by blending a base whisky—essentially a Canadian version of the grain whisky used in Scotland—and one or more “flavoring” whiskies. Where in Scotland the flavoring whiskies were single malts, though, in Canada they were American straight whiskeys, much like they were made south of the Canadian border. Brands such as Hiram Walker’s Canadian Club, Seagram’s and Gooderham & Worts’ G&W Special were making inroads into the American market and widely available, at least in the northern states.
Prohibition shuttered many an American winery, brewery and
SPIRITS & LIQUEURS
￼distillery and created a criminal class that still bedevils American life today. But its effects upon Canada were demonstrably kinder. The second year of Prohibition saw a 400 percent increase in Canadian whisky sales, most of that delivered via the Great Lakes or a (recently discovered) pipeline across the Detroit River. In worldwide export markets, the suddenly unavailable whiskeys from the United States were soon replaced by brands such as Canadian Club, Corby’s Royal Reserve and Wiser’s Old Rye.
After Repeal, Canadian whisky had gained such a strong position in the United States market that to this day it remains one of the highest- selling categories of spirits in the country: in 2013, 16.5 million cases of Canadian whisky were sold, versus 18 million of bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey.
Canadian Whisky Today.
The twentieth century subjected the Canadian whisky industry to
the same pressures that affected American distillers. Consolidation and standardization shrank the number of distilleries, greatly expanded them in size, and limited the number and variety of products they were making. At the same time, heavy capital investment and a lack of regulations limiting distillers to traditional methods allowed the Canadians to build the most technologically advanced whisky industry in the world. Today, there are eight main distilleries making Canadian “rye,” as the whisky is known in Canada (the name is traditional rather than descriptive: it’s entirely possible, and indeed common, for a Canadian whisky made from 100% corn to be labeled “rye”); all are owned by large multinational corporations.
The Hiram Walker & Sons distillery in Windsor, Ontario (across the river from Detroit) is owned by Pernod-Ricard Ltd and makes Wiser’s and Corby whiskies, among others, for Pernod-Ricard and contract- distills Canadian Club for Beam-Suntory. It is the largest distillery
in North America. Also in Ontario is Brown-Forman’s Collingwood distillery, home of Canadian Mist and Collingwood and Campari’s Kittling Ridge distillery, where Forty Creek is made. Diageo makes Crown Royal and several other brands at distilleries at Gimli, Winnipeg and Valleyfield, Quebec. There are three distilleries in Alberta, Beam- Suntory’s Alberta Distillers in Calgary, home of Alberta Prime and a
few other brands, Constellation Brands’ Palliser distillery in Lethbridge, home of Black Velvet, and the small Highwood plant in High River, which makes a variety of niche brands. Beyond these, there are a number of microdistilleries making malt and other international styles of whisk(e)y.
￼While there are detail differences between the processes used in these eight distilleries, they agree on general principles. Most of the whiskies they make are blended from a base whisky and one or more flavoring whiskies, although occasionally they will release one of the flavoring whiskies or, rarely, the base whisky by itself. Let’s look at these two styles of whisky in a little more detail.
The base whisky. This is generally made from 100% corn, with enzymes derived from the aspergillum mold used to start fermentation (instead of the small proportion of barley malt used in other countries). It is distilled in large column stills to 94.5% alcohol (the same proof used in Scotland for grain whisky). It then goes into used American oak barrels to age for a minimum of three years. The result is a light and very clean but by no means flavorless spirit. Depending on the amount of aging and the number of previous times the barrel has been refilled, this can be a surprisingly rich spirit (a fine example is Wiser’s Red Letter, pure base whisky aged in a first-fill bourbon barrel for ten years).
The flavoring whiskies. If the base whisky recalls Scotland, the Flavoring whiskies are pure America. There is a great deal of variation here between distilleries, but the basic products fall into three or four general categories. There’s rye whiskey, which is either made from 100% rye (some or all of which may be malted), 90% rye and 10% (roughly) barley malt (as many Pennsylvania and Maryland ryes were formerly made) or a mashbill like contemporary American ryes, with 5-15 % barley, a portion of corn and a larger portion of rye. These are distilled to around 65% alcohol, often by running them once through a column still and another time through a large pot still (that, for instance, is how the flavoring whiskies for Wiser’s and Corby are made). Then there’s corn whiskey, made from a similar mashbill to an American bourbon by the same process as the rye. Finally there are wheat and barley whiskies, often single-grain, also made like the rye.
These flavoring whiskies tend to be lighter and dryer than their American counterparts, where they have one. Lately, American entrepreneurs have been buying older barrels of Canadian blending rye and bottling it as rye whiskey, to mixed reviews.
Blending. Canadian distilling companies don’t share blending stock. Each blends with its own products. For the cheaper blends, a large proportion of base whisky will be combined with one or more flavoring whiskies. It will be rare for anything in the blend to be older than the minimum. For the more expensive blends such as the Wiser’s 18, the process can be much more complex, with multiple, well-aged flavoring whiskies blended together and then mixed with a much smaller portion of base whiskey, also well aged. While the most common blending profile is to use a large proportion of base whisky with a small amount of rye whisky for flavoring, there are many other proprietary combinations on the market, often with a high percentage of flavoring whisky (the law does not regulate base whisky-flavoring whisky ratios in any way and there is no requirement to use flavoring whisky at all).
Adjustments for the American market. Some bottom-shelf Canadian blends made for the American market have in the past been blended with up to 9.09% neutral spirits made from American oranges or wines. This gave the brands substantial tax relief in the US, enabling them to better compete against American blended whiskeys, which are made
of straight whiskeys blended with (cheap) neutral spirits and not (relatively expensive) base whisky. Only a few distillers took advantage of this provision and only for their cheapest blends. It’s unclear if they still do. Under the Canadian Food and Drug Act of 1993, which for
the first time defined the parameters of Canadian whisky, it may unlike American bourbon or rye, may contain caramel and flavoring, although that flavoring has to be either a wine or a distilled spirit aged at least two years in small wood. This means that things such as prune juice, formerly added, are now forbidden. The regulation does allow blenders to add things like sherry and brandy to their blends, although they are rarely used and never in large quantity.
The state of the industry. After years of basically ignoring it, Canadian distillers are beginning to pay attention to the premiumization trend that has brought forth so many great bottlings in Scotland, Ireland, the United States and Japan. Canadian distilleries, however, are vast and industrial and difficult to visit and Canadian distillers can be reticent about their products and secretive about their processes. All of that hinders the flow of information that drives premiumization. Fortunately, with figures such as Don Livermore, master blender at the Hiram Walker distillery for Wiser’s and Corby’s and Crown Royal’s master blender Andy Mackay, who are willing to speak out with pride about their products and reach out to educate journalists, consumers and spirits industry people, we
can expect more light cast on this fascinating, little-known corner of the whisk(e)y world.
Blended Whiskey – North America
You might wonder why we left this category for the end. For this reason: while there are good American Blended whiskeys, most are intended to imitate Canadian whisky’s blended smoothness, and most are far less successful at it than Canada. While North American blended whiskey
SPIRITS & LIQUEURS
￼(Seagram’s V.O. and Seagram’s 7 Crown) remains the largest single category of whiskey sales in the U.S., those numbers have been falling for years, in favor of whiskeys with more individual character.
The rules are pretty loose: additives are allowed (see Canadian whisky above), and there must be at least 50 percent neutral grain spirit in the blend. There is always more than that. Trust us.
Principal Whisk(e)y Cocktails
- Rob Roy (Scotch)
- Blood & Sand (Scotch)
- Hot Toddy/Whiskey (any whisky/whiskey) • Scotch Highball (Scotch)
- Irish Coffee (Irish)
- Blackthorn (Irish)
- Manhattan (Bourbon/Rye) • Old-Fashioned (Bourbon) • Whiskey Sour (Bourbon)
- Highball (Bourbon/Rye)
As usual, the best way to find flavor and identify differences is to put several whiskeys next to each other. If you taste a Scotch next to a bourbon, or a bourbon next to a Canadian, or an Irish next to a Scotch, it’s a heck of a lot easier to figure out how they differ than if you just drink one at a time and wonder.
So we’ll try it in our instructive flight. And once you’ve settled on those differences, put a few island whiskies next to some inland whiskies. Or place a higher-proof single barrel bourbon up against a more common whiskey and see what makes each one tick. Again, it’s a lot easier to spot flavors when there are identifiable differences between each whisky or whiskey in front of you.
All the while you’ll test them to see if they are: • Clean, dirty or hot
• Dry, salty, tangy or slightly sweet
• Smooth, spicy or aggressive
• Gentle, powerful, briny or earthy
• Fruity, floral, vegetal and/or herbal
• Rich or thin
• Soft, sharp or burning
It should be clean and dry and not bitter and not sweet.
The term “brandy” is derived from the Dutch word for “burnt wine,” brandiwijn. Simply put, brandy is wine that has been distilled into a spirit and then aged in barrels. But, with centuries of human toil beside the still, brandy is a many- splendored thing. Brandy might be a very special
old spirit, aged for decades in a place called Cognac, in western, coastal France. It might be a clear spirit often made from Muscat grapes in Peru near a seaside town called Pisco. It might be a clear distillate, called “eau de vie” (that’s “water of life”, if you’ve been paying attention, or even
if you haven’t), made from raspberries, pears or cherries produced in Central and Western Europe.
Additionally, in the U.S. and some other countries, the word brandy can be used to describe a low proof, sweetened and flavored spirit, often based upon neutral grain spirit and artificial flavoring—for example, “cherry brandy” or “apricot brandy” (historically, these would have had a brandy base).
But for this module, we’ll focus on the good stuff. Moreover, we’ll break them all into two rough groups: unaged grape spirits and aged grape spirits. Unaged grape spirits include eaux de vie, grappa and marc (more about those below).
Aged grape spirits include the basic category we call brandy, referring to a distilled wine that has been aged in oak for a specified time, usually
at least six months or longer. These matured kinds include cognac (an area in central western France), armagnac (Gascony is another area
in southwestern France) and calvados. Calvados is yet another area in France (Normandy in the northwest), but this one doesn’t use grapes to make its wine; it uses apples with a few pears thrown in for good measure.
Brandy – How:
If you can ferment wine and boil it, you can make brandy, and perhaps some old school grappas may remind some people of a drink that is that basic. But a smart distiller knows that the grapes or the juice from which a brandy is made have to be in great shape.
Grappa used to be hot, fiery stuff; we will admit that. But a few decades ago, a handful of smart distillers began producing high quality, delicious grappa, because they were careful with the grapes they used. In the past, grappa was something you distilled from “pomace,” which is the leftovers of winemaking. Most grappa distillers took grapes that had been dumped out of a fermenter after their juice had been made into wine, sprayed some water on them and threw the gooey mess—often with stems, seeds and all—into a still, usually after a couple of months of other sundry winery work. It’s not surprising that old-style grappa was coarse and weird. But a dynamic group of innovative distillers—Jacopo Poli, Antonella Bocchino, and Benito and Giannola Nonino come to mind—studied every aspect of grappa production in the 1970s to see if they could improve grappa production. The most important innovation they introduced was to rush the grape skins into the still soon after they were removed from the fermenter. This change of tactic makes all the difference in the world by by making the grappas taste remarkable fresh. And like skilful distillers the world over, they also carefully cut heads and tails, reserving the heart for bottling. The top grappas are expensive, it is true, but they are difficult and expensive to make correctly. This new generation of grappa producers has turned this once ridiculed spirit into a world- class distillate category.
As mentioned above, pisco is a distillate made from grapes and made in Chile or Peru. Each country has its own set of grapes from which they ferment wine and then distil pisco, but Peru definitely has the historical lead and a heck of a lot more material (different kinds of grapes) from which to distil. Peruvians also prefer pot still while the Chileans lean towards continuous still distillation. Pisco is far smoother than most grappas, because it is almost always made from distilled wine, and not from distilled grape-pomace.
Marc is a French spirit, a kind of grappa or pomace-brandy made from leftover grapes and grape skins, only this time it’s made in France, much of it in the Burgundy region. There are other names the French use; ratafia is a common grappa- like spirit made in the Champagne region.
Cognac is a wine based brandy, distilled from Ugni Blanc grapes (there are very few other grape types grown in Cognac), twice distilled only
￼in pot stills (a.k.a., alembic Charentais) and aged in Limousin (French) oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Even more importantly, Cognac is a place, where all these grapes must be grown and where this brandy must be aged. Cognac’s six demarcated growing districts are, in order of importance, Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois à Terroirs. The two Champagnes are renowned for their chalky/limestone soil and account for what are the two longest- lived types of cognac, brandies that are especially deep and flavorful.
The Ugni Blanc grape might be unfamiliar to you, but it’s Italy’s
most widely grown grape, Trebbiano. It doesn’t have much flavor (try a Trebbiano from Italy and you’ll see what we mean) but it hangs on to its acidity and even after distillation can hang on to its fruit flavors. Indeed
the chalky, limestone soils of the Cognac region are such that the brandies made from Cognac’s grapes continue to show fruitiness even after decades in bottle. Though there are lots or reasons why cognac can be truly great, the limestone soils are the chief reason that cognac ages so remarkably well.
Cognac, like many things having to do with the vine, can get really complicated when it comes to legal classifications. But remember that the main reason French wine (and cognac) has so many rules, regulations and titles is to make a consistent, trustworthy product and then to convince someone that it’s worth paying a lot of money for that. So a category of cognac such as XO, which stands for Extra Old, is controlled to the extent that customers around the world like to believe that any XO cognac they see is old and venerable. Sometimes it’s even true.
The categories of cognac are VS (Very Special) or Three Star (aged at least two years in French oak barrels); VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) or Five Star (aged at least four years in French oak barrels); and XO (Extra Old), Napoleon, Extra and Hors d’Age. This latter group has been aged in French oak barrels for at least six years.
Isn’t it funny that they use English words (Very Special and the like) to name these very French brandies? Yeah, well, they know exactly to whom they are selling.
The balmy, rural and hilly Armagnac district (a.k.a., Gascogne) is southeast of Bordeaux. The Armagnaçais make their brandies differently than their peers in Cognac do, preferring to employ unique, hybrid two- column stills, some of which are attached to flatbeds and driven around the countryside by so-called “roving distillers”. Distillation range is from 52-72 percent alcohol by volume. Some smaller producers use pot stills only, while others use a combination of both styles of stills.
They mostly use the prolific-growing, thick-canopied Ugni Blanc
SPIRITS & LIQUEURS
grape variety along with far lesser amounts of Folle Blanche, Colombard and Baco. And they have minimum aging requirements in French oak barrels (black oak from the Monlezun forest), just like they do in Cognac. However, there are both continuous and pot stills in use in Armagnac and many armagnac bottlings can seem a bit more rustic (and some would say interesting) than run-of- the-mill cognac.
Some commercial armagnacs are made in similar fashion to cognac. Most are not, and these tend to be the more expensive versions. They can be a more herbal, a little citrusy and a lot less smooth than great cognac. But some people think smooth is boring.
As with cognac, Armagnac has minimum aging requirements: for them, VS (Very Special) or Three Star is aged at least two years in French oak barrels; VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) or Five Star is aged at least five years in French oak barrels); and XO (Extra Old), Napoleon, or Extra is aged at least six years in French oak. Hors d’Age Armagnac is a special category in Armagnac: it has slumbered in French oak barrels for at least ten years. As with cognac, the best producers exceed these minimum aging requirements by many years.
One last note: don’t be fooled by people who tell you that the oldest armagnac (or cognac, for that matter) is the best. It depends upon your taste, and frankly, it depends upon the brandy. Some brandies taste wonderful when they’ve slept for twelve or fifteen years in a barrel. Some need twenty years to come to the loveliest balance of the fruit in the spirit and the spice and confection that comes from the barrel and the aging. Others break down chemically with excessive barrel aging. Just because it’s expensive and old doesn’t automatically mean that it’s legendary.
Calvados, from northwest France, shares much of the same aging nomenclature: Fine, Three Star or Original Calvados must be aged in French oak casks for at least two years. Vieux or Réserve Calvados are aged in French oak casks for at least three years. Vieux Réserve, VO or VSOP Calvados are aged in French oak casks for at least four years. And the special categories of Hors d’Age, Extra, XO or Age Inconnu are aged in French oak casks for a minimum of six years.
Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados – Where:
While most brandies could come from anywhere that grapes are grown and wine is made, the top brandies such as cognac, armagnac and calvados don’t seem to be vulnerable to imitation. There seems to be something unique that each region brings to the brandy they make, and each region prizes certain sub-zones far above others, though each is a part of the protected
names embodied in the words cognac, armagnac and calvados.
Cognac is divided into six sub-zones, called Bois à Terroirs, Bons Bois,
Fins Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne and Grand Champagne. Other than a small strip of land in the Fins Bois, the best cognacs are produced in the latter three regions, where the limestone is the oldest and the chalk content is the highest.
Most cognac labels won’t list any particular region, but some do
and perhaps it indicates that someone is rather proud of that cognac
and where the grapes used to make it were grown. Many believe that Borderies provides a fat and even nutty character to cognac, while the longest-lived cognacs are grown in Grande Champagne, where in the soil the greatest content of chalk is found. If a district is cited on the label, the brandy must be 100 percent from that district.
But most cognacs are blends, skilful combinations of both greater and lesser regions. There is also a category called Fine Champagne or Grande Fine Champagne, and it represent a blend of Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne cognacs, with a minimum of 51 percent of the spirit coming from Grande Champagne.
Armagnac has three demarcated production zones: Bas- Armagnac, which has clay and alluvial soils; Ténarèze, where the soil is a mix of clay and limestone; and Haut-Armagnac, which has more sand and limestone. Most people think the best armagnacs are grown in Bas Armagnac because of their freshness and vivacity but a lot of people love Ténarèze just as much because of their ability to mature for long periods.
Calvados hails from the northwestern portion of France in beautiful Normandy and Brittany. Grapes don’t grow well in this cooler, even colder, seaside landscape but apples and pears do. Indeed there are dozens of species of each, and many distillers believe that it’s the myriad of species that make it possible to create a great apple-based brandy in this place.
Again, they have broken the area into sub-zones, with Pays d’Auge considered the best area of Normandy and of Calvados’ demarcated areas. Pays d’Auge is an area that requires that the calvados there be distilled twice only in pot stills. The other two districts are Calvados AOC, the largest, all encompassing region and the one with the least exciting brandies, and Calvados Domfrontais, where both apple and pear ciders (minimum of 30 percent pears) are distilled.
Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados – When:
The Armagnaçais have gotten a raw deal. They preceded Cognac’s practice of distilling by a couple of centuries (probably the 1300s A.D.) and yet their sales represent a fraction of the sales of cognac worldwide. Sometimes being first isn’t good enough.
SPIRITS & LIQUEURS
Armagnac is a rural, heavily agricultural, and isolated place while Cognac was the part of France that was owned by England for five hundred years. During that time, the British took feverishly to cognac, the brandy. Their turn as a world- dominant, nineteenth century power (it wasn’t so long ago that the phrase “the sun never set upon the British Empire” was rampant because that empire encompassed the globe) meant that they shared their enthusiasm for the spirit with everybody else.
Armagnac is the product of a part of France that has been, at times, Basque country. The Basque people are a fascinating breed. Indeed, some historians postulate that they are, in fact, a separate strain of human species. Regardless, the Basque regions of France and Spain have customarily been isolationist, if not actively hostile to outsiders for millennia.
Cognac, on the other hand, didn’t practice distilling until the late sixteenth century, but within forty or fifty years was widely acclaimed for its great brandies and, ever since, for its great brandy marketing. The Cognaçais were quick to protect the name (lots of countries created imitation products called “conyac” and the like) and even quicker to understand that they needed to create a worldwide image of exclusivity and excellence in order to build a long-term market. It would be hard to fault their work since many linguists consider “cognac” to be the most recognized French word around the world.
Things went along swimmingly until the arrival of the vine-eating phylloxera louse into Europe’s vineyards in the 1860s. The North American bug destroyed nearly all of Europe’s grape vines by 1880 and the remedy (grafting American vine stock onto established European vines) was difficult, time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive, taking years to achieve. Meanwhile, whisky and gin took hold. As Winston Churchill once said, “My father drank brandy and soda. I drink whisky and soda.” The impact upon the brandy regions of France was huge. They grafted over to American stock as soon as they could but many vineyard owners never recovered.
They eventually recovered, even in the midst of world wars. While whisky sales remain the largest category of aged spirit sales, and vodka and soju (see glossary) remain the world’s largest spirit categories, nobody is starving in Cognac, at least not among the growers and distillers. Indeed, the running joke is that the rich folks and owners in Cognac all drive Mercedes and Jaguars. Everybody else has to make do with lowly BMW’s or Peugeots.
Principal Brandy Cocktails
• Sidecar • Stinger • Alexander • Brandy Sour • Pisco Sour ￼
Once you reach the pinnacle of brandies (great XO cognacs, armagnacs or calvados or even some Spanish and American brandies), everything becomes a bit more difficult to distinguish. But that’s a good thing. If spirits are so delicious and complex that you aren’t sure which one to love more, then you are a lucky taster indeed.
But let’s start with the basics: what makes armagnac, cognac and calvados taste different from each other? Cognac is usually smooth and refined while armagnac is robust and assertive and calvados is, well, apple-like and should be the easiest to identify. And what makes an XO cognac so expensive, and a VS cognac so (relatively) cheap? The answer is the time spent in oak barrels, which costs the distiller more in tax and labor. Sensory evaluation-wise, it’s a lot easier to spot flavors when there are identifiable differences between each of the brandies in front of you.
All the while you’ll test them to see if they are: • Clean, dirty or hot
• Dry, salty, tangy or slightly sweet
• Smooth, spicy or aggressive
• Gentle, powerful, briny or earthy
• Fruity, floral, vegetal and/or herbal
• Rich or thin
• Soft, sharp or burning
It should be clean and dry and not bitter and not sweet.
Liqueurs/cordials are defined as alcoholic beverages of a spirits base comprised of grain, grape, fruit, or vegetable that are flavored with:
• Botanicals such as herbs, barks, seeds, roots, plants
• Fresh and dried fruits
• Dairy products, including butter, cream and milk
• Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, pepper, coriander
• Beans including cocoa, coffee vanilla
Liqueurs – How:
Methods of Adding Flavors: There are four methods for flavoring a spirit, all essentially the same for the last four or five hundred years.
• Compounding – a supplement made of a sugar solution combined with concentrated flavorings is added to the base alcohol.
• Infusion – a liquid is steeped with the flavorings (fruits and/or herbs) prior to distillation. The resultant drink will probably be fairly light in flavoring aromas.
• Percolation – flavorings are placed inside the still to flavor the distillate as it passes through a screen or net of the flavorings. This process can capture very intense or very ethereal aromas and flavors.
• Maceration – a distilled spirit steeps with the flavorings for a period of time, often weeks. This may not capture more delicate aromas but will certainly contain the strong and often bitter flavors of a fruit or herb.
Liqueurs are produced in any nation that produces beverage alcohol Liqueurs have existed for at least six centuries. History’s first liqueurs were made in Europe to combat intestinal problems like dyspepsia, or difficult digestion. Particular liqueurs made of special combinations of roots, barks, grasses,
plants, seeds (caraway, aniseed), and herbs (mint, sage, rosemary) have been long known to aid digestion, which is why liqueurs are typically served in postprandial situations. Other common ingredients in liqueurs, such as honey and cream, likewise assist in processing foodstuffs through the intestines and colon.
Fruit and Nut-Based Liqueurs
Note: in the United States, a fruit “brandy” is generally in fact a fruit liqueur based on heavily sweetened and flavored grape brandy.
• Amaretto(Italy):originallyfromItaly,thisalmond-flavoredliqueurgains its flavor from apricot stones, though some of them utilize almonds as well • ApricotBrandy:mostcordialproducersofferaversionofthissweetliqueur. • BlackberryBrandy:mostcordialproducersofferaversionofthissweet liqueur.
• CherryBrandy:mostcordialproducersofferaversionofthissweetliqueur. • CoconutLiqueur:mostcordialproducersofferaversionofthissweetliqueur.
• Cointreau:aproprietary(andpremium)versionoftriplesec,basedon Curaçao oranges.
• Curaçao:ahistoricallyimportantliqueurflavoredwithbitter-orange peels. The artificially colored versions were introduced in the 1930s.
• CrèmedeCassis:flavoredbyblackcurrants,originallyfromsouthof France and the base for a Kir or Kir Royale.
• CrèmedeNoyaux:flavoredbyapricot,peachorotherfruitstones,with an almond flavor.
• GrandMarnier:aproprietary(andpremium)versionoforangecuraçao, based on cognac.
• Mandarine:flavoredwithMandarinetangerines,brandyorCognac-based • Maraschino:theflavoroftheflesh,pitsandevenstemsandleavesof Marasca cherries from Dalmatia and north-eastern Italy
• Metaxa:aGreekgrapebrandythathasbeensweetenedandtowhich herbs are added
• SloeGin:sloeberriesfromBlackthornbushes,otherwiseknownassloe plums, provide the flavor for this once-popular spirit. Plymouth Sloe Gin is a quintessential example.
• Triple Sec: a clear, higher-proof version of curaçao; see Cointreau
Herb, Coffee and Cream-Based Liqueurs
• Akvavit or Akavit: a caraway seed-flavored spirit.
• Anisette: flavored with anise seed.
• Benedictine D.O.M.: a brandy-based cordial flavored with twenty-
seven herbs and spices, and created in the early 16th century in France
• Benedictine & Brandy: Benedictine blended with brandy
• Chartreuse: an ancient cordial flavored with over a hundred herbs, fruits and spices. The VEP green version at 110-proof is very potent. The milder Yellow is 80-proof.
• Chocolate-Suisse: chocolate-based liqueur
• Crème de Cacao: flavored with cocoa beans and vanilla
• Crème de menthe: available in green or white versions, flavored by mint plants, usually peppermint.
• Drambuie: a Scotch-based liqueur with heather and honey
• Galliano: a sweetish cordial flavored with herbs and spices
• Goldwasser: caraway and anise with floating flakes of gold
• Irish Cream: the pioneer of the cream liqueur category; Irish whiskey mixed with sweetened, stabilized heavy cream
• Irish Mist: Irish whiskey flavored with honey and herbs
• Kahlua: a rum and coffee liqueur made from 100% Arabica coffee beans
• Kümmel: a caraway-based liqueur; an Eastern European specialty with a good deal of history.
• Ouzo (Greece): anise-based and sweet, Greek liqueur
• Peppermint Schnapps: very common peppermint-based cordial
• Sambuca: elder bush is often used to give this anise-like flavor, although the distillate can be made from aniseed.
• Strega: flavored with many herbs and spices
• Tia Maria: coffee-flavored liqueur based upon rum
Bitter Liqueurs (Aperitifs and Digestifs)
In general, these come in two kinds: aperitivi (in France, apéritifs) “openers,” which are lower-proof and meant to be taken before a meal to stimulate the gastric juices, and digestivi/digestifs, “digestives,” which are higher in proof and follow a meal to help everything digest properly. Most of both take their bitterness from the use of quinine, which gives them an additional anti-malarial function. As the category names imply, they are a particular specialty of Italy and France, although Central Europe makes a fair number as well.
• Amaro/Amari: Amaro, Amer and Amargo are respectively the Italian, French and Spanish words for “bitter.” This traditional category reaches back to the beginnings of distillation and therefore to the creation of healthful, even magical medicines through alcohol’s ability to extract and preserve the vital essences of plants. Most of these bitters still boast of their histories as folk medicines. Italy, in particular, is rich in these amari. Indeed, it seems like every town on the Italian peninsula makes their own type. In general, amari come in two kinds: aperitivi (in France, aperitifs), or “openers,” which are lower-proof and meant to be taken before a meal to stimulate the gastric juices and digestifs, or “digestives,” which are higher in proof and follow a meal to help with digestion. Typically, they are produced by macerating herbs, roots, flowers, bark, and/or citrus peels directly in the alcohol. This mixture is then allowed to age in casks or bottles. Many amari acquire their bitterness from the use of quinine, which gives them an additional anti-malarial function.
• Amer Picon (France) – herb-based aperitif with bitter orange notes.
• Becherovka (Czech Republic) – bitter herbal golden-amber-colored liqueur with notes of clove, cinnamon, and ginger; produced according to a secret recipe since 1807 and currently enjoying a resurgence among craft bartenders.
• Campari (Italy) – red, bittersweet Italian aperitivo without which a Negroni cannot be made.
• Fernet Branca (Italy) – a digestivo with a cult following among American bartenders
• Jägermeister (Germany) – an herb-based digestif.
• Lillet (France) – a lightly-quinined aperitif with notes of orange; comes in a delicate white and a more robust red.
• Malnais Balzams (Latvia) – herb based bitters.
• Vermouths and Aromatized Wines – Vermouths are a special category of aperitifs. The word vermouth comes from the German “Wermut”,
or wormwood. In most cases, aromatic wines are fortified with grain or grape spirit. The Italian style vermouths were traditionally sweet and red (the color comes from the botanicals, not the wine, which is white) but in 1800 Joseph Noilly of France, introduced a new, dryer style of vermouth that was white.
Although Italian and French vermouth differ slightly, the basic formula consists of a base wine that is mixed with mistelle (sweetened grape juice and brandy) and flavored with herbs, roots, bark, and flowers. The manufacturing process is fairly complex. Herbs and flavors are steeped in the base wine
and in the brandy. After steeping, the wine, mistelle and brandy are blended mechanically in large vats. The mixture is blended, pasteurized, then refrigerated for two weeks to allow impurities to crystallize, then filtered and bottled.
Anise Liqueurs and Absinthe
Absinthe, the anise-flavored spirit, was first made in Switzerland in
the mid eighteenth century. Among the first commercially produced anise-flavored spirits, absinthe was made with oil extracted from the wormwood leaves. Wormwood belongs to the same plant family as tarragon and mugwort, and contains a powerful substance called thujone,
about which a great deal of misinformation has been printed.
The German word for wormwood is wermut, and early vermouths
contained the thujone-producing wormwood. After several well- publicized drunken murders, absinthe was made illegal in most countries and vermouth producers quietly discontinued the use of wormwood. Absinthe was one of the most popular distilled spirits in the late nineteenth century, both drunk on its own or dashed into cocktails. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, concerns about its high alcohol content and “toxic” thujone (not in fact present in any quantity in most well-made absinthes) led it to be banned in the United States and most European countries.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, global prohibitions against absinthe began to collapse. Since it was legal in some parts of the E.U., it was difficult to prohibit in others. The U.S. ban on absinthe was lifted in October of 2007. This loosening of restrictions has meant that brands are now flooding into the market, including one of the originals, Pernod Absinthe.
Sherry ( Jerez-Xeres)
From its earliest days, Sherry (or Jerez) has had a significant role in the world of cocktails. Coming from the beautiful region of Andalucia in the southern tip of Spain, Jerez is a fortified wine produced from three types of vinifera grapes. Palomino, the most important variety, is a white grape that is fermented to be bone dry and is utilized as the base for virtually all types of Sherry. The Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel grapes are both harvested late and arrested during fermentation to lock in their rich sweetness. These two varieties are added to dry Sherry to make it sweet.
The wines are fortified with low alcohol grape brandy before being blended in the Solera method of aging. This process creates several differing styles of Sherry, ranging from light, crisp and very dry to dark rich and as sweet as wine can be. Sherry, no matter dry or sweet, retains high levels of acidity due to the climate and the Albariza (high calcium) soil that exists in the vineyards of Jerez.
Sherry’s styles include:
• Fino and Manzanilla: Fortified to develop a thick layer of flor, a naturally occurring layer of yeast that protects the wine from oxidation during aging. These wines are very light in body and high in crisp acidity. • Amontillado: Allowed to undergo some oxidation, this style of Sherry is light and nutty with dried fruit and nut flavors. It is fuller-bodied and darker in color than Fino, yet is still dry on the palate.
Oloroso: Spending most of its time aging without the protection of flor, Oloroso develops a flavorful, fruit-driven style. Oloroso has several incarnations, some of which have no sweetness at all. The rich nature of the wines, however, makes them delicious when blended with wines from the Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel Soleras. Check the labeling to determine whether it is a dry or a sweet Oloroso.
• Palo Cortado: This rare variety is defined as having the qualities of both Amontillado and Oloroso. Palo Cortado is a unique style that has similarities to both. Always special, these wines are identified by their unique development within an individual Solera.
• Dessert Styles: Whether Oloroso blended with a percentage of Pedro Ximenez and/or Moscatel, or those same grapes bottled on their own, you will find a range of dessert styles of Sherry from slightly sweet to deeply sugary varieties with unctuous flavors of figs and dates.
Sherry has always been successful in cocktails. The Sherry Cobbler was one of the first and most popular. Today, Sherry has been reinserted into the world of mixology with varying styles being stirred in to accompany or replace vermouths and bitters and shaken in to utilize the numerous flavor profiles found in each style of Sherry. Bartenders have rediscovered that the acidity, body and varying tastes that exist within the category make Sherry a versatile addition to their ability to create exciting drinks for their guests.
The Rest of the World
We are the fortunate generation in which a Golden Age of Spirits is thriving and expanding, year by year. There exist hundreds of outlander spirits, both arcane and obvious, that help to make this era a boom time for bartenders and admirers of distilled spirits. Many of the arcane spirits stretch the conventional categories while others enhance the existing mainstream categories. Craft distilling is at an all-time high and these intriguing spirits alone account for many of the most interesting spirits available at the present time, spirits that cut new paths in the domain of distillates. The bottom line is this: mixology has rarely experienced a period with such an abundance of flavor possibilities. Go forth and mix profusely but with care.