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History and Taxonomy of Distilled Spirits

For nearly 3,000 years people have been making potent spirits for medicinal and recreational purposes. In recent history, worldwide distribution has made it possible for us to taste beverages from around the world. What follows is a surface-level overview of the evolution and classification these products. See the glossary for help with any unfamiliar terms.

The Distillation Process

The basic distillation procedure is the same regardless of the spirit. Alcohol is not "created" by distillation, just concentrated. A weak alcoholic beverage such as wine or beer is heated to boiling in a still (see illustrations below). Since the various constituents of the resulting vapor (like water, ethyl, methyl, and isopropyl alcohols) will vaporize and condense at different temperatures, they may be selectively extracted to create a new mixture which may then be further aged and/or flavored by the distiller. The different kinds of stills (e.g., pot still, column still) function in different ways and result in products of vastly different makeup and taste, but the basic process is the same: slowly boil the liquid and keep the vapors you want.


The Primitive Distillates

Origin: 800 BC

Ingredients: various ferments

Around 800 BC distilled alcoholic beverages were being made in Asia. These included:

  • Skhou: In the Caucasus, from kefir (mare's milk)
  • Sochou/Shochu: In Japan, from sake (rice)
  • Saut/Sautchoo: In China, from tehoo (rice, millet)
  • Arrack: In India, from toddy (rice with molasses or palm sap)
  • Arika: By Tartars, from koumiss (mare's milk)
Distilled Mead

Origin: Britain, 500 AD

Ingredients: mead (honey)

Aqua Vini

Origin: Spain, 1200s

Ingredients: wine

Spanish forerunner of brandy.

Brandy

Origin: Italy, 1000s

Ingredients: fruit wine (unaged)

The word comes from the Dutch "brandewijn" meaning "burnt wine."

Grape Brandy

Origin: likely the first Western distilled beverage

Ingredients: grape wine

Cognac

Origin: Cognac, France, 1500s

Ingredients: wine (7.5% ABV, high acidity)

Process: Pot double-distill to 70% ABV, dilute to 50%, age in oak 2 years (minimum) to 5 years or more (Very Superior Old Pale--VSOP). Dilute (if necessary) to 40% ABV, color with caramel, add a small amount of sugar for taste.

Armagnac

Origin: Armagnac region, France, 1411 (first mention)

Ingredients: wine

Process: Pot single-distill to 53% ABV, age in sappy, strong black oak. Outside of France, armagnac is sometimes made in a column still, and with caramel syrup added.

Armagnac is generally drier than Cognac.

Brandy de Jerez

Origin: Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Ingredients: primarily the Airen grape of La Mancha and Extremadura

Process: Column distill (often elsewhere in Spain, then ship to Jerez) and age in sherry casks for minimums of 6 months, one year for Reserva, three years for Gran Reserva. In practice the best Reservas and Gran Reservas are aged 12-15 years.

Grapes from other regions are usually used as the local sherry grapes are too valuable for brandy production.

Metaxa

Origin: Greece, 1888 (invented by Spyros Metaxa)

Ingredients: wine

Process: Pot distill, flavor with Muscat wine, age at least three years, flavor with anise, rose leaves and other spices.

Grapes from other regions are usually used as the local sherry grapes are too valuable for brandy production.

Fruit Brandy

Ingredients: non-grape fruit wine

Process: Age minimally, and rarely in wood (fine calvados is an exception).

Not to be confused with fruit-flavored grape brandy.

Eau-de-vie

Origin: Alsace region, France, 1553 (first mention)

Ingredients: non-grape fruit wine

Process: Do not age.

"Water of life" in French, eau-de-vie is colorless. The term is also used in France to refer to brandy in general.

Calvados

Origin: Lower Normandy region, France

Ingredients: apple cider

Process: Age in oak casks for minimum of two years.

The best-known fruit brandy, calvados is made from the local small, tart apples.

Kirschwasser

Origin: Germany

Ingredients: black cherry

Applejack

Origin: United States, colonial period

Ingredients: hard cider (fermented apples)

The word comes from "jacking," a nickname for the freeze distillation procedure originally used.

Rakija

Origin: Balkans

Ingredients: various fruits

Often spelled "rakia", many varieties are popular on the Balkan peninsula where it may be made from grapes, plums (known as slivovitz, usually from the same sloe plum used to flavor "sloe gin"), apricots, pears, quince, figs, and walnuts.

Pomace

Ingredients: pomace wine (made from grape pulp, skins, stems and seeds)

The "poor man's brandy," pomace was originally something for wine makers to do with their grapes after pressing.

Grappa

Origin: Bassano del Grappa, Italy

Ingredients: pomace wine

Process: Don't age, or age 2-4 years.

Marc

Origin: France

Ingredients: pomace wine

Vodka

Origin: Russia, 1400s

Ingredients: rye or wheat, sometimes potato or another grain (traditionally the cheapest starch available)

Probably produced since the 12th century for medicinal purposes, the word comes from the Russian diminutive for "water." In the 1930s Vodka became popular in the United States where it is government-defined as a neutral spirit without distinctive characteristics.

Whiskey

Origin: Ireland and Scotland, around 1500; known as aqua vitae, uisge beatha or usquebaugh (all meaning "water of life") until the 1700s (name shortened from "usquebaugh" to "usky" and eventually "whiskey").

Ingredients: barley, corn, rye

Spelled "whisky" in Scotland, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand.

Single-Malt Scotch

Origin: Scotland, 1500

Ingredients: 100% barley malt

Process: Under the Scotch Whiskey Act 1988: pot distill to no more than 94.8% ABV, age in oak for at least three years, dilute with water and add nothing but caramel for color.

Currently there are only about 115 operating distilleries producing single-malt scotch.

Blended Scotch

Origin: Scotland, 1860s

Ingredients: single malt scotch (30-60%), grain alcohol (from corn)

Process: Mix several malt whiskies from different distillers with grain spirits (more neutral in flavor) produced in column stills.

Legal since the 1860s, the motivation for blending was originally economic but it also met the demand outside of Scotland for a milder spirit.

Irish Whiskey

Origin: Ireland

Ingredients: barley (60%), barley malt (40%)

Process: Dry the malt (don't roast), and triple distill.

Milder than single malt and some blended scotch.

Rye

Origin: North America

Ingredients: rye (minimum 51%), barley malt

Process: By law: distill at less than 80% ABV and age for at least two years in new charred barrels.

Some rye is bottled and marketed directly, but most is blended into other whiskies for character and structure.

Bourbon

Origin: Bourbon County, Kentucky, United States

Ingredients: corn (minimum 51%), barley malt

Process: By law: distill at less than 80% ABV and age for at least two years in new charred barrels. In practice, aged at least four years.

Tennessee Whiskey

Origin: Tennessee, United States

Ingredients: corn (minimum 51%), barley malt

Process: By law: distill at less than 80% ABV, filtered through bed of sugar maple charcoal, age for at least two years in new charred barrels.

Canadian Whiskey

Origin: Canada

Ingredients: corn or wheat with rye, barley, or barley malt

Process: Usually: blend from different whiskies of different ages; by law: age in used oak barrels for minimum three years (four to six in practice). Export in barrel or bottle in Canada at 43.4% ABV.

Rum

Origin: Americas, 1500s

Ingredients: molasses or sugar cane

Process: Distill in continuous still to about 85% ABV, filter, blend, and leach through charcoal for "silver" rum, age for 1 year (light-bodied) to 6 years (heavy), add caramel (if desired) to deepen color and flavor. For Jamaican Rum ferment longer and pot distill to lower purity.

Settlers in the New World began to make rum because barley had not yet been cultivated and molasses was plentiful.

Gin

Origin: Holland

Ingredients: juniper berries, various grains

The word come from the Dutch "genever" which means juniper. The number of botanicals in a gin ranges from 4 to 20.

Genever

Origin: Holland

Ingredients: malt wine (malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye)

Process: Pot double- or triple-distill at low proof, distill once more with juniper to about 48% ABV.

A few genevers from Holland and Belgium are distilled directly from juniper berries.

London Dry Gin

Origin: England

Ingredients: grain (corn, barley, malt, wheat, or rye), juniper berries, botanicals

Process: Column distill to 90 or 94% ABV, pot distill with juniper and botanicals, dilute, bottle. Generally, don't age. For some high quality gins juniper and botanicals go in a chamber in the still which the vapor passes through before condensation.

Plymouth Gin

Origin: Plymouth, England

Process: Copper pot distill.

Originally the local gin style of the English Channel port of Plymouth, now produced only by Plymouth, Coates < Co., which also controls the rights to the term Plymouth Gin.

Mezcal

Origin: Mexico

Ingredients: juice of any species of agave plant (a.k.a. maguey, pronounced muh-GAY)

Process: Cultivate agave 8-10 years, depending on the type, cut off flower stalk when it appears at plant's sexual maturity--growth is redirected into central stalk which swells with sweet, juicy pulp. After swelling, cut plant from roots and remove the long sword-shaped leaves, leaving the piña ("pineapple," so-called because it resembles a giant green and white pineapple) which weighs 25-100 pounds. Quarter piña, bake in underground oven heated with wood charcoal (for mezcal's distinctive smoky taste), and crush and shred to extract the sweet juice aguamiel ("honey water"). Ferment and pot distill agave juice to 55% ABV with water only (high-quality) or add sugar ("mixto"). If needed add natural flavorings and caramel for color.

The famous "worm" found in some bottles ("con gusano") is actually the larva of one of two moths that live on the agave plant. Reason for the worm is obscure, but it does serve as proof of high alcohol content--if worm remains intact, percentage of alcohol in the spirit is high enough to preserve the pickled worm. Top-quality mezcals do not include a worm in the bottle.

Tequila

Origin: Jalisco, Mexico

Ingredients: juice of blue agave (agave tequiliana)

Process: Similar to mezcal but bake piña in steam oven or autoclave (oversized pressure cooker) until all starch is converted to sugar.

  • Silver/Blanco: Age 60 days, less, or not at all.
  • Gold (usually a mixto): Unaged silver tequila plus caramel for color.
  • Reposado: Age in wooden tanks or casks for legal two months (three to nine months for better quality brands). Best-selling tequila in Mexico.
  • Añejo: Age in wood at least one year (one and a half to three years for high-quality mixtos, up to four years for high-quality agaves).

By Mexican law all 100% agave or aged Tequila is bottled in Mexico. All 100% agave tequila is labeled as such (otherwise it is a "mixto," made from fermented agave juice and other sugars, usually cane sugar with water). Aging tequila more than four years is controversial; most Tequila producers oppose it to protect the distinctive earthy and vegetal agave flavor.


Illustration of column still.

The column still.

The plates in each column are hottest at the bottom and coolest at the top. Liquids with low boiling points are concentrated in the vapor that leaves the first column and rises in the second. As is the case with the pot still, the impurities are recycled to extract their fraction of desirable ingredients.

Illustration from Harold McGee's excellent book On Food and Cooking. Modified slightly for readability at small size.

Illustration of pot still.

Pot distillation.

The container at center receives both the distillate from the first pot, which must be further purified, and the undesirable portions--the foreshots and feints--of the second distillation, more of whose alcohol can thereby be extracted.

Illustration from Harold McGee's excellent book On Food and Cooking. Modified slightly for readability at small size.

Glossary
barley malt
Barley kernels which have been soaked and which have begun to germinate. When used in beer production, the malt is dried to stop enzyme activity and prevent sprouting which would consume sugar intended for the yeast.
botanicals
Fruits, spices, and herbs used to flavor gin. Botanicals are either mixed into the wash prior to boiling or (usually for premium-brand gins) placed at the top of the still so that the alcohol can pass through in vapor form.
column still
Created in the early 1800s to avoid the process of draining and cleaning the pot still between batches, it is also known as the patent still or continuous still because it can be run constantly, without need for maintenance between batches. Column stills allow the distiller less control of the resulting flavor constituents and produce a characterless spirit relative to the pot still. It also allows the distiller to use cheaper ingredients since less of the original ingredients' flavor is preserved.
continuous still
See column still.
freeze distillation
Like distillation by heating, the objective is to separate the various constituents of a liquid, but freeze distillation uses cooling, rather than heating, to exploit varying freezing, rather than boiling points. Since water freezes at zero degrees Celcius and ethyl alcohol at -114, a fermented beverage is cooled and solid chunks of ice removed. Freeze distillation is rarely used for distilled spirits (outside of applejack). The process is not as efficient as normal distillation and is illegal in many countries due to an increased risk of high concentrations of the poisonous fusel oils the pot distiller must carefully remove.
green beer
Beer in the stage of production immediately after the yeast has been removed. It has yet to be conditioned, clarified, pasteurized and packaged.
kefir
Milk-based fermented beverage of the Balkans.
koumiss
Milk-based fermented beverage of the Tartars whose nomadic lifestyle did not allow them to cultivate grains.
mead
Honey-based fermented beverage from Europe. The name comes from the Sanskrit word for honey.
patent still
See column still.
pot still
The first type of still and the only one used until the early 1800s, a pot still actually consists of two pots, the first of which contains the wash. When the first pot is heated to between 173 and 212 degree Fahrenheit (hot enough to boil alcohol but not water), alcohol vapor rises up and out, into a coiled tube where it is cooled, collected, then re-heated and further purified. (Moonshine is the term for alcohol which has forgone the second distillation and which is potentially deadly due to its high concentration of poisonous constituents.) Because the pot still allows for precise control (when wielded skillfully), it is the still of choice for any spirit without additives in which the pure flavor is important (e.g., any good whiskey or brandy).
sake
Rice-based fermented beverage.
toddy
Fermented beverage made from rice with molasses or palm sap.
tehoo
Fermented beverage made from rice and millet.
wash
The raw ingredient of distillation (in liquid form), usually fermented fruit or grains.

Sources

Grimes, William. Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail. North Point Press, 2002.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Fireside, 1984.

O'Kennard, Jerald (Ed.). Tastings. Viewed 11 June 2002.

Various. Wikipedia. Viewed 30 November 2005.


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