Among the many distilled spirits available, there are just six base liquors: brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and whiskey. While distilled using similar methods, each is unique in flavor, and there are distinct styles within each category. These liquors form the foundation for most cocktails and are often employed to create all of the flavorful liqueurs used in the bar. By learning the basic characteristics of these liquors, you'll better understand how to use them in mixed drinks.
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Brandy is often enjoyed on its own. It's popularly featured in several classic cocktails and tends to be used in drinks that include just a few ingredients. However, many modern brandy recipes break this mold and experiment with brandy in some unique flavor combinations.
- Distilled From: Brandy is distilled from fruit. While grapes are used for traditional brandy, the liquor can be distilled from other fruits such as apples, apricots, cherries, and peaches.
- Flavor Profile: Brandy tastes like fruity burnt wine with a pleasant oakiness.
- Aged: It varies by style, but brandy is typically aged in oak and often blended.
- Produced In: Brandy is distilled worldwide. Certain regions of the world make specific brandy styles, such as cognac, Armagnac, and pisco.
- Styles: Cognac, Armagnac, Spanish Brandy, Pisco, American Brandy, Grappa, Eau-de-vie, Flavored Brandy (non-grape brandy)
- Alcohol Content: Typically 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof)
- Regulations: There are no distinct worldwide regulations for brandy, though some styles must be produced in certain regions using particular ingredients or methods.
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Gin's dry profile makes it a perfect candidate for dry (non-sweet) cocktails, including many classics and martinis. It is a nice base for cocktails with just a few ingredients and pairs well with lighter mixers and fruits and naturally works well with herbs.
- Distilled From: Gin is distilled from neutral grains such as barley, corn, rye, and wheat and flavored with a variety of botanicals, which vary by brand.
- Flavor Profile: Gin is herbal and dry. The primary flavor that defines gin comes from juniper berries, which impart its signature "piney" aroma and taste. The older style of gins (e.g., genever, Old Tom, Plymouth) have a gentle sweetness.
- Aged: Typically unaged
- Produced In: Gin is produced worldwide. Historically, it is best-known as a product of Europe (particularly the Netherlands) and the United Kingdom.
- Styles: London Dry Gin, Plymouth Gin, Old Tom Gin, Genever, New American (or Modern-Styled) Gin
- Alcohol Content: Typically 40 to 47 percent ABV (80 to 94 proof)
- Regulations: There are no distinct worldwide regulations for gin though it is accepted that juniper berries must be included.
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Rum's sweeter flavor makes it one of the more versatile spirits. It was among the first liquors to be mixed into drinks, so there are some excellent classic rum cocktails to choose from. It is the obvious base for tropical drinks and appears in several warm cocktails.
- Distilled From: Rum is distilled from some form of sugar. Molasses is very common, and some rum uses pure sugar cane.
- Flavor Profile: Rum has a sweet toasted sugar taste that varies by style and region.
- Aged: Light rum is typically not aged, and other rums are often aged in oak barrels to some extent. Due to climate, aging times vary greatly; warm climate rum requires less barrel time than rum from colder climates. Rum is also often blended.
- Produced In: The Caribbean and South America are best known for rum production, though it is made worldwide.
- Styles: Light Rum, Gold Rum, Dark Rum, Over-Proof Rum, Spiced Rum, Cachaça, Flavored Rum
- Alcohol Content: Typically 40 percent ABV (80 proof). Overproof rums can reach 75 percent ABV (150 proof).
- Regulations: There are no distinct worldwide regulations, but some rums must adhere to regional laws and traditions. For example, cachaça must be produced in Brazil.
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Tequila has a great flavor profile that mixes well into a variety of cocktails. There are, of course, the margaritas and frozen cocktails in which tequila is mixed with any fruit imaginable. It also makes a perfect base for spicy cocktails and is very popular for party shots.
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- Distilled From: Tequila is distilled from the fermented juices of the agave plant.
- Flavor Profile: Most tequila has a vegetal, earthy flavor with semi-sweet and spicy tones.
- Aged: Blanco (or silver) tequila is un-aged. Reposado and añejo tequilas are aged, often in used whiskey (bourbon) oak barrels. Gold tequila is blended.
- Produced In: Tequila can only be made in Mexico. Agave spirits produced outside of Mexico cannot be labeled "tequila."
- Styles: Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, Extra-Añejo, Gold (Other agave spirits are mezcal, pulque, sotol, raicila, and baconara, but these are not "tequilas.")
- Alcohol Content: Typically 40 to 50 percent ABV (80 to 100 proof)
- Regulations: Tequila is the most tightly regulated liquor. The laws are defined under an Appellation of Origin, which was first adopted in 1978, and the industry is overseen by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT).
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Vodka's neutral taste makes it the most versatile spirit available today. Vodka cocktails include almost every imaginable flavor profile, from sweet to savory, fruits to herbs, and spices to sparkling mixers. Martinis and shooters are popular vodka drinks as well.
- Distilled From: Vodka can be distilled from almost anything, and it can be a catch-all category for white spirits that don't fit elsewhere. Neutral grains (rye, corn, wheat, etc.) and potatoes are the most common, though some vodkas are distilled from beets, grapes, and other bases.
- Flavor Profile: Vodka has a neutral alcohol/ethanol taste. This can varies greatly depending on the distillate base and added flavorings. Quite often, vodka is distinguished more by texture: oily vs. medicinal.
- Aged: Vodka is rarely aged.
- Produced In: Vodka is made everywhere and is traditionally known as a spirit from Russia and Poland.
- Styles: The base typically distinguishes clear vodka it was distilled from and/or the region it was produced. Flavored vodkas are a popular category.
- Alcohol Content: Typically 40 to 50 ABV (80 to 100 proof)
- Regulations: Vodka is open to interpretation, and there are no regulations on its production.
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Whiskey is another of the more versatile cocktail bases. With so many styles, there is the opportunity for great diversity in flavor profiles. It mixes well with other liquors to create complex drinks, and it pairs well with many fruits, particularly the darker fruits. Warm drinks are also very popular with whiskey.
- Distilled From: Whiskey is distilled from malted grains. It varies by style, but corn, rye, wheat, and barley are common. Many whiskies use a combination of a few grains in the mashbill.
- Flavor Profile: Roasted, malted grain with oak undertones should be expected in any whiskey. There are also distinct characteristics in each style.
- Aged: Whiskey is typically aged in charred oak. Some styles, such as bourbon, require new barrels while others use a mixture of new and previously used whiskey or wine barrels. Moonshine (also called white dog) is the primary exception to aging. Some whiskeys are blended, while others are single malts.
- Produced In: Whiskey is produced throughout the world, and the various styles are often defined by the country or region in which they're produced.
- Styles: Bourbon, Canadian Whisky, Irish Whiskey, Japanese Whisky, Rye Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, Tennessee Whiskey, Blended Whiskey, Flavored Whiskey
- Alcohol Content: Typically 40 to 50 percent ABV (80 to 100 proof) or higher
- Regulations: Most whiskey styles have their own distinct regulations governed by the country of origin. Those simply labeled "whiskey" or "blended whiskey" generally do not fall into a regulated category.
What Is A Standard Drink? National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink.