Whiskey is a spirit, aged in wood, obtained from the distillation of a fermented mash of grain. Whiskey is produced in four countries: the United States, Canada, Scotland, and Ireland. The whiskeys produced in Canada, Ireland, and Scotland take on the name of their countries. Whiskeys produced in other countries, even though they may taste similar, cannot legally be called Canadian, Irish, or Scotch. Whiskeys vary in alcoholic strength, from 110 proof American bottled in bond whiskey, to 70 proof Canadian whiskeys, sold only in Canada. Most whiskeys sold in the United States are either 86 or 80 proof, depending on the distiller and brand.
American whiskeys are rigidly defined by law, and governed accordingly. They include bourbon, corn, sour mash, Tennessee, blended, straight, bottled in bond, and rye. The history of American whiskey and America parallel each other. Whiskey was an integral part of everyday life in the Colonial days. It helped comfort the settlers during hard times and was enjoyed at the end of a rough day. It was also used to cure snakebite, ward off disease, and ease pain both superficially and internally.
Canadian whisky is a distinctive product of Canada made under government supervision in accordance with the regulations governing the manufacture of whisky in Canada. Canadian whiskeys’ are whisky blends. The most distinguishing characteristic of Canadian whisky is its light body.
Scotch whisky is a distinctive product of Scotland, made in compliance with the laws of Great Britain. There are two types of Scotch whiskies sold in the United States. The first type is blends of malt and grain whisky. These are the most popular because they are made in large quantities and the least expensive.
The second type is single malt. A single malt Scotch comes from one distillery and made from only one malted barley. Single malt Scotches are expensive because they are made in limited quantities.
Brandy is a potable spirit, distilled from a fermented mash of grapes or other fruit. Most brandy is distilled from wine. Wine that has recently finished its fermentation process makes the best brandy. An aged wine, even if it is of superior quality, won’t make a good brandy. Brandies are produced wherever grapes are grown. Cognac comes from France, and Metaxa is from Greece. Brandies produced in California must be made from California grapes, and they have to meet rigid standards set by the distillers. California brandies account for over 75 percent of the brandy sales in the United States.
In many parts of Europe, brandy is made from fruit. To the brandy base, which contains the alcohol, they add an extract or concentrate of the fruit and sweetening syrups. The labels on fruit brandies must indicate the kind of fruit used, such as apricot brandy, cherry brandy, peach brandy, or blackberry brandy, etc. Almost all brandies are aged in oak barrels from three to eight years.
Cognac should be mentioned more specifically because it is the most famous of all the brandies. It is produced in the Cognac region of France. It is important to understand that all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. A brandy may only be called cognac if it is distilled from wine made of the grapes that grow within the legal limits of France.
Gin is distilled from grain and receives its unique flavor and aroma from juniper berries and other botanicals. Every gin producer has his own special recipe, which is under strict quality control. The flavor of gin will vary with the distiller. Gin can be made two ways, by either being distilled or compounded. All leading popular brands sold in the United States are distilled. Compounded simply means a mixture of neutral spirits with juniper berries. Distilled gin is distilled completely. Virtually all gins in the United States use the word “dry.” You will see it on brand labels that may read, “Dry Gin,” “Extra Dry Gin,” “London Dry Gin,” or “English Dry Gin,” but they all mean the same thing‑‑lacking in sweetness.
Rum is produced wherever sugar cane grows. Many countries, such as the United States, South Africa, and even Russia, produce rum, but it is only the Caribbean Islands that produce rum in quantities sufficient for worldwide export. Generally, the islands where the Spanish language is spoken, such as Puerto Rico, produce light, dry-tasting rums. The English speaking Caribbean islands produce dark, heavy-tasting rums.
By definition, rum is any alcoholic distillate made from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar cane by-products, distilled at less than 190 proof, that also possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to rum. Rums can be broken down into various classifications. The light-bodied ones are dry and have only a very light molasses taste. They are available in two varieties: white, which is by far the most popular, and gold, which is a mixture of light and dark. The gold is sweeter and has a more pronounced molasses taste. The two favorite light rums come from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Another classification is heavy-bodied rums that are much darker and sweeter. They have a pungent bouquet and a heavy molasses taste. The dark rums differ because of slower fermentation and special maturation processes. Well-known dark rums come from Jamaica, Demerara, Martinique, Trinidad, Bermuda and New England.
Tequila, the primary spirit of Mexico, has its own special flavor that is almost tart and leaves the tongue clean and tingling. In the 1970s, tequila became the fastest growing spirit in sales, as vodka did in the 1960s. Tequila is obtained from the distillation of the fermented juice (sap) of the mescal plant, called pulque. The only source for Tequila is the mescal plant, which is a species of the agave plant. It is a cactus that takes between twelve and thirteen years to mature. Its long leaves, or spikes, are cut off at harvest time, leaving only the bulbous central core, called the pina, meaning pineapple. The pinas, which weigh from 80 pounds to 175 pounds each, are taken to the distillery where they are cooked in pressure cookers for several hours. They are then cooled and shredded, and the juice is pressed out. The fermentation process is completed in huge wooden vats. The fermented juice is then twice distilled in traditional copper-pot stills.
Like whiskey, vodka is distilled from a fermented mash of grain, but they differ in the methods of distillation. Whiskey is distilled at a low proof to retain flavor. Vodka, however, is distilled at a high proof, 190 or above, and then processed even further to remove all flavor. Most American distillers filter their vodkas through activated charcoal. Also, whiskey is aged, and vodka is not. A few vodkas are made from potatoes. Most vodka is not. Almost all vodka is made from grain, the most common being corn, rye, and wheat.
The words liqueurs and cordials are used interchangeably. Liqueurs were first developed by the Christian monks of the middle ages. They were developed to help the sick. The monks added secret combinations of honey, seeds, herbs, spices, roots, and bark to distilled-base spirits and offered them as remedies.