A Brief and Very Incomplete List
of Spirit (Liquor) Types
Distilled from grain, it is aged in wood for some amount of time after distillation. Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, Canadian, Japanese whatever, all the same but completely different.
Bourbon – A US term set by law. All Bourbons (straight Bourbons) are whiskies but not all whiskies are Bourbons. Within the category are some that are aged longer and have special handling resulting in special pricing. At a minimum, they have to be made from 51% corn, aged in new, charred barrels for a minimum of two years. Blended Bourbons have to be at least 51% straight Bourbon.
Sipping or Small Batch Whiskey
US Whiskies with specific single barrel sources and aging. Not a legal term. Expensive by nature.
Whisk(e)y from Scotland. Made from malted barley and barrel aged for a minimum of three years, they have a pronounced smoky peat aroma and flavor. Some from the Western Isles have a distinctive seawater edge to them. As with the Bourbons and sipping whiskeys, some have more barrel time and special handling resulting in stratospheric prices. The ones labeled Scotch Whisky are usually blended from several “single malts” and even some generic distilled stuff.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Similar to American “Single Barrel” these are individual batches of whisky as opposed to a wider blend. Usually, they have a distinctive character and come at a distinctive price.
Ireland’s finest skip the peat that their Celtic cousins love but require three years in oak barrels. Typically, they have a lighter and cleaner taste that Scotch and are great used in mixed drinks.
Whiskey made from rye grain. By law 51% from rye and it needs to spend some time (not specified) in charred oak barrels. A peppery taste sets it apart although some Bourbons have a significant rye content. Great in classic cocktails such as an Old Fashion.
White, Medium and Full Dark along with their Spiced Rum cousin make up the rum world. All are made from sugar cane or molasses. They can be aged in barrels or not. Cheap to astonishingly expensive. By the way, rums aged in warmer climates (the Caribbean comes to mind…) age faster so a 12 year aged rum from there will have more “aging” to it than a 12 year from say, Vermont.
White Rum – Perfect for cocktails such as the Mojito or Daiquiri.
Medium or Amber – Color from barrel aging or by adding caramel color. Think the Dark and Stormy cocktail.
Full Dark – The color again from aging or adding color or both. Used in a Planter’s Punch, Mai Tai, Zombie and for some of us, makes Christmas added to eggnog.
Spiced Rum – Rum with flavors added. Most common ones are cinnamon, anise, and pepper. Used in a variety of fruity cocktails and punches where it can sneak up on one and start a divorce.
Generally a clear and almost tasteless spirit. There are many promoted flavored ones and some of the more expensive “pure” vodkas pickup subtle luxury flavors such as black pepper and citrus from complex handling. Vodka can be made from just about anything: potatoes, grain or even fruit. Just as long as the end result is a nearly colorless, odorless and flavorless liquid. Straight shots or mixed with darn near everything, vodka is one versatile spirit.
Think of it as an old-time flavored vodka. Juniper berry flavored vodka. That’s for starters. Legally, it must be distilled from grain or malt and Juniper flavoring is required. Other botanical flavors may be added, too. The expensive ones have over 20 in there somewhere.
Styles split this way: London Dry and not. Light in body with lots of Juniper makes it a London, wherever it is made these days. The other category includes Plymouth (softer Juniper and maybe a touch sweeter) Dutch (made with a specific mix of grains) it is less “gin” and more “whiskey” in character. New American means little Juniper and a lot of alternative flavors.
From Mexico. That was easy. It has to come from specified geographical internal regions. It can be 100% from the Agave plant (top end) or a Mixto, which can have darn near anything in it and can be made anywhere. This would be the cheap stuff.
Silver, Blanco, White – Zero to a tiny bit of aging. Great for shots and cocktails.
Gold Tequila – they add color to it. Bad hangovers were made from these. These days, skip it.
Resposado – aged in oak a minimum of two months. The color comes from that. Great Margaritas start with this.
Anejo – Aged a minimum of one year in oak and handled similarly to a Single Malt Scotch. The expensive stuff. For sipping.
Simply these are spirits with some sort of sweetener added and probably some sort of flavor. The added sugar makes it legally a Liqueur. The old word was “cordials” and you still find that in classic drinks books and old style restaurants that have a “cordials” cart they wheel around at the end of the meal (Cheers!). Berries, citrus, coffee and all sorts of things are added to them.
Triple Sec, Kahlua, and Grand Marnier are probably the most familiar, today. They are used in a lot of fun cocktails and some are interesting on their own. Dig down into an old-time bartender’s guide and you will encounter many listed. It will be worth your time to try them out!