A story of spirits
Whiskey... (or is it Whisky?)
However you spell it, we’ll explain why it truly is the water of life.
The Life Aquatic
We’ll get to the spelling difference in just a minute, but first, it is worth noting how the term whisky came to be used to describe this grain-based spirit. To do that, we have to go back to at least the Middle Ages and the term aqua vitae. Aqua vitae, Latin for water of life, was being used to describe ethanol (also called drinking alcohol). Medieval monks in Ireland and Scotland who were making beer from their grains (as they didn’t have any grapes to make wine) were also distilling it. Uisce beatha (or usque baugh for the Scots) was the term they used for this spirit which they took from the Latin aqua vitae. Pretty soon, uisce began to be used as shorthand for the spirit, and overtime uisce became anglicized to “whisky”. It also was no longer just being used in religious ceremonies or for medicinal purposes, but for recreational purposes and began to be refined into a craft (and we couldn’t be more happy about that). Today, the term aqua vitae or more the more commonly used eaux de vie, the French translation, is used to describe a variety of different spirits, but most often refers to unaged brandies.
To “e”, or not to “e”--that is the question.
Whiskey or Whisky? There is much debate about how whiskey came to represent these spirits from Ireland and the United States and how whisky became known to represent those from Scotland and the rest of the world. Some say that the Irish made the change when they exported their product to the US in the 19th Century to denote their differences from Scotch whisky. This theory, however, has been contested. The Irish, even as recently as the 1970’s, have sold bottles noting Irish Whisky. In the US, the TTB (Alcohol & Tobacco Tax Bureau)--a government department responsible for enforcing the laws regulating alcohol labeling and advertising-- identifies the spirit as whisky throughout their legal documents even when discussing American-as-apple-pie bourbon.
Whiskey and whisky have been used to describe the products interchangeably around the world. Flavor, flavour; color, colour; licorice, liquorice; whiskey, whisky. It really is, just a spelling difference. Or is it?
Language is in constant flux. Words take on different meaning, especially in this day and age. (Trolls used to refer to mythical, cave-dwelling creatures with an unfavorable appearance and foul smell. Now trolls are no longer mythical...and they like to peruse the comment sections in online forums.) It has come to be understood that today, both Ireland and the United States, for whatever reason, overwhelmingly have labeled their products as whiskey. And Scotland, Japan, and Canada (and many more countries) label their products as whisky sans the “e”. Exceptions exist on both sides of the pond, but that is the general rule and we’re sticking to it.
Grains to Beer to Whiskey
Regardless of spelling, all whiskey is produced by first distilling beer (called a wort) and placing this clear spirit in a wooden container to age. How and why some whiskeys taste the way they do has much to do with varying the primary components (grain, yeast, barrel), and the type and shape of the still used for distillation. But by and large, the most prominent differences will be in the selection of the grains and the barrels.
The type of grains you select will have a significant difference in your end result. This is often referred to as the “mashbill”. You can use any type of grain to produce whiskey, but the most common grains used are corn, barley, rye, and wheat. Certain categories of whiskey require that you use a specific type in a specific amount. For instance, in bourbon production, the minimum amount of corn used is 51% and in Scotch single malt production 100% malted barley must be used.
Peat is partially decomposed vegetation found in bogs. The Scots, particularly those on the Isles, often only had peat to use as a fuel source as trees and coal were scarce. Peat is lit to dry the malted barley in order to stop the grain from fully germinating. When peat burns, smoke is given off which penetrates the grain and imparts a smoky, medicinal, and earthy flavor. Many Scotch distilleries use peat, but not all, and some brands are heavily-peated and some are lightly-peated. You will also see it used in some Japanese, Irish, and even some American whiskeys.
Type: Oak is the most common type of barrel to be used because of its unique ability to be both durable and pliable while also being water-tight. American white oak and European oak are the most commonly used. American Oak which is usually heavily-charred will provide vanilla, caramel, and coconut notes while European which is lightly-toasted will be milder, spicy, and since they will almost always have had sherry in them, will bring fruit and nut flavors to the whiskey.
Fresh or Used: Is the barrel unused (virgin) or has it been used before (refill)? If it’s been used before, what was it used for? The most commonly used barrels are ex-bourbon and ex-sherry (which is a type of fortified wine). The Scots also often reuse the barrels two, three, or sometimes more to age their whisky. They are referred to as first-fill, second-fill, etc. or rejuvenated (essentially scraped and re-charred). Whiskeys can be aged entirely in the barrel they begin in or they can be “finished” (spend some time in another type of barrel before bottling) in a different type. The most common finished barrels used are ex-wine casks like sherry or port, but you will see more exotic types such as former rum, cognac, dessert wine, and even white wine barrels.
Size: How large the barrel is will change the liquid to wood ratio which will change the maturation rate. The smaller the barrel, the more contact the liquid has with the wood. Often craft distilleries will use small (5, 10, 25 gallon) barrels to aid in speeding up the maturation process. Standard bourbon barrels for example are 53 gallons/200 L. Standard sherry casks (also called butts) are 158 gallons/600 L
Time: Some types of whiskeys require a minimum amount of time in barrels. Example: Scotch and Irish whiskey must be aged for a minimum of 3 years. In the US, straight whiskeys must be aged a minimum of two years. Bourbon actually has no set time requirements, but it must be aged in new, charred barrels.
Climate: The temperature and humidity of the location of the barrels will affect the flavor of the whiskey. Whiskey aged in Scotland where the climate is cooler and moderate will age slower than one aged in a climate which is very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, like Kentucky.
Ok, so now that you know how whiskeys can have different flavors, we'll give you a quick run down of how some of the most popular whiskey styles are made.
- Where: USA only
- Mashbill: Must use at least 51% corn, other grains typically used are rye or wheat and barley
- Distillation Method: No legal requirement for types of still used, but typically column-stills and either a doubler or thumper is used. Pot stills are utilized by some producers.
- Aging Requirements: No minimum amount of time for aging, but straight whiskeys are aged a minimum of 2 years. If aged under 4 Years, age must be stated on label.
- Type of Barrels Used: Must use new, charred barrels
Style: Tennessee Whiskey
- Where: Tennessee
- Mashbill: Must use over 50% corn, other grains typically used are rye and barley.
- Distillation Method: Same as bourbon with the additional step after distillation. Before placed in barrels, the new make whiskey undergoes the Lincoln County Process which means it is filtered through maple charcoal.
- Aging Requirements: No minimum amount of time for aging, but straight whiskeys are aged a minimum of 2 years. If aged under 4 Years, age must be stated on label.
- Type of Barrels Used: Must use new, charred barrels
Style: Single Malt
- Where: Mostly Scotland and Ireland, but made around the world
- Mashbill: 100% malted barley
- Distillation Method: Distilled in pot stills and produced at one location.
- Aging Requirements: For Scotch and Irish Single Malt, must be aged a minimum of 3 years.
- Type of Barrels Used: Typically used barrels, but new oak may be used as well as wine barrels for finishing.
Style: American Single Malt
- Where: USA only
- Mashbill: A minimum of 51% malted barley with the remaining grains, typically rye or wheat.
- Distillation Method: No specific type of still is required, but typically pot stills are utilized.
- Aging Requirements: No minimum age requirement
- Type of Barrels Used: Must use new, charred barrels
Style: Blended (Scotch and Irish)
- Where: Made around the world, but for these discussions, we’ll focus on Scotland and Ireland.
- Mashbill: A mix of one or more single malt(s) and one or more grain whiskies
- Distillation Method: Pot stills are used for the malt whiskies and column-stills are used for the grain whiskies
- Aging Requirements: For Scotch and Irish, must be aged a minimum of 3 years
- Type of Barrels Used: Typically used barrels, but new oak can be used.
- Where: Mostly the USA, but can be made elsewhere, most notably Canada.
- Mashbill: If American, a minimum of 51% rye with the remaining grains typically corn and barley.
- Distillation Method: Typically a mix of column-stills and doublers or thumpers, but pot stills may be used.
- Aging Requirements: If American, no minimum age requirement. Canadian whiskies must be aged a minimum of 3 years.
- Type of Barrels Used: If American, must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
Style: Single Pot Still
- Where: Ireland
- Mashbill: A blend of unmalted and malted barley
- Distillation Method: Distilled in pot stills at one distillery.
- Aging Requirements: Aged a minimum of 3 years.
- Type of Barrels Used: Typically used barrels are used, but new oak can be used as well as wine barrels for finishing.
Grains & Yeast & Water & Time in Oak
As you can see, producers can achieve great flavor differences by their choices of these few ingredients. And that is what makes whiskey such a fascinating (and delicious) category to explore.
WHAT IS AGAVE?
Agave is NOT a cactus; it is a succulent from the lily family. It is the heart (or piña) of the agave plant that is harvested to make agave spirits. The piña is harvested when ripe, which typically takes 7-14 years, but for some agaves, it can take up to 20-40 years. Unlike grapes, for instance, once the heart is harvested, the plant dies.
TEQUILA VS MEZCAL
This is perhaps the most commonly asked question for people that are just discovering the agave spirit category. There are some similarities between the two, but also many differences. In short, all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequila.
GEOGRAPHY & SPECIES DIFFERENCES
- Tequila can only be made in designated areas in the following states of México: Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas. The vast majority of tequila is produced in Jalisco in regions designated as the Highlands or the Valley (previously called “Lowlands”).
- Only one type of agave allowed: Agave tequiliana Weber (aka Blue Weber or Blue Agave)
- There are 8 states in México allowed for mezcal production (if it isn’t made there, you cannot call it mezcal): Oaxaca, Guerrero, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Durango, Tamaulipas, and recently added Michoacán. The vast majority of mezcals on the market are from Oaxaca, but this is slowly changing.
- There are at least 24 different types of agave (and counting) used including the Agave tequiliana Weber. As you would expect, much like different grapes for wine, the agave impart their own particular flavor profile dependent on the species used. Espadín is the most common agave used, but arroqueño, barril, tepextate, tobalá (the list goes on) are becoming more available along with ensambles (blends).
HOW IS IT MADE?
The piña or heart of the agave is extracted and the leaves are shaved off by the jimadores (farmers) by the use of a coa (sharp blade on a wooden handle, like a hoe). The piñas are transported, often by a truck, but burros/donkeys are sometimes utilized in hard to navigate areas (namely in Oaxaca) to the site of distillation also called a fabrica or distillery. Unlike grapes which are harvested in the fall, agaves are harvested year-round as agaves, even those planted right next to each other, ripen at different times.
Cooking the agave:
The biggest differences in the production of tequila and mezcal is in the cooking of the piña. The piñas need to be cooked to transform the starches into workable carbohydrates. Understand that these are generalities, some tequilas are made more like most mezcals and vice-versa.
For MOST Tequila:
- Traditional ovens (called “hornos”) take 2-3 days (some brands take even longer) to slow-roast the piñas. Larger brands will often utilize an autoclave (essentially a steam-fueled pressure-cooker) to speed this process up to as little as 12 hours to a day.
For MOST Mezcal:
- The piñas are slow-roasted in a stone-lined pit in the ground. As the piñas are cooked with a wood-fire which is enclosed by banana leaves and/or agave fibers, it is covered with earth. The agaves will take on a smoky flavor which will result in a smoky spirit. They are often cooked for several days.
Crushing the agave:
For any type of agave spirit, you have to crush the cooked agaves to extract the juice just like you would for grapes and wine production. This juice is called “aguamiel” or “honey-water” and the crushing separates the fibers or pulp (called “bagaso”) from the aguamiel.
Fermentation and Distillation:
For any agave spirit, like with all spirits, before you can distill, you need to start with a fermented product and for that you need yeast.
For MOST Tequila:
- Commercial yeasts are typically used in a controlled environment. Fermentation is typically done in a couple of days.
- Distillation is typically done in stainless-steel column-stills in a continuous method. Some distillers use pot-stills and some use hybrids. Some producers utilize all types and blend to produce their different brands.
For MOST Mezcal:
- In the case of traditional producers, fermentation is left up to nature by leaving vats uncovered for wild yeasts to land on the liquid. Fermentation can take up to a week.
- Distilled in either a pot-still made of copper while some use clay stills. They are double-distilled. The agave fibers are often included with the aguamiel inside the still while distillation occurs.
Aging is optional for agave spirits production, but when aged, former whiskey barrels are the most commonly used type. For our purposes here, we will discuss 100% tequila and mezcal and not mixtos.
- Blanco/Plata/Silver/Platinum: It is typically unaged , clear, and bottled straight after distillation. Sometimes rested in stainless steel up to 60 days and can also be aged in wood for no more than 30 days
- Reposado: Tequila that is aged from 2 months up to a year. Oak barrels are often used, particularly American ex-bourbon, but any type of wood is acceptable. Reposado translates to "rested".
- Añejo: Tequila that is aged for at least a year in barrels no larger than 600L. Añejo tequilas are also known as "aged" or "extra aged".
- Extra Añejo: Tequila that is aged for at least 3 years in barrels no larger than 600L. Extra Añejo tequilas are also known as "ultra aged".
- Joven/Blanco/Silver: Mezcal that is unaged or aged in stainless or plastic before bottling. Most mezcal falls into this category.
- Reposado: Mezcal that is aged for 2 months in oak up to 1 year.
- Añejo: Mezcal that is aged for over 1 year in oak.
- Extra Añejo: This category does not formally exist for mezcal, but if the term is used, it will follow the same requirements as tequila extra añejo.
There is talk of more defined rules for artisanal and ancestral mezcal production so we’ll make sure to keep you posted if and when this happens.
OTHER AGAVE SPIRITS
- Raicilla [rye-SEE-ya] is produced in several municipalities of Jalisco from several different types of agave (excluding blue Weber agave) such as Maximiliana, Rhodecantha, and Angostifolia. Historically, this would be classified as mezcal, but it is produced outside of the government-regulated allowable states for mezcal production. For the moment, this category isn't officially defined, but will be the next agave spirit of Mexico to be regulated.
- Bacanora [ba-ka-NO-ra] Distilled from 100% agave Angustofolia and produced in the Mexican state of Sonora.
- Sotol [so-TOL] Distilled from the Dasylirion wheeleri (aka desert spoon). Technically not an agave. Must be distilled in either of the Mexican states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, or Durango.
- All other agave spirits - Spirits that are distilled from any type of agave and produced anywhere in the world outside of the Mexico such as the southwestern states of the US. If produced in Mexico, the spirit isn't legally recognized for one reason or another. Generally labeled “agave spirit” or is not commercially sold.
SUGARCANE SPIRITS: Rum, Ron, Rhum
We can thank the sugarcane plant for one of the most notable (and versatile) products in the spirit world: rum. The byproduct of sugar production, molasses is the base for 97% of the world’s rum production. Rum encompasses a wide range of flavors and styles. Aged or unaged, light or dark, spiced or flavored, and even overproof rum; these types of rum are varied with color which do not always dictate flavor, sweetness, or age. In fact, rum lacks very little regulation defining how products are made, where they’re made, or what their age “statements” mean. That said, we’ve done our best to categorize these spirits according to industry standards.
Rum that is usually aged (though not always) and carbon-filtered to remove any color. No specific type or size barrel required. No set time required for aging for most countries of origin with a few exceptions.
Rum that is often aged (though can also just have caramel-coloring added). No specific type or size barrel required. No set time required for aging for most countries of origin with a few exceptions.
Rum that is usually aged, but additional caramel-coloring is typically added to provide the dark/black color. Some are distilled from blackstrap molasses. No specific type or size barrel required. No set time required for aging for most countries of origin with a few exceptions.
Rum that is aged, but no specific type or size barrel required. No set time required for length of aging, but will often carry an age statement. Often thought of as "sipping rums".
Rum that is flavored with a variety of spices, natural or artificial. They can be aged, though there is no requirement to do so.
Aged rum that is often blends of rums from English-colonized countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad, British Guyana, and Barbados. Technically, navy-strength rums are 114 proof or higher, though not all overproof rums are Navy Rums. Taste wise, they are usually rich and funky and best used in Tiki drinks or punches.
Rum that has been flavored, either naturally or artificially, with the predominant flavor(s) stated on the label.
RUM, RON, AND RHUM
Often cocktails or punches will call for certain styles for particular recipes. You should look at the country (or countries) of origin of the rum as this will often give you a clue as to the style of rum in the bottle. It should be noted that not all rums from these regions produce rums in these styles. And not all rums will fall into one of these styles. These are generalizations, and remember we are talking about rum; there are always exceptions to the rule!
ENGLISH-STYLE RUMS (molasses-based):
These rums are produced in former British colonies and tend to be heavier, more funky, and have more esters providing highly flavorful and aromatic rums. They are often distilled using pot-stills and always aged. ex. Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana.
SPANISH-STYLE RUMS often referred to as “Ron” (molasses-based):
These rums are produced in former Spanish colonies and tend to be lighter in body and flavor. Their aged rums are sometimes charcoal-filtered to remove color. They are often distilled in column-stills. ex. Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba.
FRENCH-STYLE RHUMS (fresh sugarcane juice based):
These rhums (French for rum) are produced in former (or current) French territories. They have a funkiness to them like English-style rums, but are lighter in body and color. Will have a distinct grassy/herbal aroma and flavor. They can be aged, but are often not. Most often distilled in column-stills. ex. Martinique, Haiti, Guadeloupe
Note: Brazil produces cachaça (which is what they call their sugarcane juice spirit), and has been for over 400 years. This is discussed below.
RHUM AGRICOLE AND CACHAÇA
These products make up the 3% of the sugarcane spirits that are produced from fresh sugarcane juice. While they have some similarities in production and flavor, there are some exceptions to note, particularly with agricole produced in Martinique.
- Distilled from fresh sugarcane juice primarily in the former (or current) French territories of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Marie-Galante, Réunion, and Haiti. Only Martinique has an AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) which regulates everything from geography, cultivation, production, and distillation.
- Distilled primarily in a column-still (and required for AOC Martinique)
- AOC Martinique aging definitions: Blanc-aged up to 3 months, Ambré (aka Éléve Sous Bois)-aged at least 12 months, Vieux (aka Hors d’ ge) aged at least 3 Years, VO-aged at least 3 Years, VSOP-aged at least 4 Years, XO-aged at least 6 Years
- Distilled to 65-75% abv and bottled between 40-62% abv
- Distilled from fresh sugarcane juice (a small amount of cereal grain like corn, wheat, or rice is allowed in the fermentation process). Produced only in Brazil.
- Distilled primarily in a column-still, but pot-stills are allowed.
- Can be aged or unaged. If aged, most often oak is NOT used. Brazilian woods such as Ipê, Cedar, Balsam, Jequitiba and Amburana are just a few that are utilized. If aged, 50% of product must be aged for at least a year.
- Few production regulations exist, but it must be bottled between 38-54% abv. Up to 6 grams per liter of sugar is allowed. Above that and it must be called “cachaça adocada” or sweet cachaça.
MISCELLANEOUS RUM FACTS:
Some rums are made from sugarcane syrup (aka cane syrup). This is concentrated sugarcane juice; most of the water is removed via boiling. This allows fermentation to be delayed (fresh sugarcane juice must be fermented quickly then distilled). Brands such as Ron Zacapa, Zaya, and Ron Botran use sugarcane syrup.
With regards to rum aging, the size and type of barrels used and the length of time for aging are not regulated. In the US, rums that have an age statement are to have the youngest age listed. However, these statements should be taken with a grain of salt. Statements such as “Reserve”, “VSOP”, “XO”, “VX”, etc. are meaningless with the sole exception being AOC Rhum Martinique.
Caramel coloring is very common to add to rum for flavor enhancing and/or to give an illusion of maturity. Adding sugar before bottling is also very common.
Blending rums is pretty much standard; it is very rare to see single barrel bottlings. In fact, you will often see rum bottlings with blends of rums from different distilleries and different countries to create a product.
And perhaps more importantly…
Rum is the rare spirit category where, for cocktail and punch making, you can use multiple types of rum to make a drink, and often make it better by doing so. (Tiki cocktails, anyone?)
WHAT IS BRANDY?
All brandy is distilled from fermented fruit juice (more commonly known as wine). When fruit other than grapes are used, whether it will be apples, plums, cherry, pear, etc., the type of fruit is listed on the bottle (Calvados is an exception to this rule.). Aging requirements are necessary for some, but not all, brandy production.
FRANCE: ALL HAIL THE KING
France is the undisputed king of the hill, top of the heap in terms of both brandy production and consumption. Cognac is the workhorse, but Armagnac, and Calvados are also well-known and beloved brandies. They are all made in delimited regions in France. In addition, each category will have its own set of rules establishing the fruit that is used, distillation rules, and aging requirements. Here is a small breakdown of the three most notable categories of brandy.
Fruit and location, location, location
We’ll start by discussing what type of fruit is used and where is the product made. Only certain types of grapes are allowed for Cognac and Armagnac production (listed below). For Calvados production, there is a large quantity from which to chose. The fruit is obtained from one of the designated regions and is fermented (otherwise known as making wine or cider).
Just like Champagne or Bordeaux wines and Roquefort or Camembert cheese; Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados are regulated by an AOC or Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (Controlled Designation of Origin). Where and how these products are made are tightly controlled to ensure quality, consistency, and tradition. This covers everything in the production of these brandies from geography of where the fruit must originate, the length of fermentation, distillation time frames, and types of wood allowed for aging. Everything.
- Distilled from wine. 98% of all Cognac is made from the ugni blanc grape. Folle blanche and colombard also used.
- The six regions of Cognac are: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, Bois Ordinarre. If a region is listed on the bottle, it must be 100% from that region. (EXCEPTION: Fine Champagne refers to Cognac made from at least 50% Grande Champagne and the remainder from Petite Champagne.)
- Distilled from wine. About 60% of all Armagnac is made from ugni blanc grape, with the grapes folle blanche, colombard, and bacco 22A making up the difference.
- The regions of Armagnac are Bas-Armagnac, Ténarèze, and Haut-Armagnac. When the region is listed on a label, this indicates that 100% of the Armagnac comes from that region.
- Distilled from cider. 100+ commonly found apples are used. Apples are classified into bittersweet, bitter, acidic, and sweet. In addition, 30 or so types of pears are commonly used. (Pears are allowed, and in the case of the appellation of Domfrontais, they are required)
- The regions of Calvados: Calvados AOC, Calvados Domfrontais AOC, Calvados Pays d’Auge AOC. When the region is listed on the label, this means 100% of the Calvados comes from that region.
Turning wine into brandy
There are some producers of all three of these types of brandy that handle all aspects of production. These grower-producers grow their own fruit, make their own wine (or cider), distill their own brandy, and age on their own property. The vast majority of what you see on the market, however, (particularly in Cognac production) will have contracts with folks from whom they purchase either the wine or distilled eau-de vie or even aged brandy itself.
- COGNAC: Double-distilled in pot-stills
- ARMAGNAC: Single distilled in column-still (95% made this way, though pot-stills are allowed)
- CALVADOS: The appellations of Calvados and Domfrontais are single distilled in column-stills. Calvados Pays d’Auge is double-distilled in pot-stills.
As you can see, one of the biggest differences between Cognac and Armagnac is how they are distilled. Armagnac uses single-column distillation vs. double pot still distillation for Cognac. You may think that Armagnac would be much lighter and more vodka-like as opposed to Cognac. However, the column-still used here is very small (and often is a roving still taken from family to family to distill their wine). Armagnac is only distilled to between 52-60% compared to 70% for Cognac. Armagnac is more robust as a whole and typically takes longer in barrel to achieve its sweet spot.
All three types of brandies must be aged for a minimum of two years (an exception: Blanche Armagnac which is an unaged Armagnac was officially approved by the AOC in 2005). New oak is used for short periods of time, often at the beginning stages of aging as the tannins in new wood are quite strong. You will often see terms such as VS, VSOP, and Hors d’ ge listed on the label. Each category has slightly different aging definitions for these terms (you didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?) These listings are not required, but if listed, is guaranteed to be a certain number of years old. If an age statement is declared (i.e. 12 Year, 18 Year, etc.) the number will refer to the age of the youngest brandy in the bottle. If vintage-dated, it is important (but not always listed) to find the date of bottling in addition to the vintage date. This will help to ascertain the age of the brandy.
- Vintage Cognac: All Cognac must come from grapes harvested in year declared. Cognac relies heavily on blending their brandies from different years and different producers; vintage-dated Cognac is rare.
- - VS/Three Star-2 Year, VSOP/Réserve-4 Year, XO-6 Year (soon changing to 10 Year), Hors d’Age/Napoléon-6 Year
- - Limousin and Tronçais oak (types of French oak)
- Vintage Armagnac: All Armagnac must come from grapes harvested in year declared. 10 Year minimum aging. Vintage dating is very common for Armagnac.
- - VS/Three Star-2 Year, VSOP/Réserve-5 Year, XO-6 Year, Hors d’Age-10 Year
- - Gasgon black oak (type of French oak) is preferred for aging, but Tronçais and Limousin oak are becoming more common.
- Vintage Calvados: All Calvados must come from fruit harvested in year declared. Blending Calvados from different years is more common, but there are some producers that specialize in vintage Calvados
- - Fine/Three Star-2 Year, Vieux/Réserve-3 Year, Vieux Réserve/VO/VSOP-4 Year, Hors d’Age-6 Year
- - Nevers, Vosges, Limousin, Allier, or Tronçais are the types of French oak used.
OTHER TYPES OF BRANDY
Brandy distilled from grapes and produced in either Peru or Chile. In Peru, there are 8 allowable grapes used which fall into the non-aromatic and aromatic types. In Chile, there are three with Moscatel the predominant varietal used there. Peruvian Pisco is distilled only once in a pot-still and no wood aging is allowed. Peruvian pisco cannot have any alterations including dilution. Chilean pisco can be distilled multiple times, can be diluted prior to bottling, and can be aged in wood.
Brandy distilled in Spain, with Brandy de Jerez being the most common type. Brandy de Jerez is typically produced from the Airén grape from the La Mancha region and can be either column-distilled or pot-distilled. Must be aged in the Jerez region, though typically distilled elsewhere. It must be aged in oak that has previously held sherry wine and is usually aged in a Solera system.
Produced in the US, this is usually referring to brandy distilled from grape-based wine. If the producer uses other fruit, it must be stated on the label. If aged under two years in oak, it must state the word "immature" on the label. Beyond that, labels such as VS, VSOP, and XO mean little as the brands themselves dictate what that means to them. In years past, American Brandy was referring to mass-produced, inexpensive brandy, but over the past decade, and now more than ever, there are small, quality producers to seek out.
Most often referring to clear, unaged brandy distilled from wine from any type of fruit. Some styles are macerated with skins after distillation which provide color.
Eau-de-vie that is distilled from the pomace (seeds, stems, skins) left over from winemaking. Typically only grapes are used, but other fruit is acceptable. Can be aged
A grape-based unaged spirit that is produced in many Middle Eastern countries, most notably Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. It is unsweetened and flavored with aniseed. Greek and Italian versions are often sweetened.
Gin & Genever
aka Mother’s Ruin & Dutch Courage
A spirit with so much history, we couldn’t begin to discuss it here and do it justice. Suffice to say, it has had quite a journey to the 21st century. It has been a drink for only the upper class, and then only the lower class. It has been a drink for officers and a drink for prostitutes. Its history has been influenced by the spice trade, war, religion, law, prohibition, and advances in technology to name but a few.
We are in the midst of a gin craze. This craze differs from the London gin craze in the 1700’s. That craze inspired William Hogarth to illustrate Gin Lane which depicted the slums of London in disarray (to put it mildly). Gin then was, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, “...the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.”
No, this gin craze is a positive one due in part to the cocktail resurgence in the aughts of this century. Credit should also be given to our innovating craft distillers and, in part, for our demand for more whiskey. While distillers wait for their whiskey to age, why not make a gin to sell in the meantime? Gin is being produced all over the world from Japan to Oregon to Sweden and Brooklyn. It is even being revived in old London town with a few distilleries opening there in the past decade. Vodka almost knocked gin out in the 1950’s, but gin has been quite the comeback kid; it is decidedly here to stay.
What is gin?
Gin is a juniper-flavored spirit made by flavoring ethyl alcohol with juniper berries. Other botanicals are often employed in the making of gin such as coriander, angelica root, orris root, and dried citrus peel to name a few. But, juniper is required in every style of gin. In the EU, gin is required to have an alcohol strength of at least 37.5% ABV and in the US that amount is 40% ABV.
Juniper was once thought to be a kind of cure-all. It has been used as a medicinal aid since as far back as 1500 B.C. by the ancient Egyptians. Its purported benefits ranged at various times throughout history as a remedy or aid to cholera, colic, jaundice, and to dispel flatulence; it was to have been helpful with treating nosebleeds, to stop coughs, to aid in cramps, and as an aid to childbirth; it was even meant to have prevented the plague.
Today, we simply enjoy it for its piney flavor; it is the backbone of gin.
Gin & Genever 101
There are a few different styles of gin to cover, but first we’ll breakdown how gin is made and we’ll start with distilled dry gins.
Distilled Dry Gin
The first step in producing gin is to have a neutral spirit. Some producers chose to make their own neutral spirit and others purchase from another maker. Once you have the neutral spirit, the producer adds the juniper + botanicals in a second distillation. The botanicals can be added one of two ways, although there are some that do both.
Steep and boil method
Think of brewing tea for this method. Juniper and the other botanicals are steeped in the neutral spirit (typically at 50% ABV) for a period of time, which will vary for each maker. When it is deemed ready, the product is redistilled and then brought back to the desired proof with the addition of water.
Vapor Infusion Method
For this method, juniper and the other botanicals are placed in baskets within the still and the vapor of the distillate passes through the botanicals.
Some distillers utilize both the steep and boil and the vapor infusion method by having some of their botanicals use the steep and boil while their others are processed by vapor infusion.
This is a method of steep and boil, but because a vacuum distillation lowers the atmospheric pressure, this also lowers the boiling point in the distillation process. This allows a lower temperature for distilling and doesn’t “boil” the botanicals which helps preserve the delicate ones.
One shot vs multi-shot distillation
One shot distillation is taking neutral spirit base + the botanicals (using either steep and boil or vapor infusion) and redistilling. There is nothing else done aside from adding water to lower the proof if desired. This method is done in small batches and yields are small.
Multi-shot will create a concentrate gin, if you will, which then has to be diluted further with the re-addition of neutral spirit. This allows a large amount of gin to be produced at once and is common with large production.
STYLES OF DRY GIN
There are a few different styles of dry gins, so it is important to differentiate them.
London Dry Gin
...a type of distilled gin, the gin must be redistilled in the presence of all natural flavors. No artificial flavors are allowed. It must be distilled to at least 70% ABV with the predominant flavor of juniper. Only water, neutral grain spirit and sugar (no more than 0.1 g/L) may be added after distillation. It must be at least 37.5% ABV in the EU and 40% ABV in the US. Although this style originated in London, it can be produced anywhere in the world.
...the gin must be redistilled in the presence of natural flavorings only. After distillation, however, flavorings both natural and artifical, along with sweeteners may be added.
...are not considered “distilled gin” and are produced by simply starting with a neutral spirit and adding juniper extract along with other flavorings (artificial or natural) without the additional step of re-distilling. They are often referred to as “bathtub gin”. It is often used in low quality, plastic bottle gin, but there are some producers who are attempting an elevated compound gin so don’t write them all off (but those are few and far between.)
OTHER STYLES OF GIN
Referring to gin sold at a minimum of 57% ABV, most typically London Dry style.
This style is not legally defined other than to say that it is produced in Plymouth, England. It is slightly sweeter than the London Dry Style. Currently there is only one gin made in this style and that is Plymouth Gin.
Old Tom Gin
This style is also not legally defined, but in general, this style of gin is mildly sweet and is not juniper-forward. It falls in between London Dry Gin and Genever in terms of sweetness level.
Gin de Mahón
This style of gin is only made on the island of Mallorca, Spain and holds one of three Geographical Designations for gin. It is a grape-based spirit, rather than a grain-based, and is flavored with juniper and other botanicals.
Also has been referred to as "Contemporary", "New Western", "New Wave", and "New American". This style is not legally defined. In general, this category of gin, while it does contain juniper, places less of an emphasis on this botanical. Other botanicals not classically used in London Dry gins are often utilized and often highlight botanicals grown in the region the gin is produced. Most produced as either London Dry or Distilled Gins.
Barrel Aged Gin
Gin which spends some time in barrels, generally not more than a few months at a time, although there is no legal definition for this style.
Sloe Gins & Variants
A gin liqueur deriving its main flavor from sloe berries. Though called berries, they are actually plums. Variants use different types of plums such as Damson.
What is genever?
Genever, (Aka jenever, jeneva, geneva, hollands, and peket) according to the EU, can only be produced in the Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of Germany and France. If made elsewhere, it is a “genever-style” product.
Genever is a blend of two different spirits: a neutral spirit flavored with juniper and other botanicals + a “malt-wine.”
What is a malt wine?
A malt wine is not a wine at all, but a distillation of grains like rye, corn, and/or wheat along with malted barley. The malt wine is pot-distilled three or four times, which will produce a more robust and flavorful product than a distillation in a column-still.
The malt-wine is added to a neutral spirit which has been redistilled with a recipe of botanical flavors with juniper being one of them. Juniper, however, plays a minor role, particularly when you compare it to dry gin. The re-distilled neutral spirit w/botanicals is added to the malt wine with the percentage of the latter dependent on what style of genever they are making.
Genevers are generally categorized into the following styles, with jonge and oude being the most commonly seen, particularly in the US, and can, but aren’t required to be aged.
Styles of Genever
Jonge (meaning "young") does not refer to the spirit's age, but rather the new, modern style of genever production. It is made with a maximum of 15% malt wine, though typically only 5% is used. It can use no more than 10g/L of sugar in this style.
Oude (meaning "old") does not refer to the spirit's age, but rather the traditional, older style of genever production. At least 15% of malt wine is used and no more than 20g/L can be used. If aged, the barrels must be no larger than 700L.
In a Korenwijn, at least 51% of malt wine is used and no more than 20g/L of sugar can be used. If aged, the barrels must be no larger than 700L and aged at least for one year.
Fruit genevers are genevers which are additionally flavored, as the name suggests, with fruit. The juniper and other botanicals have less of an impact here in addition to a lower malt wine percentage.
How should we drink them?
Genevers are often drunk neat in chilled glasses and served with a beer. This is called a Kopstoot (pronounced [Cop stout] which means “a blow to the head”). As the genever has more in common with an unaged whiskey flavor-wise than a traditional dry gin, you will also see it served with tonic, soda, or cola and not in traditional dry gin cocktails like the Martini. Look for it in cocktails such as the Martinez, an Old-Fashioned, and a Collins.