Distilled Spirits, Types of

views updated


Distilled spirits (or, simply, spirits or liquors) are the Alcohol-containing fluids (ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol) obtained via Distillation of fermented juices from plants. These juices include wines, distillates of which are termed brandies. The most commonly used plants are sugarcane, potatoes, sugar beets, corn, rye, rice, and barley; various fruits such as grapes, peaches, and apples are also used. Flavors may be added to provide distinctive character.

All distilled spirits begin as a colorless liquid, pure ethyl alcohol (as it was called by 1869)C2H6O. This had been called aqua vitae (Latin, water of life) by medieval alchemists; today it is often called grain alcohol, and the amount contained in distilled spirits ranges from 30 to 100 percent (60 to 200 proof)the rest being mainly water.

Examples of distilled spirits include brandy, whiskey, rum, gin, and vodka. Brandy was called brandewijn by the Dutch of the 1600sburned, or distilled, wine. It was originally produced as a means of saving space on trade ships, to increase the value of a cargo. The intent was to add water to the condensate to turn it back into wine, but customers soon preferred the strong brandy to the acidic wines it replaced. Cognac is a special brandy produced in the district around the Charente river towns of Cognac and Jarnac, in France, where wine is usually distilled twice, then put into oak barrels to age. The spirits draw color and flavor (tannins) from the wood during the required five-year aging process.

Beer and wine were the most popular drinks of the New World colonists. By the mid-1700s, whiskey (from uisce beathadh in Irish Gaelic; uisge beatha in Scots Gaelic) was introduced into the American colonies by Scottish and Irish settlers to Pennsylvania. Whiskey is distilled off grainsusually corn or rye, but millet, sorghum, and barley are also used. Traditional American whiskeys are bourbons (named after Bourbon county in Kentucky), which are made from a sour mash of rye and corn. Bourbons typically contain 40 to 50 percent ethyl alcohol (called 80 to 100 proof, doubled by the liquor industry). Canadian whiskey is very similar to bourbon and to rye whiskey, while Irish whiskey is dry (has less sugars), with a distinctive austere flavor gained by filtration. All these whiskeys lack the smoky taste of Scotch whiskeys, which get their unique flavor by using malt that had been heated over peat fires. By using less malt and by aging for only a few years in used sherry casks (traditionally), a light flavor is produced; by using more malt and long aging, heavy peaty smoky flavors are produced. Today, some scotches and other whiskeys are blended to achieve uniform taste from batch to batch.

The distillation of fermented sugarcane (Saccarum officinarum ) results in rum. Of all distilled spirits, rum best retains the natural taste of its base, because (1) the step of turning starch into sugar is unnecessary; (2) it can be distilled at a lower proof; (3) chemical treatment is minimized; and (4) maturing can be done with used casks. The amount of added (sugar-based) caramel gives rum its distinctive flavor and colorwhich can vary from clear to amber to mahogany. The New England colonists made rum from molasses, which is the thick syrup separated from raw sugar during crystal sugar manufacture. Caribbean colonists grew sugarcane and shipped barrels of molasses to New England. New Englanders shipped back barrels of rum. Both substances were originally ballast for the barrels, which were made from New England's local forests to hold the sugar shipped from the Caribbean to the mother country, England.

Gin is a clear distillate of a grain (or beer) base that is then reprocessed; juniper berries and other herbs are added to give it its traditional taste. Vodka is also clear liquor, often the same as gin without the juniper flavor. Traditional vodkas, made in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and other Eastern European countries, are made from grain or potatoes at a very high proof; typical ranges are 65 to 95 proof, or about 33 to 43 percent ethyl alcohol. Vodka has no special taste or aroma, although some are slightly flavored with immersed grasses, herbs, flowers, or fruits. The Scandinavian aquavit is clear, like vodka, distilled from either grain or potatoes, and flavored with caraway seed; it is similar to Germany's kümmelvasser (kümmel means caraway in German). When any clear liquor is added to fruit syrups, the product is called a cordial or a liqueur. Swiss kirschwasser is, however, a clear high-proof cherry-based brandy (Kirsche means cherry in German); and slivovitz is a clear high-proof Slavic plum-based brandy.

The raw grain alcohol distilled in the American South and in Appalachia has been called white lightning since the early 1900s; this is also known as moonshine, corn whiskey, or corn liquorillegally produced in private nonlicensed stills, in very high proofs, to avoid state and federal controls or taxation. The term firewater was used along the American frontier after about 1815, to indicate any strong alcoholic beverage; this was often traded, given, or sold to Native Americans, causing cultural disruptions and social problems that continue even today. These include a high rate of Alcoholism and children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

(See also: Alcohol: History of Drinking ; Beer and Brews )


Brander, M. (1905). The original scotch. New York: Clarkson N. Potter.

LucÍa, S. P. (1963). Alcohol and civilization. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Scott E. Lukas

About this article

Distilled Spirits, Types of

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article