In the Context of Liquor, What Are Spirits?

Given the surprising variety of liquors and cocktails, you might be surprised to learn that there are ultimately only seven core spirits from which they're made. Each of these distilled spirits has its own unique flavor, and each one features slight variations in the distillation process. Learn them, and you'll have a much better sense of how to mix the perfect drink. 

What's The Difference Between Alcohol and Spirits? 

All spirits are alcoholic, but not all alcoholic drinks are spirits, also referred to as hard liquor.

These drinks tend to have a higher alcohol content than other alcoholic beverages and are made via distillation. Working with a fermented liquid as a base, distillation essentially separates the drink by boiling and condensing it, increasing the alcohol content as a result. While modern distilleries use a little more complicated process than "just boil it," the process is still roughly the same.

What Are The Different Classifications of Alcoholic Drinks?

All alcoholic beverages contain ethanol, one of the only types of alcohol that isn't outright toxic to human beings. Of these beverages, there are four distinct classifications: 

  • Distilled. Created by distilling fermented materials. There are multiple types of spirits, which we'll go into more detail below. 
  • Fermented. As the name suggests, these are created via fermentation. Wine and beer are the most commonly known. 
  • Fortified. Fermented beverages that have had spirits added either during or shortly after fermentation. Typically, this is only done with wine. 
  • Liqueurs. Created by combining spirits with fruit, sugars, spices, and/or cream. This can be done in several ways, including infusion, maceration, and simple mixing. 

Why do Alcoholic Spirits Differ in Taste? 

Each spirit has its own distinctive taste due not only to the base from which it is distilled but also to the way it's stored and aged. 

What Are Spirits Made of? 

It depends on the type of spirit. Most typically, spirits are distilled from fruit. However, some may be distilled from grains or sugars. 

The 7 Types of Distilled Spirit

Vodka

Distilled primarily from high-starch plants, vodka typically isn't very flavorful. Potatoes are the most common base, though one can also use rye, corn, grains, or beets. Vodka generally is not aged. 

Tequila

Made from fermented agave, tequila tastes somewhat sweet, earthy, and piquant, though this varies depending on where the agave was grown. Some tequilas are aged in barrels/casks, while others are blended. Tequila has a reputation for being on the more robust end as spirits go.

Gin

Gin is distilled from grain. Unflavored gin typically has a dry flavor with hints of juniper, citrus, or even malt wine, depending on how it was made. Many gins may also taste slightly sweet and can be flavored with a range of different spices or fruits.

Like vodka, gin usually isn't aged. 

Rum

Rum is typically distilled from some type of sugar, commonly either molasses or sugar cane. It tastes much sweeter than most other distilled spirits as a result. There are multiple different types of rum. Some have an even sweeter flavor profile than ordinary rum, while others are earthier/oakier, depending on how and where they're made and aged.

Whiskey

Brewed by distilling malted grains such as rye, corn, wheat, or barley, whiskey is among the most diverse spirits on the list, with a distinctive flavor that depends mainly on where it's brewed. Some of the best known classifications include: 

    • Scotch. Rich, smoky flavor, often with hints of peat. 
  • Rye: Spicy and dry, sometimes contains notes of citrus. 
  • Bourbon: Sweeter, often with notes of vanilla, caramel, or fruit. 

Whiskeys are generally aged in oak casks, with older liquors being extremely expensive. However, it’s essential to understand that the difference in flavor between an aged and unaged whiskey is indistinguishable after a certain threshold.

Mezcal

Sometimes considered a type of tequila, mezcal is also distilled from agave. The core difference is in the distillation process. Tequila is made exclusively from blue agave, which is cooked or steamed before being fermented and distilled. Mezcal is created by smoking agave hearts or stems in a pit or kiln, at which point the plant is crushed, fermented, and distilled. 

Mezcal tastes similar to tequila, albeit with a much smokier flavor. 

Brandy

When you distill fermented fruit juice, brandy is the result. Often made from wine, it unsurprisingly tends to have a fruity taste. It may also taste smoky or burnt, and if aged, have hints of oak to its flavor. 

Common types of brandy include cognac, Calvados, and pisco.

Now that you understand a bit more about distilled spirits, you should put that knowledge into practice — get out there and mix yourself some drinks!