Spirits Basics

Editors note: This is an updated version of our very short yet very popular post from August 2000.

What Is Brandy/Cognac/Armagnac?
Brandy is distilled from grapes or other fruit. Think of it as wine that has been boiled so that the alcohol within turns to vapor and is caught, aged, and bottled.  Cognac and Armagnac are specific types of Brandy.  Cognac comes from the Cognac region of France. It is made from white wine and must be aged in barrels made from oak taken from the forests of Limousin or Troncais.  Armagnac is distilled slightly differently (single distillation in continuous stills vs. Cognac’s double distillation in copper stills). It too is made from white wine and is aged in black oak from Monzelun forest.  Grappa, meanwhile, is a brandy distilled from pomace (grapes pressed for wine). See The Simon and Schuster Pocket Guide to Cognac and Other Brandies for further information.

What Is Gin?
Gin is a  spirit  distilled from grain that is flavored with juniper and other herbs. For further details, please consult Gin: A Global History.

What Is Mezcal?
Mezcal is a distilled spirit made from the maguey plant, a type of agave. Mezcal often is confused with tequila. For an entertaining introduction to mezcal, have a look at The Tequila Lover’s Guide to Mexico and Mezcal.

What Is Rum?
Rum is distilled from sugar cane juice and/or molasses. Sometimes it is aged in barrels to impart additional flavors. You may learn much more from the classic text, The Complete Guide to Rum.

What Is Tequila?
Tequila is a spirit aged made from the blue agave plant.  The types of tequila are based upon the time it spend in barrel. Blanco or plata (white) tequila is unaged, reposado tequila is aged 2-12 months, and anejo tequila is aged one to three years. For further information, please see Tequila: A Guide to Types, Flights, Cocktails, and Bites.

What Is Vodka?
Vodka is a spirit distilled usually from one of the following: corn, wheat, rye or potatoes. Vodka is distiled multiple times at a high proof so as to reduce its flavor. It is usually clear, but some times it is tinted (e.g., by fruit or herbal additives). But vodka always is clear—never cloudy. Vodka is not barrel-aged. You can learn more from The Book of Gins and Vodkas.

What is Whisky/Whiskey?
Whiskey is a spirit distilled from cereal grains and barrel-aged. Varieties include Bourbon, Corn, Irish, Scotch, blended, and single malt. “Whisky” tends to be the preferred spelling for Canadian, Japanese, and Scotch versions of this spirit, and “whiskey” usually is used with all other types. For a fun introduction to whiskeys of all types, please check out Whiskey: A Global History.

If you have further question, please feel free to post them below in the comments section.

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