Sunday, August 7, 2016
Booze for Beginners
Alcohol is a lot like sex. We learn about it informally and most of what we think we know is wrong.
So, as a public service, here are the basic facts about alcoholic beverages.
All alcoholic beverages are either fermented or distilled. Your fermented beverages are beer and wine. Your distilled beverages are vodka, whiskey, tequila, rum, liqueurs, etc.
‘Beer’ refers to any fermented beverage made from grain. ‘Wine’ refers to any fermented beverage made from fruit.
Distilled beverages are fermented beverages that have been concentrated, i.e., they have a higher concentration of alcohol. The alcohol concentration of any beverage is expressed as its percentage of alcohol by volume (% alc./vol. or ABV). While beers are usually around 5% ABV and wines are about 12%, spirits are mostly around 40% except liqueurs which go down to as low as 20%.
When beer is distilled, the result is called whiskey. Start with wine and the result is called brandy. If any fermented beverage is distilled to 95% ABV or higher it is considered a neutral spirit, i.e., vodka.
Where does alcohol come from? Yeast! They are living organisms that eat sugar and excrete alcohol. Called fermentation, this is how all alcohol is made. Distillation, a subsequent step, uses heat to separate alcohol from water in the fermented brew.
The alcohol itself is all the same, regardless of beverage type. It is all ethanol. The potency of any drink (i.e., its capacity to get you high) is just a matter of its percentage of absolute alcohol. Nothing else matters. The percentage of alcohol is always printed on the label, except on beer in some states. Obviously, mixing alcohol with ice, water, juice, soft drinks, etc., dilutes it, which lowers the alcohol concentration of the beverage.
Among distilled spirits, there are straight spirits and liqueurs.
Among the straight spirits you have two categories: Clear (vodka, gin, white rum, white tequila, etc.) and aged (whiskey, brandy, anejo rum, anejo tequila, etc.).
White spirits have little flavor of their own and so are usually flavored or mixed with something. Aged spirits (held for years in oak barrels) typically have a complex and distinctive flavor of their own and are usually consumed with nothing added (neat), or with ice (on the rocks), water, or the simplest mixers (e.g., club soda).
Liqueurs (e.g., Kahlua, Bailey's, Jagermeister, amaretto, schnapps) are like a mixed drink in a bottle. They typically combine neutral spirits (i.e., vodka) with flavorings and, usually, lots of sugar. They come in a wide variety of flavors and alcohol concentrations.
Going back to the subject of potency, since alcohol is alcohol, all that matters is how many, how fast, and into whom. The typical mixed drink (e.g., rum and Coke) contains roughly the same amount of alcohol as a 12 oz. beer or a 6 oz. glass of wine.
You may drink whatever you like but this column has a bias for that epitome of distilled spirits excellence, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, neat or with a splash of room temperature water.