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.


Richnimrod said...

..."like sex"... except that spirits (or even beer or wine) won't make you pregnant, at least not directly, though more than a few pregnancies have resulted (indirectly) from consumption of alcoholic beverages, I'd wager.
Then again, I doubt anybody ever had a 'high' from sex lasting as long as one from five ounces of a BIB Bourbon. So... There you go.

Choose your entertainment accordingly. Just remember: you'll recover (albeit with a hangover, maybe) from alcohol. From sex, you may be in for a much longer haul.

Anonymous said...

A most excellent crystal clear distillation of the subject. Well done, Mr. C.

Helmut Barro said...

"White spirits have little flavor of their own"

That is not true. Tequila blanco, rhum agricole, clairin, pisco, grappa and even White Dog can have enormous amounts of very distinct flavor. It's just that beginners are not in favor of these non-sweet, non-easy flavors of young spirits and therefore regard them as mixers.

Andy said...

I don't think it's very accurate to say white spirits have little flavor of their own. If you've ever nosed a glass of grappa, mezcal, pear eau-di-vie, cacacha, Jamaican rum, you'd be hard pressed to say they have 'little flavor'. Even spirits distilled to 95% still retain a lot of character, and side-by-side it's quite easy to tell 95% made from corn, cane, wheat, and grapes apart.

Erik Fish said...

Oh vay. Here we go again. Does barrel aging ADD or REPLACE flavors? That's really what it comes down to when you're having this discussion. I like to compare white dog and aged versions of whiskeys when available; that can be very instructive. Fortunately, to pay the bills many micros sell part of their production as white dog half bottles, but there's also, widely available, Dickel's white, JD's unaged rye, stuff from BT etc., so I've been able to do quite a few comparative tastings with the standard aged bottlings. Puts me firmly in the camp of REPLACE. On something llke the Dickel white, the flavors are if anything more powerful and in your face (or rather nose and palate) than on the aged whiskey, just much sweeter and one-dimensionally "corn-y".

tanstaafl2 said...

I too have done tastings of distillate versus an aged product and I don't think it is quite right to say that the barrel can add or replace flavors. Clearly barrel aging can add some specific flavors. Even the most neutral of barrels is likely to add something to the mix if left in it long enough. But rather than saying they replace flavor it seems more accurate to say they modify flavors. Most alcoholic beverages that are not neutral spirits bring their own flavors of course (and I agree that even spirits distilled to a high proof can still have subtle differences. I can't tell them apart for the most part and have little interest in trying to do so but I have seen people that can distinguish vodka in a blind tasting made from grain versus potato versus whatever else that make vodka/neutral grain spirits out of as well as different vodka brands in blind tastings I have conducted). Time aging in a barrel serves to modify those flavors as well as the addition of specific barrel characteristics.

Chuck Cowdery said...

OK, I'll pick the nit. Most commercially made and sold white goods are intended to be nearly neutral, although there are a few very flavorful clear spirits on the market.