Spirits and Liqueurs

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Podcast Transcript

Thousands of years ago, the first humans accidentally created the first beer and wine. This occurred naturally when yeast in the air converted sugars into alcohol. 

However, it wasn’t until thousands of years later that new techniques were developed to distill those beverages, but even then, the products they created weren’t designed for consumption. 

Eventually, these techniques were perfected to a point where they could be consumed, and they resulted in entirely new categories of beverages. 

Learn more about Spirits and Liqueurs, what the difference is, and the various types on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

We might as well start off by defining some terms, and I should note at the beginning that there doesn’t seem to be universal agreement on the exact meaning of these terms. I’m going to provide those that seem to be the most commonly used ones, which also happen to be the ones that make the most sense. 

If we were to categorize everything and create a tree diagram, at the very top would be liquor. Liquor covers both spirits and liqueurs. 

Despite the similar spelling and pronunciation, liquor and liqueurs are different things, and I will get into the difference in a bit. 

The confusion in the definitions comes from the fact that many people use the terms liquor and spirits interchangeably. They treat them like synonyms. 

For the purpose of this episode, I will use liquor as the overarching category that covers all distilled beverages with high alcohol content, and by high, I mean above that of most wines and beers.  Coloquaily, liquor would be synonymous with hooch or booze.

Under that category of liquor, then, we first have spirits. 

Spirits start out as a fermented beverage where yeast turns sugars into alcohol, just like with beer and wine. However, what then makes a spirit a spirit is that it undergoes distillation. 

Everything I’m going to be talking about in this episode has to do with distillation, so I might as well spend some time talking about that before going any further. 

Distillation comes from the fact that alcohol and water have different boiling points. 

The boiling point of ethanol, aka grain alcohol, is 173.1 degrees Fahrenheit or 78.4 degrees Celsius. 

Methanol or wood alcohol has a boiling point of 66°Celsius or 151°Fahrenheit.

As you probably know, the boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 degrees Celsius.

So, if you can heat a mixture of alcohol and water to the boiling point of alcohol but below the boiling point of water, the alcohol will become a vapor and separate from the water…..mostly.

Once the alcohol vapor leaves, it has to be cooled back down to form a liquid once again. Distilling is done in a still, and most stills will have coils of tubing where the cooling and condensation will take place. 

Distilling isn’t just used for the separation of water and alcohol. It is used for separating water from salt, as well as separating different petroleum products from crude oil.

Distilling actually has ancient origins.

The earliest evidence of distillation comes from ancient Babylonian tablets that date back to around?1200 BC. However, this was not necessarily done for the purpose of creating an alcoholic beverage. It is thought that they were distilling alcohol from wine for use in perfumes.

There was primitive distillation taking place in India using terra cotta tubes in the first several centuries, and there is evidence of distillation taking place in China during the Han Dynasty in the first and second centuries. 

Likewise, the scholars in Alexandria were doing simple distilling in the first century as well. 

However, for the most part, these early efforts in distillation had nothing to do with creating alcohol for consumption. The Babylonians used the alcohol from distillation for perfumes, and by all accounts, other cultures mostly used it for medicines and alchemy experiments because the resulting product was highly flammable.

Surprisingly, perhaps the greatest advances in distillation technology and techniques came during the Islamic Golden Age. I say surprisingly simply because of the Muslim prohibition on consuming alcohol. 

The 9th-century chemist J?bir ibn ?ayy?n experimented with the distillation of wine, and Ab? Bakr al-R?z? also experimented with the distillation of different substances. 

In the late 13th century, the Italian chemist Taddeo Alderotti reported that he was able to get a liquid that was 90% alcohol through repeated distilling.

Distilling for the purpose of creating alcohol for consumption didn’t begin until about 1000 years ago. There is documentation of distilling to create alcohol in the Song and Jin dynasties, and archeological evidence for distilling in China dates back to the year 1200. 

Distillation of alcohol was introduced to India sometime in the 14th century. 

In 1437, there were reports of a substance called ‘burned water” in Germany, which was mostly likely brandy. 

It really wasn’t until the 16th century that you can say spirits that we might recognize today came into existence and were consumed for their own sake. 

The history of each individual spirit could be the subject of its own episode, so I’m going to leave it here, but what I want you to come away with is that distilled spirits, as we know them, are relatively recent innovations, historically speaking. 

There are six major categories of spirits. This is not an exhaustive list because there are some that fall outside these six, such as absinthe, but for all practical purposes, these six make up the vast majority of spirits manufactured and sold. 

The six are brandy, whisky, rum, gin, tequila, and vodka. 

Let’s go through them in order.

Brandy is the oldest of the spirits. Brandy is defined as the distillation of any fermented alcohol that comes from fruit, but traditional brandy is derived from distilled wine. 

However, there are brandies derived from other fruits, including peaches, apples, apricots, and cherries. 

Under the category of brandy are several different types of spirits. 

Cognac is a type of brandy that hails from the Cognac region of France. As with champagne, anything labeled as cognac can only come from Congnac in southwest France. 

Armagnac is a similar brandy which comes from the Armagnac area of Gascony in France. 

Both products receive their dark color from aging in oak barrels, which I’ll talk about more in a bit. 

Other types of brandy include grappa, which is made out of pomace, which is the solid leftovers from wine production. 

Not surprisingly, you will see most brandies produced in wine-making regions. California, South Africa, and Australia also have some fine brandies that come from their wine-producing regions. 

The next spirit is whisky.

Whisky is defined as any distilled alcohol that comes from a fermented grain mash. The most popular grains are barley, corn, rye, and wheat. 

Whisky has the same basic ingredients as beer. What many people don’t realize is that if you distill beer, you will wind up with a form of whisky. Most whisky distillers do not use beer as their base, but there have been more brewers that have been distilling their beers to create unique whiskeys. 

There are multiple different types of whisky that are produced around the world. Most of them are heavily regulated in terms of how a whisky can be sold and marketed. 

Scotch whisky, also known simply as scotch, is produced in Scotland, and most scotch whiskeys are distilled twice. 

Irish whiskeys tend to be distilled three times. 

Bourbon is a whiskey that can only be produced in the United States, although the majority of bourbon is produced in the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. 

Bourbon legally has to consist of at least 51% corn and has to be aged in charred, white oak barrels. 

There are many other types of whisky, depending on the ingredients used, including malt whisky, rye whisky, corn whiskey, and blended whiskeys. 

One hallmark of all whiskeys is that they are barrel-aged. The liquid that goes into a barrel is usually clear, and what comes out usually has a caramel color, which comes from the barrel aging. 

The entire subject of barrel aging and the barrel-making process is really fascinating and is almost worth an episode of its own. 

Because the ingredients are rather universal, whiskeys are produced all over the world. One of the more recent countries to begin distilling whisky is Japan, which has quickly developed a reputation for some of the world’s finest whiskeys. 

The next major spirit is rum. Rum is defined as any distilled spirit which is created from the fermentation of sugar. The sugar is usually in the form of molasses or sugarcane juice. 

Rum has traditionally been associated with the Caribbean, where there was a lot of sugar cane production. However, rum can be produced anywhere. Rum was produced in many American cities in the 18th and early 19th centuries due to the importation of molasses from the Caribbean. 

Rum may be clear or dark in color, depending on how they are made. Dark rums are often aged in barrels, and light rums may be filtered to remove any color in the liquid. 

I once had a rum that came directly out of still in Haiti. It was truly one of the worst things I’ve ever put into my mouth. It was the equivalent of moonshine as it hadn’t yet been filtered. 

Clear rums are often used in cocktails, whereas darker rums are often consumed straight or neat. 

As rum is made from any sugar, there is a rum from the Canary Islands that is actually made out of honey. 

Our fourth spirit is gin. Gin is any distilled spirit that receives its flavor from juniper berries. Junipers are coniferous trees and shrubs that can be found over much of the world. 

Gin starts out with a grain-based mash, very similar to that of whiskey.  Where it differs is that junipers and other botanicas are placed into the alcohol, usually before distillation takes place. 

Gin can also be made by infusing neutral, already distilled alcohol with juniper berries. The key is always the juniper in defining what gin is. 

There are several different types of gin, but of special note is sloe gin. Sloe gin is technically not classified as a spirit but rather as a liqueur, which I’ll get to in a bit. 

The next spirit is tequila. Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the blue agave plant. Unlike other major classifications of spirits, which can be made anywhere, tequila has to be made in the vicinity of the city of Tequila in the state of Jalisco. 

Because the area where tequila can be made is so limited, there is an enormous amount of blue agae that is produced in the region. About 300 million blue agave plants are harvested every year 

Similar to tequila is Mezcal, which is made from any type of agave plant, not just the blue agave. 90% of mezcal is produced in the state of Oaxaca, but it can be made anywhere in Mexico.

The final class of spirit is vodka. Vodka is sort of the opposite of tequila insofar as it can be made anywhere and out of almost anything. Vodka is basically just water and ethanol. 

Vodka can be made from grains as well as potatoes. There are also versions of vodka made from sugar, fruit, honey, and syrup. The only thing they all have in common is that the end result tends to be clear. 

It is most popular in countries in Northern and Eastern Europe, and vodka itself is a Slavic word. 

Vodka tends to have higher alcohol levels than other spirits, but this is not a requirement, and there is a great deal of variation amongst spirits in this area. 

Vodkas are also often infused with flavors to cut down on the harsh taste. 

Those are the six major types of spirits, and as I mentioned, that list is not exhaustive. 

Now, I want to talk about liqueurs. A liqueur is not a fancy way of saying liquor. 

A liqueur is a spirit that has had flavorings and/or sweeteners added to the drink after distillation. 

There are many different types of liqueurs, including cordials and schnapps. There is an enormous amount of variety in liqueurs because you can add pretty much anything to a spirit to make a liqueur. 

One of my favorite liqueurs is chartreuse. Chartreuse is created at a single distillery owned by a monastery in Grenoble, France. It is made with a recipe dating back to 1605 and consists of a distilled spirit that is aged with 130 different herbs, plants, and flowers. The recipe is a secret known only to two monks.

The color chartreuse comes from the color of the liqueur. 

Other popular liqueurs, many of which are brands, include Amaretto, Limoncello, Jagermeister, Baileys Irish Cream, Kahlúa, Sambuca, Ouzo, and St-Germain.

The subject of spirits and liqueurs is a surprisingly complicated one. I’ve only given a cursory overview of the subject, and for each of the spirits I’ve mentioned, I could probably do an entire episode. 

Today, the global spirits market is over $500 billion dollars, and producers can be found in the majority of countries on Earth. 

That isn’t too bad for a product that came from a technique used by ancient Babylonians to make perfume. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener Bievemar over on PodcastAddict. They write:

Gary, thank you for a great podcast that makes learning quick and fun. I am hoping the keys to the Orlando Completionist Club will be in the mail in the next few days! Keep up the great work!

Thanks, Bievemar. You should receive your keys any day now. Keys for the Orlando chapter will be personally delivered by a Disney character in costume. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.