Distilled Spirits, What they are and the different types

Ever wanted to buy spirits from a store but you’re not sure which one to buy? Are you in the business of marketing spirits but you’re still learning the differences in types. Because many of the spirit brands in the market today are imported and not native to our land, it is easy for the consumer to get lost by the names and the differences in types. What’s the difference between whisky, gin, brandy, vodka, etc? We are going to provide answers to these questions in this post.

Spirits are alcohol beverages with an alcohol content of 20% or more. The alcohol content found in spirits is obtained through a fermentation process of grain products or plants such as corn, wheat, rye, grapes, potatoes, etc. The liquid derived from the fermentation is then distilled to different degrees. The end result is spirits.

Types of Spirits

WHISKY (or WHISKEY)

The term Whisky or Whiskey describes a type of spirit produced in certain geographical regions of the world. Both terms are grammatically correct. “Whisky” is the term used in Scotland and Canada, while “Whiskey” is used in the United States and Ireland, all major producers of the product. It is noteworthy to mention that the plural for this term is spelled the same in all countries. In any case, the term will be used interchangeably as we talk about the specific countries where this product is produced.

There are generally four types of whiskies based on geography – Scotch, Irish, Canadian and American.

Whiskies from each geographical region have distinct characteristics. Apart from the countries mentioned, whiskies are also produced in other countries such as in Japan, Australia, India, Nigeria, among others. For the purpose of this write-up, we are going to focus only on those four geographic countries we mentioned at the beginning since their products and brands dominate the market.

Scotch Whiskies – are whiskies made in Scotland. They have a smoky flavor because of the way they are produced. They are made with malted barley which is dried over peat fires. Scotch whiskies come in two types, single malts and blends.

Single Malt Scotch Whiskies are made from one distillery with barley malted grain. There is no blending with other whiskies or liquors.

Blended Malt Scotch Whiskies are whiskies made from multiple distilleries, and may have been blended with other whiskies. There are also cheap blends, which consists of single malt whiskies mixed with less flavourful liquors made from neutral grains.

Single Malt Scotches have unique and strong flavours, often of smoke and peat, more so than do the blends, which are generally smoother. Both types are generally good, it simply boils down to taste. It is noteworthy mentioning that both whisky types taste better as they age in wood barrels – often 10, 12, 18 years and longer.

Each single malt scotch has its own distinct taste unlike the blends which are generally uniform. One can taste the flavor of peat used to make the malt in single scotch whiskies. Oftentimes the flavour of peat can be strong in some single scotch malts.

In Scotland, there are four major regions that make singles malt scotch, with each region having certain characteristics in flavor that differentiates them from others. However, we won’t get into the details in this write-up.

Some famous Scotch whisky brands you will find in Nigeria today include Dewar’s (Scotch blend), Famous Grouse (Scotch blend), Glenlivet, Glenmorangie Port Wood Finish (both Single Malts).

Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskeys are whiskies produced in Ireland. There taste is not generally as complex as Scotch whiskies but they are of high quality.

Irish Whiskey is produced from mash of malted barley, un-malted barley, corn, rye and other grains. The malted grains are dried in closed kilns instead of open peat-fueled fires like the scotch whiskies. As a result, there is no smoky and peaty flavour as found in scotch whiskies.

Irish Whiskey is distilled three times and aged for three to nine years in re-used oak casks. As a result, it has a smooth malty flavor that is more easily obtainable than Scotch whisky.

Some popular brands of Irish Whiskey you can buy in Nigeria today includes Bushmills and Jameson.

Canadian Whisky

Canadian whisky are distilled in Canada and are by law blended from fermented mash of grains such as corn, wheat, rye and barley. Corns most often is used.

Canadian whiskies by law must be aged in oak casks for at least three years, though most are aged between six and eight years. After aging, the whisky is blended and then aged a little longer. The final product is lighter-bodied and slightly sweeter than scotch and Irish whiskies with a muted and smooth taste. Canadian whiskies can be mixed with other beverages better than their scotch and Irish cousins.

Some popular Canadian whiskies include Canadian Club, Crown Royal, Forty Creek and Seagram’s V.O.

American Bourbon Whiskey

American Bourbon whiskey or Bourbon as it is most often called and the Tennessee whiskey are the pride of American spirits. Bourbon whiskey must be made from between 51% and 79% mashed fermented corn. Bourbon whiskey is pure whiskey, meaning it is not blended with anything after distillation other than water. It must be aged at least two years in new charred white oak barrels, but most are aged for at least four years, and are sold at 80 proof.

Most bourbon whiskey distilled in the United States are produced in the State of Kentucky, though they can be produced anywhere. The distillers claim that the very best water for their whiskey is the reason they have remained at their original location.

Whiskey is also produced in the State of Tennessee. The difference in the Tennessee whiskey from Bourbon is that it includes one extra step in the production process. After distillation, the liquid is filtered through charcoal made from maple trees to remove impurities before aging. This process both enhances the taste of Tennessee whiskey and makes it a smoother product than Bourbon, or removes the flavor depending on whom you talk to.

Rye Whiskey

There is also Rye whiskey, where rye constitutes over 50% of the fermentable grains. Rye whiskey is considered the original American whiskey. It has the same colour as bourbon but with a different, heavier and coarser taste.

Blended American Whiskey

There is the blended American whiskey,” Seagram’s 7 is the most popular brand of American blended whiskey and is similar to the Canadian Seagram’s V.O.

Popular brands of American bourbon whiskies include Jack Daniel’s black, Jim Beam, Wild turkey 101 Proof.

BRANDY

Brandy is the fermented juice of a fruit that is distilled and aged in wood. Brandy is often made from grapes but they can be made from other types of fruits. Brandies are made everywhere in the world because of the availability of the main ingredient (fruits).

The most famous brandies are Cognac and Armagnac, both by products of grapes.

Cognac

Cognac is a type of brandy made in the cognac region of Southeastern France and is the benchmark of brandies worldwide.

They are produced from Ugni Blanc grape in a three-tier production process – wine making, distillation, aging and blending. As a result, cognacs show a lot of similarity across various brands. The designated categories refer to the amount of aging. Cognacs typically come in three basic quality designations based upon the time aged (i.e. spent in oak casks). VS or Three Star means aged for a minimum of two-and-a-half years, though most are aged between four and seven years. VSOP, VO (Very old), or Reserve means aged for a minimum of four-and-a-half years, though, most are aged between five and thirteen years. XO, Extra, Napoleon and Vielle Reserve have a minimum aging of six years, but most are aged between seven and forty years.

Armagnac

Armagnac is a similar type of brandy but is made in the smaller Armagnac region of France. It is distilled only one instead of twice and is made with four different grapes instead of one. It also carries a vintage date.

Although its production is much smaller compared to cognac, there is a comparatively greater range in tastes among the labels.

Calvados

Calvados is another type of brandy from France. They are made in the cold and windswept region of Normandy, where grapes generally do not grow. Calvados is made from Apples. They have a comparatively mellow flavour.

Other brandies are made in Spain, California, Nigeria, among others.

Some popular brandies include Courvoisier VS, Hennessy VS, Martell VS, Courvoisier VSOP, Hennessy VSOP, etc.

VODKA

Vodka is a clear nearly neutral spirit that has its origins in Russia, Poland and the Baltics. There, vodka is most often consumed straight up, served chilled in small glasses. However, in other parts of the world, it is mixed as part of a cocktail.

Because it is neutral and slightly flavoured makes it a great mixer with just about any beverage and explains why it is so popular.

Vodka is produced mostly from grains, corn, rye, wheat, and barley, and sometimes potatoes, beets or grapes.

After fermentation of the sugars obtained from the grains or potatoes, the “mash” is distilled at a very high proof, usually 190 (or 95% alcohol). The high distillation removes most of its distinctive flavours. What is left is further purified by the treatment of the liquid with charcoal. The quality of the finished product is determined, in large part, by the quality of the water, which makes up more than half of the vodka, the method of distillation including how many times its is distilled, the type of charcoal used in the purification process and the quality of equipment used.

Popular brands of vodka sold in Nigeria include Smirnoff, Absolute Vodka, Ciroc, Grey Goose, etc.

GIN

Gin has its origins in England. They are generally made from fermentable mash consisting of 75% corn, 15% barley malt, and 10% other grains.

Gins are typically flavoured with a number of spices, herbs and botanicals. The distinctive London Dry Gin flavour comes from juniper berries, but other fruits are used, including orange peel, cardamom, cassia bark, coriander and Angelica root. These fruit blends are added to the liquid during distillation to produce the final product.

After distillation, water is typically added to bring the gin to its marketed strength at 80 proof.

Some popular gins sold in Nigeria include London Dry Gin, Bombay, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, etc.

RUM

Rum has its origins in the Caribbean and is distilled from sugar cane or sugar cane molasses.

There are three main types of rum: light, dark and flavoured.

Light Rums

Light rums are usually produced in column stills to 160 proof and higher. They are then put in oak barrels for at least one year (for the lowest level white rum). The second level, amber or gold, is aged for at least three years and has caramel added for the colour. It is generally smoother and more flavourful than the basic white rum. The third level, anejo, is aged at least four years, and is the most flavourful of the light-bodied rums.

Dark Rums

Dark rums have a slightly different production process. The process includes harvesting only the middle part of the distillation column, between 140 and 160 proof. It is then aged for at least five years in oak barrels. Rums from Jamaica are usually blended to achieve consistency.

Flavoured Rums

Falvoured rums are light bodied rums that are flavoured with fruit juices or spices. They are more popular with younger drinkers.

Some popular rum brands sold in Nigeria include Bacardi (light rum), Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum (Flavoured rum), among others.

TEQUILA

Tequila has its origins in Mexico and is produced from the distilled spirits of the roasted heart of the agave plant.

Tequila is a special type of mescal, which is a broad category of distilled spirits derived from the agave plant.

Tequila is made from the agave tequilana weber, variety blue. Tequilas with 100% agave are better. It is worthy to mention that the longer the tequila is aged, the darker the colour becomes, the taste of the agave becomes softer and the flavour of the oak becomes more noticeable.

Aged tequilas are not necessarily better but they are more expensive and more popular for drinking straight or neat.

Some popular tequila brands in the Nigerian market incudes El Tesoro Platinum, Gran Centenario, Don Eduardo Anejo, Don Julio Anejo, Jose Cuervo.

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2 Responses to Distilled Spirits, What they are and the different types

  1. Abiodun Awoyale says:

    Hello,
    Great write-up.
    Just to add that an European ‘Whisky’ either Scotch or Irish must have been stored in wooden casks for a minimum of 3 years before it can be referred to as a Whisky. That is the difference between Scotch, Irish whiskies and other whiskies from India, Japan or other sources which are not kept for that long and can merely be referred to as Rum.
    There are also some other taste flavors from Scotland other than smoky. There’s floral, spicy, wooden, earth, fruity flavors, all depending on distillery roots, geographical locations, etc.
    I must also add that whisky is the most difficult of the categories to understand and that makes the difference.

    • Editor says:

      Abiodun, thanks for your comments and sharing your wealth of knowledge. I must add that the subject was very interesting to research, especially whiskies, which you mentioned vary in taste depending on region.

      We had to balance between providing the essential information to our readers or getting bogged down with every detail it begins to look like an academic thesis..lol. You know what I mean. But in any case, we appreciate your comments. Thanks

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