Top Ten Spirits
'A cocktail will never be better than its cheapest ingredient.'
- David A. Embury (1948)
1 – Vodka
'Money, like vodka, turns a person into an eccentric.'
- Anton Chekhov
From the Russian Voda (water). It literally means “little water”. Basically water and ethyl alcohol, the closest thing to pure alcohol and the neutral taste makes it perfect for flavour infusions and the spirit of choice for cocktails.
Traditionally vodka is drunk neat in the vodka belt, eastern European countries and Nordic nations. It is believed to have originated in the grain-growing regions which now embrace Poland, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine.
While most vodkas are unflavoured, many flavoured vodkas have been produced in traditional vodka-drinking areas, often as home-made recipes to improve vodka's taste or for medicinal purposes.
Vodka is popular amongst the Slavic peoples of Northern Europe because the extreme cold temperatures of winter inhibited the shipment of wines and beers as they would freeze.
2 - White rum
The history of Rum = the history of Sugar
White Rum is produced from sugarcane by-products, mainly molasses.
Light rum has very little flavour aside from a general sweetness and serves as a base for many cocktails, like vodka. Unlike darker rums which are aged in charred oak casks, light rum is aged in plain oak casks or stainless steel tanks, so that it remains clear.
The history of Rum is the history of sugar. Chinese traders spread its cultivation to Asia and on to India. Arabs in turn brought it to the Middle East and North Africa where it came to the attention of Europeans during the Crusades in the 11th century.
In 1493 Christopher Columbus picked up cane cuttings from the Canaries while on his second voyage to the Americas and transplanted them to Hispaniola, the island in the Caribbean that is now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The insatiable demand in Europe for sugar soon led to the establishment of hundreds of sugar cane plantations and mills in the various English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Dutch colonies. These mills crushed the harvested cane and extracted the juice. Sugarplant workers noticed they when they left the by-product of suger, molasses, out in the sun it would ferment. So they drank it and in the English colonies named it Kill Devil or rumbullion.
3 – Gin
Brought to England by the Dutch (Dutch Courage)
Juniper berries have been associated with medicinal properties since antiquity. By the 11th century, Italian monks were flavouring crudely distilled spirits with juniper berries. During the bubonic plague, this drink was used as a remedy.
As the science of distillation advanced from the middle ages into the renaissance, juniper was one of many botanicals employed by virtue of its perfume, flavour, and medicinal properties.
The Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius is credited with the invention of gin by using grain alcohol as the base.
The word is an English shortening of Genever, the Dutch word for juniper. Soldiers drank gin to give them what they soon came to call "Dutch courage" in battle. However it was only when William of Orange seized the British throne that gin became vastly more popular .The Dutch themselves were encouraged by their government to favour such grain spirits over imported wine and brandy by lack of excise taxes on such local drinks.
In tropical British colonies, gin was used to mask the bitter flavour of quinine, which was the only effective anti-malarial compound. The quinine was dissolved in carbonated water to form tonic water, which became the origin of today’s Gin and Tonic combination.
4 – Tequila
Not from a Cactus!
Tequila is a Blue Agave-based spirit made primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila. The agave is a spiky-leafed member of the lily family (not a cactus).
First produced in the 16th century and descended from the Aztec people who also fermented an alcoholic beverage (Octili Poliqhui) from the agave long before the conquistadores arrived.
In Aztec culture Octili drinking had religious significance. Consumption by the masses was limited to specific holidays when large tubs of Octili were set up in public squares. The ruling elite was not subject to the same restrictions however, and drank Octili throughout the year- a privilege shared by captive warriors just before they were sacrificed to the gods.
Usually, there is a clear difference in taste between tequila that is made from lowland and highland agave plants. Agave plants that are grown in the highlands often have more sweet fruit flavour, but also more vegetal notes due to the growing process.
In Mexico, tequila is often drunk straight. Outside Mexico, a single shot of tequila is often served with salt and a slice of lime. This is called "tequila cruda".
5 - Amaretto Di Saronno
Amaretto is a sweet almond-flavoured liqueur of Italian origin. It is made from a base of apricot or almond pits, or sometimes both.
In 1525, a Saronno church commissioned artist Leonardo Da Vinci and student Bernardino Luini to paint their sanctuary with frescoes. As the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Luini needed to depict the Madonna, but was in need of a model.
He found his inspiration in a young widowed innkeeper, who became his model and lover.
Out of gratitude and affection, the woman wished to give him a gift. Her simple means did not permit much, so she steeped apricot kernels in brandy and presented the resulting concoction to a touched Luini.
So the story goes. Disaronno claims its secret formula is unchanged from the year 1525.
A popular choice of liqueur to add to coffee in the morning.
6 – Brandy
'Claret is for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.'
– Samuel Johnson
Brandy (from brandywine) is a spirit produced by distilling wine. Eau-de-vie ("water of life") is the default term in French for spirits in general, and specifically for colourless fruit brandy.
Initially wine was distilled as a preservation method to make it easier to transport long distances. The intent was to add the water removed by distillation back to the brandy shortly before consumption. It was discovered that after having been stored in wooden casks, the resulting product had improved over the original distilled spirit.
During the October Revolution of 1917, upon the storming of the Winter Palace, the Bolshevik Revolution actually paused for a week or so as the rioters engorged on the substantial stores of cognac and wines. The Russian market was always a huge brandy-consuming region, and while much of it was home-grown, much was imported. The patterns of bottles follow that of western European norm.
Throughout the Soviet era, the production of brandy remained a source of pride for the communist regime, and they continued to produce some excellent varieties—most famously the Jubilee Brandies of 1967, 1977, and 1987. Remaining bottles of these productions are highly sought after, not simply for their quality, but for their historical significance.
7 – Whisky
Whisky or whiskey is a type of alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented grain mash.
Different grains are used for different varieties. Most whiskies are aged in wooden casks, made generally of oak, the exception being some corn liquors.
Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many competing denominations of origin and many classes and types. Whisky gains as much as 60% of its flavour from the type of cask used in its aging process. Further classification takes place based upon the type of wood, amount of charring/ toasting on the wood.
Bourbon whiskey, for example, is legally required to be aged in charred new oak barrels, whereas quality Scotch whiskies often used the partially spent barrels from Bourbon production to induce a slower maturation time, adding additional subtle nuance.
The art of distillation began in Asia, with perfumes and aromatics being distilled long before potable spirits, although there is evidence that the early Chinese distilled liquor from rice. It is possible that the art of distillation was brought from the Mediterranean regions to Ireland by Irish missionaries between the 6th century and 7th century. Distillation was brought from Asia to Europe by the Moors, and its use spread through the monasteries, largely for medicinal purposes.
In the 1880s, the French brandy industry was devastated by an American louse that ruined much of its crop; as a result, whisky became the primary liquor in many markets.
Whiskies do not mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the "age" of a whisky is the time between distillation and bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the whisky, changing its chemical makeup and taste.
8 - Southern Comfort
Southern Comfort is a flavoured neutral grain spirit-based liqueur produced since 1874. First produced by Irish bartender Martin Wilkes Heron (1850–1920), the son of a boat-builder. Legend says it was created and sold at McCauley’s Tavern in New Orleans and has held strong ties with the city ever since, sponsoring many jazz and rock musicians in the city and Mardi Gras.
Heron moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1889, patented his creation, and began selling it in sealed bottles with the slogan "None Genuine But Mine" and "Two per customer. No Gentleman would ask for more." Southern Comfort won the gold medal at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.
Spirits historian Chris Morris describes the original recipe of Southern Comfort. Heron began with good quality bourbon and would add: "An inch of vanilla bean, about a quarter of a lemon, half of a cinnamon stick, four cloves, a few cherries and an orange bit or two. He would let this soak for days. And right when he was ready to finish he would add his sweetener, he liked to use honey."
9 - Dark rum
Dark Rum + Water + Lime Juice = Grog!
Dark Rum is fermented in dark oak casks to give its dark colour and has a long association with the Royal Navy. This began in 1655 when the British fleet captured the island of Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum the Admiralty changed the daily liquor ration from French Brandy to Rum.
While originally given neat, or mixed with lime juice, the practise of watering down the Rum and mixing it with lime began around 1740 and was known as “grog”.
The most famous story involving naval rum was that following the Battle of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson’s body was preserved in a cask of rum.
Upon arrival the cask was found to be emptied of rum. The sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and drunk all of the rum, now the origins of the term “Tipping the Admiral”.
10 – Bourbon
Bourbon is an American whiskey, a type of distilled spirit, made primarily from corn and named for Bourbon County, Kentucky. It has been produced since the 18th century. While it can be made anywhere in the United States, it is strongly associated with the Southern United States, especially Kentucky.
Congress declared bourbon to be "America's Native Spirit" in its 1964 resolution. However the legal definition mentions that it must be aged in charred oak barrels and contain no caramel colouring to be called “bourbon”. Bourbons generally appear darker the longer they age.
Oak casks, shown stacked in ricks, used to store and age bourbon. Bourbon, or rather whisky in general, that escapes naturally from the wooden casks, as seen by the stains along the sides of the barrels, is known to distillers as the "angel's share".