Common Consumer Questions About Spirits

Spirits and liquors are benefiting from an improved market. Shares are higher than the beer with sales rising exponentially since 2017. Much of its success is due to a healthy economy and favorable exchange rates. But, many Americans are turning their fascination domestically purchasing more spirits made in the U.S. Council Senior Vice President for International Affairs Christine LoCascio said: "American spirits, particularly whiskeys, are the toast of the global cocktail scene."

The adult beverage industry provides room for everyone. If you're thinking of getting into the spirit game, here are a few answers to the most common consumer questions about spirits.

What are spirits?

Alcohol is created when you take a sugary substance and incorporate yeast. The yeast eats the microbes and expels CO2. What you're left with is a combination of ethanol and CO2 which make up almost all alcoholic beverages. The only issue is there is a limitation to this process. You can only have so much fermentation before the yeast can't do its job anymore. For higher alcohol concentrations you have to separate the water physically to get those levels higher. That's why they are spirits. They are distilled and have a higher ABV.

What is Distilling?

Distilling is the continuation of the fermentation process. As previously mentioned there is a maximum amount of ABV you can reach with just yeast, and that's around 10%. Anything more and a human needs to get involved. Distilling takes the "wash" and puts it in either a large still or small batches.

What is Craft Distilling?

The spirit industry is having a bit of a movement. While we might be familiar with some of the larger brands like Makers Mark and Captain Morgan, there are quite a few smaller distillers with the word "craft" on the label. There is no singular definition of what separates craft from other distillers, but there is the thought that it means the same as being produced in smaller batches. The benefits of this process make it easier to control with precision.

Is there a difference between liquor and spirits?

While you may go to the liquor store to buy alcohol, liquor and spirits are the same. It refers to any alcohol that is considered "hard" or has a high ABV around the 40% mark.

What are spirits made from?

The contents of spirits vary based on the brand and their desired flavor profile. But, some ingredients can be expected.

  • Barley - used mostly in whiskey. In fact, whiskey is only considered whiskey with the base of barley.

  • Carrots - they are high in sugar which is needed for creating fermentation.

  • Potatoes - Potato’s complex carbs turn to sugar quickly. Fun fact: vodka is made mostly from grapes or wheat rather than potatoes.

  • Corn - For bourbon to be considered bourbon, there has to be at least 51% corn involved. It's also used in moonshine and vodka.

  • Sugarcane Juice - The base used for many rums.

  • Agave - Agave is fermented to make tequila and mezcal.

Are all spirits aged?

The aging process is critical to creating the spirit's unique character. How and for how long depends on the final profile and what the spirit is made from. There are two forms of distillation: column and pot. Column distillation doesn't have any additives and results in a purer form of alcohol like vodka or dry gin. A longer aging process is usually applied to these forms of spirits. Pot distilled allows for other contributions and therefore doesn't require the need for as much aging. Spirits that are generally pot distilled are Scotch, brandy, mezcal and others.

What are spirits aged in?

Deciding what to age your spirit in will change a lot about the flavor. Most distillers call aging the "finish" and implement oak barrels to supply to the taste. Oak is used frequently because it provides tannins and vanillin to the spirit. Bourbon also uses oak but in a different way. The wood is charred and interacts with liquid to create a unique taste. It's not uncommon to repurpose barrels that were previously used to age other spirits and in some instances wine. Scotch, for example, might be finished in a barrel that was used to age Sherry.

What does it mean by proof?

Proof is an industry term that measures the strength of a spirit. There are a couple of different myths floating around about how "proof" was measured. The first involved the British army who used to soak their gunpowder in alcohol. If it could still ignite than the alcohol content was high enough. The second includes the shipping trade who would needed alcohol content to be high enough if that a barrel broke on the ship it wouldn't state the gunpowder useless.

What are the proof standards?

The measurement of proof will vary globally, but the U.S. set standards in the 19th century to define the baseline. What is that baseline? Well, if the spirit is 50% alcohol by volume, it's considered to be 100 proof.

Are there other terms that I should be aware of when purchasing spirits?

  • Cask Strength - Refers to the strength of the spirit when it was in the cask without the need to add water.

  • Barrel Strength/Proof - Means the same as cask strength and what was put into the barrel was the same.

  • Navy Proof - Sometimes found on gin or rum bottles, navy strength is referring to a spirit that has ABV of 57%.

  • Single Cask - This is articulating the spirit you are purchasing it was aged in only one cask.

  • Double Barrel - When a spirit is aged using more than one barrel. Refers mostly to flavor rather than strength.

For more information about the spirit industry, contact Brindiamo Group.

Horton Admin