The tipple of the adult class, alcohol is a universal friend maker and problem dissolver- albeit momentarily.
Fermented beverages of some sort have been around since the Stone Age, and traces have been found of it throughout history. It can be separated into distilled and un-distilled. Distilled beverages first appeared around the 12th century in Europe, and generally contains more alcohol and are considered as ‘hard’ beverages- think ‘hard liquor’ in America.
Distillation is the process of separating the liquid components of a mixture (usually into water and ethanol). Ethanol is, essentially, the ‘alcohol’ in alcoholic drinks. It can be separated by heating, to evaporate the liquid, then cooling to condense it again. The ethanol evaporates and condenses first, followed by the water.
It is measured in alcohol by volume (ABV), which is the percentage of the liquid that is alcohol. So 10% ABV means that 10% of the volume of the product is ethanol.
There are now so many different types of alcoholic drinks. A spirit is a distilled beverage with no added sugar and at least 20% alcohol volume. Liqueurs are distilled, but have added sugar. Beer and wine are not distilled and are limited to 20% ABV.
In the UK, legislation surrounds the serving of ‘specified quantities’ of alcoholic beverages. Draught beer must be sold in imperial measure (in other words, in pints, not ml), whereas wine must be sold in metric measures (in ml, not pints!).
In making red wine, dark coloured grapes are fermented, with skins on, whilst in white wine making, grapes are pressed, separating juice from skins, before fermentation- and yes, grapes can be foot-trodden (as long as they’ve been washed first). Yeast can be added to give more control over the fermentation process. Once fermentation is complete, wine is pumped into barrels for aging and maturation, before filtration and bottling.
There are hundreds of different types of wine, and that’s another blog post entirely, but French wine is some of the most popular. Claret is the British name given to any wine produced in the Bordeaux region of France, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon refer to two varieties of red wine grape found in this region. Pinot Noir is a grape variety found in the Burgundy regions.
Chardonnay is a green skinned grape, used in white wine making, and also found in the Burgundy regions of France, along with Pinot Gris, a mutant variety of Pinot Noir. Pinot Grigio is the Italian white wine grape variety. Sauvignon Blanc is a white skinned grape from the Bordeaux regions.
Rose wine incorporates some colour from grape skins, but not enough to colour it as dark as red wine. Dessert wines, as the name suggests, are sweet wines served with dessert.
A fortified wine is a wine that has been mixed with a distilled spirit. The origins of fortified wines was so that the wine could be preserved for long sea voyages. Grape brandy is the most common addition in fortified wines.
Port is a fortified wine from Northern Portugal, made from red wine and fortified by the addition of a neutral grape spirit, which stops fermentation and leaves residual sugar in the wine. It has a sweet flavour. Madeira wine is another sweet Portuguese fortified wine, from the Madeira Islands.
Vermouth is a fortified wine flavoured with roots, flowers, herbs, or spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, and chamomile. The herbs were originally used to mask the taste of cheap wine. Some vermouth is sweetened.
Marsala wine is wine blended with brandy and aged in wooden casks. It is produced in the area surrounding Marsala in Sicily, and has been granted Protected Designation of Origin, meaning it cannot be produced anywhere else in the world.
Sherry is made from white grapes grown near Jerez, Spain. Sherry also has Protected Designation of Origin so only that produced in the ‘Sherry Triangle’ can be labelled as Sherry. Sherry is fortified with brandy, and is not as sweet as port due to the stage at which the brandy is added.
Beer, Lager, Ale
The oldest drink in the world, beer was at one time safer to drink than water. It is brewed, which converts starch into a sugary liquid called wort, and the wort becomes beer through fermentation.
Malted barley is mashed together with hot water. During this mashing process, starches are converted to sugars, then the sweet wort is drained off the barley grains. The wort is put into a kettle and boiled so the water evaporates, but the sugar (and other components) remain. It is then flavoured with hops (these add a bitter flavour and act as a preservative), and becomes hopped wort. Yeast is added, and this mixture goes through a fermentation process- this process produces the alcohol.
It can be bottled or canned, or served as draught beer, which comes from a cask or keg. Ale is a type of beer made through warm fermentation, and traditionally was brewed without hops so had a sweeter taste. It was originally made with gruit (a mix of herbs and spices) which acted as a preservative and counteracted the sweetness of the malt although over this years, this has been replaced with hops. Lager is a type of beer that is matured in cold storage.
Cider is made from fermented apple juice. A popular product of the West Country due to the abundance of cider apples, by UK law it must contain at least 35% apple juice.
Vodka is a distilled spirit (so no added sugar) made from water and ethanol, through the distillation of cereal grains or potatoes (and potato is a vegetable, so vodka’s one of your five-a-day), although it can be made from any starch or sugar rich plant.
The vodka belt (Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine) produces over 70% of the EU’s vodka, and have the highest vodka consumption in the world.
In recent times, flavoured vodka has risen in popularity. Chilli vodka, cherry vodka, and even bacon vodka have been produced.
Affectionately referred to as ‘Mother’s Ruin’, Gin is a spirit (so a distilled beverage with no added sugar) with a distinct flavour courtesy of juniper berries. In the EU, it must have a minimum ABV of 37.5%.
There are legally four categories; juniper flavoured spirit, gin, distilled gin, and London, or dry, gin, and the differences concern how the flavour of juniper is added- whether by natural flavourings or through distillation (like distilled or London gin). London gin must not contain any other added ingredient other than water.
It has a colourful history. In the UK, it was highly taxed under the Gin Act 1736, which led to street riots. It was sometimes flavoured with turpentine and called ‘common gin’. In tropical British colonies, it was once used to disguise the bitter flavour of quinine, which at the time was the only way to protect against malaria. The quinine was dissolved in carbonated water, to make tonic water, and gin and tonic was born.
Brandy is a spirit made through the distillation of grape-based wine, and aged for a minimum of six months in oak barrels.
A test to determine the purity of the distilled wine involved putting gunpowder at the bottom of a glass of spirit then setting the spirit on fire. If the gunpowder could still ignite after the spirit had been consumed by fire, then the distilled wine was good.
Brandy has a grading system based upon age. V.S. (for ‘very special’) is a blend of brandy which has been stored for a minimum of two years in a cask. V.S.O.P. (for ‘very superior old pale’) or ‘reserve’, is stored for at least four years, and XO (for extra old) is stored for at least six years.
Two popular types of wine brandy include Cognac brandy and Armagnac brandy, which comes from the Cognac and Armagnac areas of France.
Another variety is made from distilling the mash or wine of fruits. Whilst often considered a liqueur, the cherry-flavoured Kirsch is actually a fruit brandy.
I’ve mentioned whisky 101 before so I’ll briefly summarise. It’s a distilled beverage made from fermented grains, like barley, corn, rye, and wheat. It can be malt whisky, which means it’s made from barley that has been specially dried (or malted), or grain whisky, made from grains. Single malt is made from a single distillery made from one type of grain, whilst blended malt is made from a mixture of single malts from different distilleries. Whiskey, spelt with an ‘e’, is typically Irish or American, whereas whisky (without the ‘e’) is Scottish. Scotch whisky is regulated by statute, and must spend at least three years in a cask maturing.
Some believe it dates back to the 2nd millennium BC by Babylonians in Mesopotamia, but distilling whisky in Scotland and Ireland was around the 15th century. It was first distilled in monasteries, but later moved to medical practitioners, as it was originally distilled for medicinal purposes.
Captain Jack’s favourite tipple, rum is made through fermentation and distillation of sugarcane by-products, like molasses, or sugarcane juice, and needs to be aged for at least a year. After aging, it is blended to ensure a consistent flavour. Plantation slaves first discovered that molasses (by-product of sugar refining process) could be fermented into alcohol in the 17th century.
It is graded depending on the location in which the rum was produced. Dark rums come from Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Haiti, and Martinique, and are brown, black or red in colour. They have stronger caramelised flavours due to longer aging periods.
Light rums have a mild, sweet flavour, and can be filtered to remove any colour. Gold, or amber, rums, gain their colour through the barrels used in the aging process, and are mid-way between light and dark rums in regards to flavour. Overproof rums have a higher ABV than the standard 40%, and premium rums are ‘boutique’ brands with more character and flavour.
Flavoured rums are infused with fruits like banana, mango, orange, or coconut, whereas spiced rums gain their flavour through spices like cinnamon or aniseed.
It’s often associated with piracy. Back in the 1600s, ships carried more alcohol than water to drink as it was safer and lasted longer on long voyages. Originally, British Navy ships would carry brandy, a French product, but when they captured Jamaica, they also gained most of the rum supplies (as rum was largely produced in the Caribbean). The brandy was replaced with rum. The supplies were rationed, so sailors would save up their rations to allow them to get drunk. The British Navy heads cottoned on and began to water down the rum- meaning it would take more for them to get drunk. If a soldier misbehaved, they would lose their rum ration. It’s no wonder that so many pirates began life as military soldiers, but found the life of a pirate more appealing. And their drink of choice? The very one that the British Navy rationed.
Liqueurs are distilled spirits with added sugar and flavourings, such as cream, fruits, or herbs.
Tia Maria and Kahlúa are coffee flavoured liqueurs from Central America. Drambuie is a Scottish liqueur made from Scotch whisky and honey.
Citrus flavoured liqueurs are also popular. Limoncello is a lemon flavoured Italian liqueur, and Grand Marnier is orange flavoured. Curaçao is flavoured with the peel of laraha, an orange-like fruit that grows on the island of Curaçao in Spain. Triple sec is an orange flavoured variety of Curaçao, and includes liqueurs like Cointreau.
Jägermeister is a German liqueur made with 56 different herbs and spices. Sambuca, an Italian liqueur, is flavoured with aniseed. Amaretto is another Italian liqueur, flavoured with almonds.
Crème liqueurs have so much added sugar that they have a syrupy consistency. Crème de cassis is blackcurrant flavoured crème liqueur, Crème de cacao is chocolate flavoured, and Crème de menthe is mint flavoured. Cream liqueurs, however, are made with dairy cream, and includes Baileys Irish Cream.