There are no uniform classifications of Vodka. In Poland, Vodkas are graded according to their degree of purity: standard (zwykly), premium (wyborowy) and deluxe (luksusowy). In Russia Vodka that is labeled osobaya (special) usually is a superior-quality product that can be exported, while krepkaya (strong) denotes an overproof Vodka of at least 56% ABV.
In the United States, domestic Vodkas are defined by U.S. government regulation as “neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” Because American Vodka is, by law, neutral in taste, there are only very subtle distinctions between brands. Many drinkers feel that the only real way of differentiating between them is by alcohol content and price.
Since Vodka tends to be a neutral spirit, it lends itself to blending with flavors and fortifying other beverages. In the 19th century, high-proof “Russian spirit” was held in high esteem by Sherry producers in Spain, who imported it to fortify their wines. Neutral spirits are still used to fortify Port, Sherry, and other types of fortified wines, although the source of alcohol for such purposes these days tends to be the vast “wine lake” that has been created by European Union agricultural practices.
Flavored Vodkas have been produced from the start, originally to mask the flavor of the first primitive Vodkas, but later as a mark of the distillers skill. The Russians and Poles in particular still market dozens of flavors.
Some of the better known types are:
Kubanskaya – Vodka flavored with an infusion of dried lemon and orange peels.
Limonnaya – Lemon-flavored Vodka, usually with a touch of sugar added.
Okhotnichya -“Hunters” Vodka is flavored with a mix of ginger, cloves, lemon peel, coffee, anise and other herbs and spices. It is then blended with sugar and a touch of a wine similar to white port. A most unusual Vodka.
Pertsovka -Pepper-flavored Vodka, made with both black peppercorns and red chili peppers.
Starka – “Old” Vodka, a holdover from the early centuries of Vodka production, which can be infused with everything from fruit tree leaves to brandy, Port, Malaga wine, and dried fruit. Some brands are aged in oak casks.
Zubrovka – Zubrowka in Polish; Vodka flavored with buffalo (or more properly “bison”) grass, an aromatic grass favored by the herds of the rare European bison.
In recent years numerous other flavored Vodkas have been launched on the world market. The most successful of these have been fruit flavors such as currant and orange.
White Rums are generally light-bodied (although there are a few heavy-bodied White Rums in the French islands). They are usually clear and have a very subtle flavor profile. If they are aged in oak casks to create a smooth palate they are then usually filtered to remove any color. White Rums are primarily used as mixers and blend particularly well with fruit flavors.
Golden Rums, also known as Amber Rums, are generally medium-bodied. Most have spent several years aging in oak casks, which give them smooth, mellow palates.
Dark Rums are traditionally full-bodied, rich, caramel-dominated Rums. The best are produced mostly from pot stills and frequently aged in oak casks for extended periods. The richest of these Rums are consumed straight up.
Spiced Rums can be white, golden, or dark Rums. They are infused with spices or fruit flavors. Rum punches (such as planters punch) are blends of Rum and fruit juices that are very popular in the Caribbean.
Añejo and Age-Dated Rums are aged Rums from different vintages or batches that are mixed together to insure a continuity of flavor in brands of Rum from year to year. Some aged Rums will give age statements stating the youngest Rum in the blend (e.g., 10-year-old Rum contains a blend of Rums that are at least 10 years old). A small number of French island Rums are Vintage Dated.
Cachaca is a rum like spirit made in Brazil. Unlike actual rum, cachaca is distilled from pure sugar cane, thus no molasses is used. Cachace is the most popular spirit in Brazil. Cachaça, like rum, has two varieties: unaged (white) and aged (gold). White cachaça is usually bottled immediately after distillation and tends to be cheaper. It is often used to prepare caipirinha and all other types of beverages in which cachaça is an ingredient. Dark cachaça, usually seen as the “premium” variety, is aged in wood barrels and is meant to be drunk pure. Its flavor is influenced by the wood from the barrel.
London Dry Gin is the dominant English style of Gin. As a style it lends itself particularly well to mixing. London Dry Gin is the dominant Gin style in the United Kingdom, former British colonies, the United States, and Spain.
Plymouth Gin is relatively full-bodied (when compared to London Dry Gin). It is clear, slightly fruity, and very aromatic. Originally the local Gin style of the English Channel port of Plymouth, modern Plymouth Gin is nowadays made only by one distillery in Plymouth, Coates & Co., which also controls the right to the term Plymouth Gin.
Old Tom Gin is the last remaining example of the original lightly sweetened gins that were so popular in 18th-century England. The name comes from what may be the first example of a beverage vending machine. In the 1700s some pubs in England would have a wooden plaque shaped like a black cat (an “Old Tom”) mounted on the outside wall. Thirsty passersby would deposit a penny in the cats mouth and place their lips around a small tube between the cats paws. The bartender inside would then pour a shot of Gin through the tube and into the customers waiting mouth. Until fairly recently limited quantities of Old Tom-style Gin were still being made by a few British distillers, but they were, at best, curiosity items.
Genever or Hollands is the Dutch style of Gin. Genever is distilled from a malted grain mash similar to that used for whisky. Oude (“old”) Genever is the original style. It is straw-hued, relatively sweet and aromatic. Jonge (“young”) Genever has a drier palate and lighter body. Some genevers are aged for one to three years in oak casks. Genevers tend to be lower proof than English gins (72-80 proof or 36-40% ABV is typical). They are usually served straight up and chilled. The classic accompaniment to a shot of Genever is a dried green herring. Genever is traditionally sold in a cylindrical stoneware crock. Genever-style gins are produced in Holland, Belgium, and Germany.
Bourbon Whisky must contain a minimum of 51% corn, be produced in the United States, be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof) and be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred barrels, although in practice virtually all straight whiskies are aged at least four years. Any Bourbon, or any other domestic or imported whiskey, for that matter, that has been aged less than four years must contain an age statement on the label. Small Batch Bourbons are bourbons that bottled from a small group of specially selected barrels that are blended together. It should be noted though that each distiller has their own interpretation of what constitutes a “small batch.” Single Barrel Bourbon is Bourbon from one specifically chosen cask.
Tennessee Whisky must contain a minimum of 51% corn, be produced in Tennessee, be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof), filtered through a bed of sugar maple charcoal, and be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred barrels.
Rye Whisky must contain a minimum of 51% rye grain, be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof) and be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred barrels. A small amount of straight Rye whiskey is bottled and marketed, but most of the industry production is blended into other whiskies to give them additional character and structure. Canadians frequently refer to their whisky as “Rye,” though it is in fact made primarily from corn or wheat.
Blended American Whisky is required to contain at least 20% straight whisky; with the balance being unaged neutral spirit or, in a few cases, high-proof light whisky. It has a general whiskey flavor profile (most closely resembling Bourbon), but lacks any defining taste characteristic.
Bottled in Bond is a whisky from one distillery from one distilling season that has been aged for at least 4 years and bottled at 100 proof. Additionally, this product is under the U.S. Treasury jurisdiction (stored at U.S. Treasury controlled warehouse), and no tax is paid, until the product is sold.
Corn Whisky is a commercial product that must contain at least 80% corn, be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof) and be aged for a minimum of two years in new or used uncharred barrels.
Small Batch is a whisky in which the distiller selects a limited unmber of barrels for mingling. The size of the batch varies by brand and distillery.
Single Barrel is a whisky from a single barrel. The Master Distiller determines which barrels are selected for bottling. The product is drawn, filtered and bottled, one barrel at a time. Different bottles from different barrels will have slightly different tastes.
Barrel Proof is a whisky that has been taken directly from the barrel and not cut with distilled water. Needless to say, this is much stronger than most whisky.
Straight Bourbon is bourbon that has been aged at least two years in new, charred, white oak barrels.
Sour Mash is a product in which the distiller blends a portion of the grain mash from a previous fermentation (called “Spent Beer”) into the new batch. This previously used mash tends to be slightly acidic, or “sour” and helps assure product consistency from batch to batch. The final product, however, does not have a sour taste. Virtually all American whiskys are sour mash whiskys.
Canadian Whisky is made primarily from corn or wheat, with a supplement of rye, barley, or barley malt. There are no Canadian government requirements when it comes to the percentages of grains used in the mash bill. Unlike Bourbons, they are aged, primarily in used oak barrels. The minimum age for Canadian Whisky is three years, with most brands being aged four to six years. Virtually all Canadian whiskys (except the pot-distilled malt whiskies of Glenora in Nova Scotia) are blended from different grain whiskies of different ages. Bulk Canadian Whiskys are usually shipped in barrels to their destination country where they are bottled. These bulk whiskies are usually bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof) and are usually no more than four years old. “Bottled in Canada” whiskies generally have older components in their blends and are bottled at 43.4% ABV (86.8 proof).
There are two major categories, single and blended. Single means that all of the product is from a single distillery, while Blended means that the product is composed of whiskies from two or more distilleries.
Single malt whisky is a 100% malted barley whisky from one distillery.
Single grain whisky is a grain whisky from one distillery (it does not have to be made from a single type of grain).
Vatted, Pure or Blended malt whisky is a malt whisky created by mixing single malt whiskies from more than one distillery.
Blended Scotch whisky is a mixture of single malt whisky and grain whisky, usually from multiple distilleries.
Grain Whisky must be from 100% grains in a column still.
Pure Pot Still Whisky, while single malt from both Scotland and Ireland is distilled only in a pot still, the designation “pure pot still” as used in Ireland generally refers to whiskey made of 100% barley, mixed malted and unmalted, and distilled in a pot still. The “green” unmalted barley gives the traditional pure pot still whiskey a spicy, uniquely Irish quality. Like single malt, pure pot still is sold as such or blended with grain whiskey. Usually no real distinction is made between whether a blended whiskey was made from single malt or pure pot still.
The main two types of Tequila are first split into two categories, 100% Blue Agave, and Tequila Mixto (Mixed). Mixto Tequila contains a minimum of 51% Blue Agave, and the remaining 49% from other sugars (cane alcohol). The additional products allowed in Mixto Tequilas are caramel color, oak extract flavoring, glycerin, and sugar based syrup. Mixto Tequila can now be bottled outside of the Tequila territory, including other countries, which started January 6, 2006.
By reading the label on the bottle you can tell which clasification it is in, as all Tequila that is made from 100% Blue Agave will say “Tequila 100% de agave” or “Tequila 100% puro de agave”. All other Mixto Tequila labels will only read “Tequila”. After this, the first category, 100% Blue Agave is divided into subcategories based on aging. These are:
Tequila Blanco (Silver, Plata, White) is the Blue Agave in its purest form. It is clear and typically un-aged, where the true flavors and the intensity of the Agave are present, as well as the natural sweetness. It can be bottled directly after distillation, or stored in stainless steel tanks to settle for up to 4 weeks. There are some Blanco products that are aged for up to 2 months to provide a smoother or “Suave” spirit.
Tequila Joven Abocado – Gold is typical to Tequila Mixto, where colorants and flavorings have been added prior to bottling. These “young and adulterated” Tequilas are less expensive and used in many bars and restaurants for “mixed drinks”.
Tequila Reposado is the first stage of “rested and aged”. The Tequila is aged in wood barrels or storage tanks between 2 months and 11 months. The spirit takes on a golden hue and the taste becomes a good balance between the Agave and wood flavors. Many different types of wood barrels are used for aging, with the most common being American or French oak. Some Tequilas are aged in used bourbon / whiskey, cognac, or wine barrels, and will inherit unique flavors from the previous spirit.
Tequila Añejo, after aging for at least one to three years, this Tequila can then be classified as an “Añejo”. The distillers are required to age Añejo Tequila in barrels that do not exceed 600 liters. This aging process darkens the Tequila to an Amber color, and the flavor can become smoother, richer, and more complex.
Tequila Extra Añejo is a new classification added in the summer of 2006, labeling any Tequila aged more than 3 years, an “Extra Añejo”. Following the same rule as an “Añejo”, the distillers must age the spirit in barrels or containers with a maximum capacity of 600 liters. With this extended amount of aging, the Tequila becomes much darker, more of a Mahogany color, and is so rich that it becomes difficult to distinguish it from other quality aged spirits. After the aging process, the alcohol content must be diluted by adding distilled water. These Extra Añejo’s are extremely smooth and complex.
Mezcal – The rules and regulations that govern the production and packaging of Tequila do not apply to agave spirits produced outside of the designated Tequila areas in Mexico. Some Mezcal distilleries are very primitive and very small. The best known mezcal come from the southern state of Oaxaca (wuh-HA-kuh), although it is produced in a number of other states. Eight varieties of agave are approved for Mezcal production, but the chief variety used is the espadin agave (agave angustifolia Haw). The famous “worm” that is found in some bottles of Mezcal (con gusano — “with worm”) is actually the larva of one of two moths that live on the agave plant. The reason for adding the worm to the bottle of Mezcal is obscure. But one story, that at least has the appeal of logic to back it up, is that the worm serves as proof of high proof, which is to say that if the worm remains intact in the bottle, the percentage of alcohol in the spirit is high enough to preserve the pickled worm. Consuming the worm, which can be done without harm, has served as a rite of passage for generations of fraternity boys. As a rule, top-quality mezcals do not include a worm in the bottle. Like tequila, Mezcal also has classifications:
Añejo (“aged”) – aged for at least a year in barrels no larger than 350 litres.
Reposado (“rested”) – aged two months to a year.
Joven or blanco (“young” or “white”, often marketed as “silver” in English) – colorless mezcal, aged less than two months.
Cognac is produced in the Cognac region, just North of Bordeaux. The soil here is chalky, where the Saint-Emilion, Folle Blanche, and Colombard varietals are used in the production. Copper pot stills are used to have the product come off at 140 proof and ready to be aged in the Limousin or Troncais oak barrels. Types of Cognac include:
V.S. (Very Superior): Minimum of 2 ½ years of aging in wood barrels. In general these are under 5 years of aging.
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale): Aged in wood for at least 4 ½ years. In general the average age of V.S.O.P. is 5 to 10 years.
Napoleon: A cognac that has been aged greater than that of a V.S.O.P. In general these have been aged from 7 to 15 years.
X.O. (Extra Old): A minimum of 6 ½ years of aging. Generally the aging is over 20 years.
Armagnac is made from the Folle Blanche and Saint-Emilion varietals in the Gascony region of France, South of Bordeaux. The three regions and styles here are the Bas Armagnac region which has sandy soil and a fruitier flavor profile, the Tenaraze region with its chalky clay soil and a more floral flavor, and the Haut Armagnac region with its chalky soil and mostly white table wine production. Armagnac is made in a continuos still and comes off the still at 106 proof, leaving plenty of flavor for the Monlezun Oak barrels. Types of Armagnac include:
3 Star: A minimum of 2 years of aging in wood
V.O./V.S.O.P./Reserve: A minimum of 4 years of aging in wood.
Extra/Napoleon/Vielle Reserve: A minimum of 5 years of aging in wood.
Vintage Dated: Limited production from a certain vineyard.
Calvados is a brandy distilled from Apple Cider in the Normandy region of France, which is located in the North on the English Channel. Of the 11 districts in Normandy where Calvados is produced, 10 of them use a continuous still for distilling, and the other region, Pays d’Auge, uses a pot still. Varieties of Calvados are:
3 Star: 2 years in wood
Reserve/Vieux: 3 years of aging in wood required
V.O./Vielle Reserve: A minimum of 4 years is required for again in wood.
V.S.O.P.: 5 years of aging in wood.
Hor’s d’age/Napoleon: 6 years required of wood aging.
Spanish Brandy – Brandy de Jerez is a brandy distilled from Airen grapes in the city of Jerez in the Southwest corner of Spain., as grapes for sherry are too expensive. The wine is distilled in a continuous still and then aged in sherry casks using the Solera system.
All Brandy de Jerez: A minimum of six months of aging is required.
Reserva: 1 year of aging required. Most are aged for up to 12 years.
Gran Reserva: 3 years of wood aging required. Most are aged up to 15 years.
Penedes Brandy comes from the Penedès region of Catalonia in the northeast corner of Spain near Barcelona. Modeled after the Cognacs of France and made from a mix of regional grapes and locally-grown Ugni Blanc of Cognac, it is distilled in pot stills. One of the two local producers (Torres) ages in soleras consisting of butts made from French Limousin oak, whereas the other (Mascaro) ages in the standard non-solera manner, but also in Limousin oak. The resulting Brandy is heartier than Cognac, but leaner and drier than Brandy de Jerez.
Italian Brandy – Italy has a long history of Brandy production dating back to at least the 16th century, but unlike Spain or France there are no specific Brandy-producing regions. Italian Brandies are made from regional wine grapes, and most are produced in column stills, although there are now a number of small artisanal producers using pot stills. They are aged in oak for a minimum of one to two years, with six to eight years being the industry average. Italian Brandies tend to be on the light and delicate side with a touch of residual sweetness.
Grappa – there are several styles of grappa: unfermented (white), partially fermented (rose) or fermented (red pomace). It can be produced with pot stills, hybrids or continuous stills. The minimum aging period is six months. The best grappa is made when the pomace is put into the still no later than four hours after being pressed.
The pomace is placed in the still or in baskets inside the still, and the still is heated or steam is pumped through the baskets. This application of heat releases ethanol vapors from the pomace, which is then collected and condensed.
Pisco – Distillation of Pisco in South America dates to the 16th century. Originally produced in the Ica Valley Tribe, port in Peru, this spirit is now produced in Peru and in the Elqui Valley of Chile. It is a trendy spirit now, having enjoyed its first wave of popularity during the 19th century California gold rush. There are four varieties of Pisco:
Seleccion: 30% ABV, unaged
Reserva: 35% ABV, lightly aged in native wood casks
Especial: 40%, ABV aged more
Gran Pisco: 43%, ABV, aged the longest time