Understanding the foundations and flavour profiles of spirits is key to creating unique and well-balanced drinks.
When it comes to whisky (or whiskey, depending on which country it has been distilled) there are five main types – Scotch, bourbon, Irish, Canadian and Japanese. What differentiates them all is where in the world they come from, the distillation process of the region and the grains used which can include corn, wheat, rye, oats and barley. Made in Scotland, Scotch whisky is aged for three years and must have an alcohol content of 40% or above. Scotch whisky is a single malt, made from 100% malted barley giving it its strong flavour profile. Better known as bourbon, American whiskey – only made in America – is made from 51% corn with no extra additives and gives off notes of sweet caramel. Irish whiskey boasts smoky flavours giving it its iconic taste. It can only be made in Ireland and is a single malt whiskey, but also differs as it is distilled in a closed kiln heated by coal or gas. Sharing similar characteristics to Scotch whisky, Canadian whisky is a blend of various grains, aged in oak for at least three years and is, of course, entirely distilled in Canada. Japanese whisky, also comparable to Scotch, is gold to amber in colour and made from malted barley and other grains before being aged in wood casks.
There are three main types of tequila – blanco, reposado and añjeo. A blanco tequila is aged in a barrel for up to 60 days but is commonly moved to a stainless steel tank in modern distilling. This tequila is transparent in colour as it skips the ageing process and usually has a sharp bite when tasting. Reposado tequila is aged in a barrel for 2-11 months and it is one of the most consumed types with notes of blue agave leaving subtle flavours on the palate. Añejo tequila is aged for 1-3 years in oak barrels, commonly used for whisky, which gives the tequila distinct flavour notes of vanilla.
Gin is a spirit usually made from a base of grain such as wheat or barley, which is fermented and then distilled. During the fermentation process, juniper berries and other botanicals are added to the mixture to give gin its distinct flavour. When it comes to gin, there are several different types, though London dry gin is the most common. Originating in England, this popular gin variety is now made all over the world. The main difference between London dry gin and other gins is that the botanicals added to London dry must be all natural and added during the distillation process. Other gins can have artificial flavours or sweeteners which are added after distillation. Australia has seen a rise in flavoured gins over the years, with most being produced by micro-distilleries in states such as Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. Common and modern flavoured gins include berry and shiraz, and those infused with Indigenous ingredients such as Tasmanian pepperberry, finger lime, lemon myrtle and even ants.
Rum is a distilled spirit made from a fermented or refined sugar base. The alcohol content in rum can range anywhere from 20-75%, depending on the style. There are light rums, dark rums, aged rums and spiced rums – however, the two main types are light or white, and dark. All rums come out of the distillation process as a clear liquid, it is the time spent aging in barrels that then determines the colour. Light or white is aged in stainless steel tanks for up to a year and has a lighter, milder flavour. Dark rum takes on the colour from the charred oak barrels it is aged in, has a heavier body and tends to boast richer flavours. Like dark rum, spiced rums are also aged in barrels. Over recent years, spiced rums have grown in popularity and are typically infused with spices such as nutmeg, pepper, clove, cinnamon and cardamom, adding a twist to the traditional spirit.
Similar to gin, the colour of different types of vodka stays consistent, although the origins of how they are distilled and created differs greatly. Plain vodka is typically made from grains, corn or potatoes which are mixed with water and then heated. Yeast is then added which allows fermentation and converts the sugars to alcohol. Next, the liquid is distilled. Generally, the time taken for vodka to be produced is around two weeks.
Commonly considered the base of many alcoholic drinks and cocktails, vodka is an extremely versatile spirit. Popular vodka origins include Russia, Poland, Sweden and France, with many big-name brands originating from these countries. Although the production process is similar to plain vodka, flavoured vodkas differ slightly as flavours are infused through the distilling process, often to soften the vodka taste. Lastly, fruit vodkas are usually infused with herb-flavoured fruit in the distilling process and usually take up to three weeks to produce.