What’s in Your Glass?

For some people, understanding the differences in various types of liquor can be confusing. Many people who enjoy adult beveraging (our new, made-up word) really have no idea of the origin, composition, or even historical significance of their favorite distilled spirits.

For some basic background, let’s try and roughly define the four most well-known categories.


Let’s start with brandy. Anything made with fruit would be considered brandy.

For the sake of this discussion, it is also worth noting that there are some linguistic differences in what constitutes similar or the same types of liquor that may be produced in non-English speaking regions. For example, as I mentioned brandy is made from fruit. But the word brandy originates from the Dutch word brandewijn. This seems logical based on the spelling similarities. But in the Balkans, this very same brandy that is pronounced brandewijn by the Dutch, is pronounced slivovitz. And in Chile the popular brandy is called pisco. Confusing no?

Notwithstanding varieties of fruit, growing techniques, regional weather conditions, fermentation, and distilling technologies, these examples are all brandies. With this single category of distilled spirits as an example, we can see that without some basic understanding things can get confusing quickly for an inexperienced enthusiast trying to make heads or tails of all the different choices at a big box liquor store.


Further adding to the potential for confusion, let’s look at rum. Or maybe we should say rhum? Either word is pronounced the same. Notwithstanding white table sugar, rums are made from sugar cane. More specifically, fresh pressed cane juice or molasses. The most notable difference is that r-u-m is made from molasses, a by product of sugar production, and likely the most familiar ingredient for the average person that enjoys a rum and Coke, for example. R-h-u-m on the other hand, is made by using the fresh pressed cane juice. Rhum does taste distinctly different as it has a grassy back note that reminds one of the cane fields. The other lesser known cane spirit is cachaca (pronounced kah-cha-sah), found in Brazil. This spirit is very similar to rhum in that it is also made from fresh pressed cane juice. Here again, we likely see the influence of different languages and regions used to describe and classify distilled spirits that are otherwise very much the same.


And now, for my more recent personal favorite; the whiskey category. Anything made with grains is whiskey. Spirits made with corn, barley, oats, wheat, rice, or any combination thereof is whiskey. There are dozens of sub-categories that can drive the discussion about whiskey down the rabbit hole of esoteric oblivion. Bourbon, Straight Bourbon, Scotch, Canadian Whiskey, Irish Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, American Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, Japanese Whiskey, etc. The list goes on. So, for the sake of simplicity, anything made with grains is whiskey.


Finally, vodka. Vodka can be made from all manner of fermentable resources, but must be without distinctive character, aroma, and taste. Usually this is done by distilling to a very high level of purity compared to other types of liquor. Vodka’s popularity with mixed drinks is largely due to the fact that it is by definition very clean, and therefore will take on the qualities of whatever is being mixed with your vodka. There are also people out there that do enjoy and indeed critique the purity and clean mouth feel of a strictly distilled vodka served neat or with ice. There is a trend among some vodka drinkers to place their vodka into the freezer to give the spirit an even cleaner mouth feel. The thinking being that this is what is supposed to be done to smooth and improve the drinking experience. This is a flawed way of thinking if a true evaluation of quality is being assessed. Chilling the vodka will mask some undesirable qualities. It will also suppress some desirable qualities that can only be evaluated at room temperature. But, for the sake of enjoyment, enjoy your vodka the way you enjoy your vodka.

Historically speaking, the type of distilled spirits produced would have been predicated upon what fermentable resources were most readily available in any given region. For example, wherever there is an abundance of fruit, there would have likely been someone distilling brandy as the most readily available spirit. Similarly, rum production thrives in those regions that are best at growing sugar cane. And whiskey would have been the spirit produced in grain-growing regions.

The modernization of production technologies and the implementation of mass transportation has allowed some areas that may not have previously had access to more varieties of fermentable goods to now have the ability to produce distilled spirits farther away from traditional growing regions. This modernization has enhanced creativity by throwing a new spin on what and where your favorite spirits can be produced. So, get out there and do some sampling. Slàinte.


Got questions about distilling equipment? Contact the team at StillDragon North America.