The Usual Suspects, Part I

Written by on April 4, 2011 in Liquor - 2 Comments

This is a guest post by Eric Jeffus

Creative Commons Photo Credit: jonworth-eu

“The time has come,” the Barfly said, “To talk of many things:
Of booze­—and flips—and reeling jacks—Of citrus fruits—and slings.”

So you’ve decided to eschew the anemic charms of “superpremium” vodkas, the cloying solicitations of garish liqueurs and sodas, and devote yourself to the subtle art of the proper cocktail. You won’t regret your decision — few things in life bestow such pleasure as can be found in a regal Manhattan, razor-edged whiskey thinly veiled by silky vermouth; or a crisp Gimlet, gin’s lush botanicals mollified by lime cordial and vigorous shaking.

Yet before we plunge into the pastime in which our ancestors so gleefully partook — the noble pursuit of getting schnockered — we should examine the substances for which we have our intoxication to thank or blame, in equal measure. Throughout history, industrious people have fashioned spirits from just about anything that can be fermented. (And I mean anything: Early Mongolians, lacking traditional crops that could be turned into booze but abounding in horses, drank airag, or fermented mare’s milk. Just try mixing that into a cocktail, why don’t you?) From this cornucopia of inebriants, however, we’re only likely to see a handful represented in the modern American bar: Vodka, gin, whiskey, rum, tequila, and brandy. Or — The Five Six Families of the Spirit World.

“Hey, I know those!” you say. “Most of them are in a Long Island Iced Tea.” Let’s not go down that road, shall we?


Despite its late arrival to the United States — and thus its dearth in classic cocktails — some form of vodka has been produced in Poland and Russia since the Middle Ages. The term vodka itself comes from the Slavic for “little water,” a cutesy diminutive that makes the spirit sound a lot friendlier than it often is. Vodka can be made from all manner of starchy plant matter — from beets to molasses — but is most commonly derived from grain or potatoes. The key is to rectify the spirit until almost all of the congeners (substances produced during distillation that provide flavor, odor and color) are mercilessly eliminated, then filter the results several times to further remove often flavorful impurities in the final product. Distilleries like to vaunt the number of times their vodka has been filtered, and the sometimes ludicrous materials used. (Diamonds? Is that strictly necessary?)

To that end, American law actually dictates that vodka be flavorless, colorless and odorless, which allows it to fortify concoctions without asserting itself unduly over fruit juices or other ingredients — handy for reproducing flavors not commonly found in alcoholic beverages (e.g. key lime pie). It is precisely this deliberate stripping of character from the spirit, however, that draws much of its criticism from those who wish to taste the alcohol in their drinks. No matter how you feel about vodka and its flavored brethen, it’s become the most commonly consumed spirit in the country, as evidenced by the phalanxes of crystal-clear bottles towering over most bars.


The darling of the classic cocktail world, gin is — in the crudest sense — a well-established form of flavored vodka. Beginning as a neutral grain spirit (i.e. raw vodka), gin is either distilled a second time with a bouquet of botanicals (herbs, roots and spices), or distilled through a mesh basket containing the botanicals so that the alcoholic vapors are imbued with their flavor. Originally produced in the hopes of staving off the bubonic plague, a task in which it actually succeeded to some extent (it was safer to drink than the water at the time), gin was and still is predominantly flavored with juniper berries, which impart its distinctive “piney” flavor. So integral is juniper to the character of gin that the spirit derives its name from either French genièvre or Dutch jenever (you guessed it, both mean “juniper”), but a slew of exotic botanicals find their way into the final product: Coriander, citrus, angelica, cassia (or cinnamon), malaguetta pepper, licorice, aniseed and ginger, among sundry others.

With few exceptions, the gins to which we have access these days are classified as “London Dry,” to the extent that most people don’t realize that other styles even exist. The first gins — called “genever” or “Hollands” — were made by the Dutch and derived from malts in much the same manner as whiskey, producing lower-proof, malty, full-bodied spirits aromatized with gin botanicals. Old Tom Gin, by contrast, was rectified much like London Dry, but slightly sweetened (at the time, probably to mask unpleasant flavors), and forms the foundation of most early American gin drinks. (In recent history, Old Tom has slowly returned to public perception, and is now being produced anew… though it’s still not available in Ohio.) When British soldiers strove to make their bitter tonic water (flavored with quinine) more palatable by adding their favorite spirit, the iconic Gin and Tonic was born.


Taking its name from a shortening of usquebaugh (derived from Gaelic uisge beatha, “water of life”), whisk(e)y is among the most diverse spirits due to the variety of cereal grains from which it can be distilled — malted and unmalted barley, corn, rye and wheat. In the simplest terms, whiskey is distilled from what is essentially a very crude beer, called the “mash,” which combines grains and hot water to create a fermentable liquid. The composition of this mash, among other factors of the distillation process, determines which form of whiskey emerges from the still. Bourbon, by law, must contain at least 51% corn (and often has closer to 70%); rye, as may be deduced from its name, must contain at least 51% rye; while Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky (the Scots don’t spell it with the “e”) are made from barley. The distillate is then aged in wooden (often charred oak) barrels for at least two years, mellowing the spirit over time and imparting nuances of vanilla, smoke, and even fruits.

Because corn contains more natural sugar than the other cereal grains, bourbon comes out of the cask as a smooth, fairly sweet spirit, redolent of corn mash and vanilla; by law, bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels (old bourbon barrels are used to age other spirits) and cannot contain any colorings or flavorings. (It need not, however, be made in Kentucky.) Tennessee whiskey (e.g. Jack Daniels) is almost identical to bourbon in production, but the distillate is filtered through sugar maple charcoal — an act called the Lincoln County Process — before being barreled, which purportedly gives the resulting liquor its smoothness and a hint of smoke. Rye, like its eponymous grain, is drier and spicier than bourbon, and lends itself well to mixing in cocktails (the traditional Manhattan calls for rye). For Scotch — which, in the case of single-malt Scotch, is made solely from malted barley — the malts are dried by smoke from burning peat, imbuing the resulting spirit with its distinctive smokiness, while Irish whiskey, skipping this extra step, is often milder and smoother in flavor.

Though whiskey was once the preferred hooch in early America, the Prohibition put a dent in its popularity, as its aging requirements made “bathtub” operations cumbersome, allowing gin to gain dominance. (That said, unaged corn whiskey, better known as “moonshine,” never lost steam down South.) Nevertheless, whiskey is still made and consumed across the world, and long-defunct varieties like rye are becoming more prevalent Stateside. Our own local micro-distillery, Middle West Spirits, is releasing their own whiskey — made from the same soft red winter wheat used in their OYO vodka — today, which has this whiskey aficionado all atwitter.

Thus concludes the first part of your introduction to spirits — the second will cover rum, tequila and brandy. “But Eric,” you say plaintively. “When do we get to drink in this column?” Soon, friends. First we learn; then we drink.

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2 Comments on "The Usual Suspects, Part I"

  1. Mingus Waits April 4, 2011 at 4:58 PM · Reply

    I am looking forward to the next chapter of this article.

  2. jasoncrowe April 4, 2011 at 3:55 PM · Reply

    Great article! Tons of useful and interesting information here, wonderful job.

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