Alcoholic beverages have been around for over thousands of years, with remnants dating as old as 7,000 BC; perhaps even more!
Now for a spirit to finally take its form, it requires three basic ingredients: yeast, sugars and water coupled with time. The time allows the yeast to act on these sugars to break them into esters, fatty acids, oils, alcohols and other chemicals, which contributes a lot to the flavors and aromas.
Liquors are highly influenced by the regions they originate from, be it ingredients from which the sugars are extracted from, or the climate, humidity and temperatures that play on the spirit during the fermentation and aging process. Essentially on a very basic level, what is profoundly common among-st the various alcoholic beverages found the world over is that they are all nothing but fermented sugars which follow a fundamentally similar (not exact) practice in the manufacturing process. The major differences however factor in when deciding the source of these sugars with minor permutations in the manufacturing process.
As you might have guessed, this little write up is dedicated to the many spirits we happen to stumble across, some of which we might gallantly gulp down while others we savor slowly.
We shall start with our much beloved ‘whisky’ which should also serve as a yardstick when describing the other spirit forms. The major ingredient used here is either a single grain or a combination of grains, namely barley, corn and/or rye. This grain is ground (grits) and then mixed with warm water (wort). Yeast is then added to the mix which then breaks down the sugars over a period of 3-4 days. The resulting wash is then distilled and then aged in Oak, Sherry, or Port barrels for a period of time after which it is bottled and finds a spot in our favorite flat glass. Whiskies themselves have variations between the various regions such as the proportion of the ingredients used, the times the wash is distilled, the type of cask, etc.
Moving to the tropics, where humidity, rainfall and warmer temperatures are the norm. Where the climate, moisture and the long seasons harbor the perfect conditions for the growth of sugarcane to produce Jack Sparrow’s favorite bottle of golden brown goodness, Rum! Sugarcane juices, sugar molasses or anything really sweet is what constituents as the major ingredient being used. This sugar is then combined with water and yeast; post which the resulting batch is distilled and then aged. Rum comes in several shades of brown as well as in a transparent form, namely White Rum. The variations in color come from differences in time the liquor is aged in the barrels, the minimum being a year in most countries. The greater the liquid is aged, the darker the color and the more robust the inherent flavors. It would not be uncommon for some distillers to add artificial colors to ensure consistencies from one batch to another. And with its growing popularity, you would also find spiced versions of the drink, which again are artificial flavors added to bring that extra dimension to the flavor component. White rum is in all aspects a rum in itself, however they are aged in steel tanks or filtered post the aging process to remove any tinge of acquired brown.
An almost similar process can be observed in the production of a type of beverage that none can forget; our favorite party shooters: Tequila! Shot glasses, salt on the rims, slices of lemon, dementia, headaches and hangovers! We’ve all been victim to some if not all of these after effects. Tequila is a product from the lands of Mexico, made from the locally sourced blue agave plant. The juice extracted from mashed agave is then fermented for a few days, after which it is distilled two-three times depending on the distiller. Tequila can be made either of 100% agave or in the case of mixtos, at least 51%. In terms of color, it comes in 3 major hues: Dark, Golden and White. Dark tequila comes from aging them in oak barrels, while the translucent form comes from directly bottling the distillate. The addition of artificial colors into the clear distillate gives tequila its third form: golden.
Mirroring the clear form of Tequila is James Bond’s ‘choice of hit’: ‘Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred!’ Vodka has fans so thick and wide, that most of Europe continues to be its largest consumer. Although preferred to be gulped neat in Russia and parts of Europe, this is still the most popular additive when making cocktails. Instead of the blue agave, the Russians plopped Grains, potatoes, and/or fruits into their mash. Here the spirit is distilled several times to an extent it loses most of its natural flavors. The resultant distillate constitutes of 95% ethanol, which is then blended with water to bring down the ABV to around 40-50% which now makes it more palatable. As of late, vodka has gathered greater popularity with the use of artificial flavors especially among-st the younger sections of society.
Gin too is very similar to Vodka, the differentiation comes in the distillation process where juniper spices and/or botanicals are added, thereby enforcing these flavors into the final product. Both Gin and Vodka aren’t aged, which is the main reason these liquors are clear and lacking any kind of flavor profile.
Another European favorite you would see held in the hands of the bourgeois and the elite; is none other than the noble wine. This alcoholic beverage is made of grapes and is fermented twice. The first occurs once the grapes are mashed and left to ferment with yeast. The resulting liquid is then pressed, so as to separate the liquid from the pulp. The wine is then matured in oak barrels or in steel tanks completely skipping the distillation process. The type of grape used and the method by which the juice is extracted is what denotes the color of the wine.
If this wine was to be distilled post the first fermentation, what you would get is essentially brandy. Both brandy and cognac are similar except for the fact that cognac is made in the French region of Cognac. For brandy to be called Cognac it has to go through a set of rigorous regulations; the wine needs to be distilled twice in copper stills that are of a specific design and dimension; it then needs to be aged for a minimum of 2 years on Cognac soil in locally made French oak barrels. Cognacs and Brandies were once the chosen drink in Europe, but with the advent of whisky and its gaining popularity, it slowly lost momentum. As of date, China is one of the major consumers for this beverage while only around 3-4% is consumed by the French!
Another beverage that isn’t distilled but bottled post the fermentation process is our summertime favorite, beer! This spirited alcohol is the most famous and widely consumed beverage in the world made of malted grains and hops along with usual water and yeast. Beer comes in a spectrum of colors, as light as pale gold to as dark as coal. This color and the associated flavors are a byproduct of an amalgamation of several factors: the variations in temperatures while drying the malted barley, the alkalinity of the water, contact times between the components in the mash, kettle time of the wort, filtration and the amount of hops added to the mix. The hops also contribute to the bitterness and aids as a natural preservative. Whatever be the color or the level of bitterness, beers guzzlers aren’t going to be disappointed with the number of local breweries popping up in and around the world!
We might have run through the most common of spirits, but even within the regions there are indigenous brewed versions that are popular within itself, like moonshine, sake and fenny which are making the news beyond borders. The source ingredient again would differ based on the locally available produce, while the manufacturing process would only vary slightly.