Spirits are beverages containing ethanol (commonly referred to as “grain alcohol”) and produced by distilling fermented grain, fruit, or vegetables. Spirits contain at least 20% alcohol by volume (ABV) and have no added sugar. (Quick note: Spirits differ from liqueurs which are distilled beverages that contain added sugar and/or other flavorings, and though most people don’t differentiate between the two, we desire to be as accurate as possible!)
To understand what spirits are and how they are created, we must first understand distillation: Distillation is the process of heating a liquid until it boils, capturing and cooling the resultant hot vapors, and collecting the condensed vapors.
As it applies to the production of spirits, the liquid is a mixture of water and crushed grain (or fruit or vegetables) that is boiled, strained and fermented with yeast (which creates alcohol).
The fermented liquid is then “passed” (as it is called) through a still, where the distillation process takes place.
The distillation process is based on the different boiling points of water (212 °F [100 °C]) and alcohol (173 °F [78.5 °C]). The alcohol vapours that arise while the fermented liquid boils are trapped and recondensed to create a liquid of much greater alcoholic strength.
The distilled material is collected in a vessel, with care that the undesirable elements, called “heads and tails” are excluded. The resultant liquid, or distillate, is usually aged for a period of a few months to several years, before it is packaged and sold.
The differences between spirits depends on the type and amount of grain/fruit/vegetables and yeast used as well as variances in the fermentation, distillation and aging processes. For example, whisky is distilled from grain, and aged for at least 6 years. Brandy is distilled from fruit or fruit juice, and aged 2-8 years.
The amount of alcohol in distilled beverages is called proof. A distilled beverage’s proof is determined by doubling the alcohol by volume (ABV): 20% ABV = 40 proof.
So…with all that knowledge, we can proceed to the individual types of spirits, how they are produced, characteristics of each and some of our favorite bottles. Click on one of the barrels below for more information and even a video segment or two!