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Top 6 Interesting Facts About Alcohol I Learned from BarSmarts


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As I mentioned in my first post, taking the BarSmarts Wired course was a revelation. Here are the top six things that I didn’t know before the course.

1. All spirits come from beer or wine.

First is fermentation. Put grains and yeast in a jar and over time it will ferment, making beer. Put grapes or fruit in a jar and over time it will ferment, making wine. This is the most basic explanation of fermentation, and I won’t guarantee the quality of drink this will make. Both of these are types of alcohol, obviously.

Second, take the beer or wine and distill it, meaning concentrate it in a still to remove impurities and you have high alcohol spirits. What you started with during fermentation – grains, grapes, potatoes, sugar cane, pears, agave, etc. – will determine what kind of alcohol you end up with when you distill it.

It never occurred to me that the distillation doesn’t make alcohol. You need the fermented liquid (beer or wine) first and then concentrate the alcohol in that through distillation.

2. All distillations (could) lead to vodka.

By definition, vodka is a distilled spirit that has no color, flavor or odor. In other words, it has been distilled so much that all impurities, or congeners, have been removed. What this means is that if you distill any alcohol enough, you can remove all of the color, flavor and odors and be left with…vodka! Vodka is nothing more than what’s called a “neutral spirit,” meaning that its alcohol content is around 195 proof. (Water is added to this for bottling, resulting in a spirit that is around 80 proof. Speaking of proof

3. Proof is how much alcohol is in a spirit.

This one is easy. Proof is the alcohol percentage, doubled. In the vodka example above, 80 proof means that the liquid in the bottle is 40% alcohol. On my shelf right now, the highest proof spirit I have is Wild Turkey 101. It’s 101 proof, so it is 50.5% alcohol.

4. There are two categories of spirits.

This one is simple too. There are white spirits and brown spirits. White spirits come straight from the still and have little coloring, hence the term “white.” Vodka, gin, sake and certain rums and tequilas are white spirits. Brown spirits are aged in oak barrels and are generally, well, more brown in color. Whiskey, brandy and certain rums and tequilas are brown spirits.

5. Aging in oak barrels is what gives most spirits their character.

If you think oak barrels were just for wine, think again. Rum, tequila, cognac, and all varieties of whisk(e)y (see #6) spend some time in oak barrels. The longer the time, the more the spirit changes. The oak can impart traits that we know as buttery, caramel, smoky, vanilla, and spicy. Some spirits spend a little time in barrels: silver tequila for no more than two months. Other spirits can be aged for years: Scotch whisky must legally age for three years, minimum, but when you see those 12, 18, 21 year bottles (and higher!) you start to understand how long that drink has been preparing to meet your lips.

6. Is it whisky or whiskey? Yes.

There’s Scotch whisky (otherwise known as scotch), Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, Japanese whisky, and American whiskey. Within the American whiskey family you’ll find bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and rye! They are all related, all made differently, and all governed by specific laws that qualify them into each category. Someone could spend a lifetime appreciating all the varieties of whiskey. Some people spell it “whisk(e)y” with the e in parenthesis to be all inclusive, but I’ll be sticking with whiskey for simplicity, unless I’m talking about one type in particular. More on whiskey coming soon.

So how did I do? I’m starting to learn this stuff but if you know better, let me know your thoughts on this list in the comments!

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