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Spirits: Frequently Asked Questions

Feeling spiritual? Don’t worry — we’re not about to pull out our crystals or smudge sticks. Today, we’re talking spirits. It’s a term that some people find a bit confusing in such a highly regulated industry like alcoholic drinks. What exactly are Spirits, and how are they different from other alcohols?

We’re going to dive into the facts about spirits — the drinking kind, not the woo woo kind. 

spirits

Liquor is also referred to as "Spirits". Liquor and spirits can be used interchangeably because they refer to the same thing. Spirits are hard alcohols made by distillation. They may be flavored or unflavored, slightly sweetened or unsweetened.

Vodka = a liquor = a spirit.

Wine, Beer and other alcoholic beverages are not spirits.

It’s generally accepted that the word “spirits” comes from the distillation process.

Early Middle Eastern alchemists made distilled medicines in a process similar to our modern-day liquor distillation — though on a much smaller scale. The process involves collecting vapor — or the “spirit” — of the base alcohol. This is also called the angel's share. 

This is also probably where we got our word for alcohol. The Arabic word al-ghawl appears in the Qur’an to refer to intoxication caused by a demon or spirit. This is also where we got the English word “ghoul.”

Another possible origin is al-koh’l, an ancient eyeliner that was made through distillation. So the spirit of the distillation, again, became synonymous with the word for liquor.

But liquors/spirits are not the same as liqueurs. Liqueurs are made from spirits, but they’re usually sweetened and flavored with fruit or herbs. They have a lower ABV than spirits. A cordial is another name for a liqueur.

Creme de Menthe, Aperol, and Campari are all liqueurs and can be sipped or added to cocktails. A liqueur sipped before a meal is called an apéritif, and it is intended to stimulate digestion. A liqueur for after meals is called a digestif, and it helps aid in digestion. Fernet Branca is a famous digestif.

All alcohol that we drink comes in two forms: fermented or fermented then distilled.

Fermentation

Fermentation is a chemical process in which yeast feeds on and breaks down the sugars in an organic plant material. Fermented drinks include beer from grains, wine from grapes, sake from rice, and cider from fruit.

Fermentation is also part of the spirit distillation process. First, the organic material (grains, apples, potatoes, etc.) is cooked into a mash that makes it easier to break down.

Then yeast is added, which starts chowing down on all that sugar. This process of fermentation creates two byproducts — ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide.

Distillation

Distillation starts with the fermented liquid from your mash. It already contains alcohol, but the distillation process is necessary to increase that alcohol by volume.

But why can’t we just make higher-alcohol fermented drinks?

As the yeast “eats” the sugar and creates ethanol and CO2, it eventually reaches the point where the alcohol volume is toxic to the yeast. Yeast can’t survive on an ABV over 14% to 18%, so that’s where fermentation stops. If we want a spirit that will put hair on our chests, we have to distill it.

In distillation, the fermented base is heated to the point of evaporation. Then, the alcohol vapor is condensed and cooled until it turns back into a concentrated liquid. This concentrated liquid has a much higher ABV and has to be watered down to the desired concentration — usually around 40% ABV. Now it’s a spirit!

How many ways has humanity figured out to distill all the natural ingredients in the world? A lot!

Distilled spirits can be made from just about anything that grows. Grains like rye, rice, and corn; fruits and veggies, herbs, and even pure sugar form the basis for the many spirits out there.

Generally, we can categorize most spirits into six major groups:

  • Vodka distilled from neutral grains, fruits, and vegetables
  • Gin distilled from neutral grains
  • Rum distilled from sugar
  • Tequila distilled from agave
  • Brandy distilled from fruit
  • Whiskey distilled from malted grains (including BourbonRye, and Scotch)

Here’s a fun fact: the sentence “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs” includes every letter in the alphabet at least once!

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