Gin is a neutral spirit flavoured by juniper and other botanicals; juniper must be the predominant flavour. To produce distilled gin, neutral grain spirit is diluted to about 45% ABV and then redistilled in the presence of botanicals. These botanicals can be added in one of two ways either by steeping the botanicals in the diluted spirit before redistilling, or through vapour infusion where botanicals are placed in a basket in the neck of the still allowing the vapours to pass through during the redistillation process so that they pick up the flavour of the botanicals; this method produces a lighter style of gin. The origins of gin as we know it date back to 16th century Holland where juniper and grain spirit were combined to produce Genever. Gin started to become known in England when troops brought back tales of Genever and its warming properties which had given them ‘Dutch Courage’.
Perhaps due to its size, perceived lack of complexity, or that fact it is less news worthy than other categories at the moment, vodka doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Now produced all over the globe, vodka originated in Eastern Europe, with both Russia and Poland claiming to have been the first to distil it in the Middle Ages. The name came from “voda” in Russian and “woda” in Polish, both of which mean “little water”. During this time vodka was used primarily for medicinal purposes and as an ingredient in gunpowder. Today vodka is associated with purity, strength and neutrality. The general perception is that vodka is a flavourless spirit and in many cases this may ring true; but as connoisseurs will know, flavour differences are slight but distinct. The subtle differences in flavour and mouth feel are influenced by the raw materials used and the distillation methods.
Whisk(e)y has a fascinating history which dates back over 2000 years. Originally used as an anaesthetic and an antibiotic, distilling techniques were brought to Ireland and Scotland by monks. Since wine was not easily obtained in these countries, barley beer was distilled into liquor which in turn became whisk(e)y. Nowadays, whisk(e)y is a global spirit full of flavour and diversity. Whisk(e)y can be made anywhere in the world but must be a distilled beverage, made from water, yeast and fermented grain and have an ABV between 40% and 94.8%. When it comes to types of whisk(e)y this is where things get a little more complicated; Bourbon has different rules to Scotch for example, starting with how spelling! Traditionally American and Irish producers prefer whiskey with an ‘e’, and in Scotland, Wales, Canada and Japan they prefer whisky without an ‘e’.
Rum as a category is subject to few rules and as a result it is bursting with an array of flavours, an aged demerara rum is a totally different beast to a dry white Spanish style rum, both equally good but at different ends of the flavour spectrum. Although synonymous with the Caribbean, the origins of rum date back thousands of years to the other side of the world in Asia, where the Malays produced a drink known as “brum” from fermented sugarcane. When we think of rum and its history, after the Caribbean, Pirates and the Navy are probably the next things that spring to mind, and certainly it was the drink and currency of the high seas. The links with the British Royal Navy date back to 1655 when they captured Jamaica. Used as a bribe, rum started to replace brandy as protection against pirates and in 1687 the daily ration given to seaman was officially changed from brandy to rum.
Tequila and mezcal belong to a family of spirits that are made from the agave plant; other less well-known members of this family include raicilla, bacanora and sotel. The cultivation of agave is certainly a labour of love with many years invested before the first drop of liquid is poured. Many of us do not understand the differences between tequila and mezcal, tequila must be made from a minimum of 51% Blue Weber Agave whereas mezcal can be made from up to 30 different types of agave. The history of agave spirits, of which tequila is the most widely known, goes back centuries to the Aztecs and possibly to an even older tribe, the Olmecs, who made a ceremonial drink “pulque” from fermented agave pulp. In the 16th century, the invading Spanish brought with them a taste for brandy together with distilling knowledge. When brandy supplies began to wane, they used the native agave plant to make spirits.
Wines coming from western France have been appreciated by the English, Dutch and Scandinavians since the 13th century. From the 12th century, these wines were transformed into eaux-devie (water of life) through distillation then aged in oak to become Cognac. The vineyards of Cognac are located in the south-west region of France, 100km north of Bordeaux. Although, traditionally, Cognac consumers have primarily been older, affluent males, due to celebrity hip-hop stars having endorsed Cognac brands there has been an increase of younger urban consumers. Statistics have shown a huge growth in Cognac within the nightclub sector in the UK. Cognac is the most popular type of brandy but it is not alone, brandy is produced worldwide by distilling local wines. Almost all brandies are aged for some time in oak although some have flavourings and colourings added instead.
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