The world of spirits is a wide one and spans the four corners of the globe. Spirits are produced by distilling and/or macerating agricultural raw materials, such as fruit, grains or roots, and come in an equally varied range of styles. They can be sipped at happy hour or late into the evening, straight up or in cocktails.
A world to discover!
Here you’ll find portraits of the principal spirit families: Find out more about their classification, the way they’re produced, their history and the different ways to appreciate them. For more information and for cocktail ideas, visit the Espace cocktail section.
The principal types of alcohol
WHAT IS IT?
Whisky is a spirit distilled from grain. Types of grain used vary from one producing country to the next based on traditions and available raw materials. Most producing countries require an obligatory aging period in oak casks. Only whiskies distilled and aged in Scotland go under the name of Scotch.
HOW TO READ THE LABEL?
- Blended whisky: blend of malted barley whiskies and grain whiskies made from cereal other than barley.
- Blended malt whisky: blend of malt whiskies from different distilleries. This category was formerly known as pure malt or vatted malt, terms that are still used in other whisky-producing countries.
- Blended grain whisky: blend of grain whiskies from different distilleries.
- Single grain whisky: grain whisky from a single distillery.
- Single malt whisky: malted barley whisky from a single distillery.
HOW IS IT MADE?
During this process, the germination of grains releases enzymes that convert starch into sugar during the mashing process. Barley malting is essential in the making of the famous Scottish single malts.
Similarly to beer making, the malted grain is added to hot water to convert the starch it contains into sugar.
Once the mash is loaded with sugar, yeast is added to kick start alcoholic fermentation, transforming the sugar into alcohol. What results is a liquid with a low degree of alcohol (approximately 7%), which is similar to an amber ale.
During the distillation process, a still is used to isolate the alcohol contained in the liquid.
Types of Stills
There are two main types of stills:
- Column still, also known as a Coffey still
Used by distilleries to produce large quantities of alcohol at low costs, this type of still, however, strips the liquid of some of its flavour and complexity.
- Pot still
This traditional type of still requires more time and energy to produce spirits yet conserves a greater amount of their flavours and personality.
After distillation, the clear spirit, which now has an alcoholic degree of 65%, is stored in casks. The time it spends maturing, the type of casks used and the immediate environment of the casks are as many elements that influence the final product. During the aging process, approximately 2% of the alcohol evaporates from the casks every year; this quantity of evaporated whisky is poetically called the “angels’ share.”
WHERE IS IT MADE?
Nowadays, only a handful of distilleries occupy the region known as the Lowlands yet the style of whisky they produce remains quite distinct. The Lowlands are known for their delicate whiskies with floral, herbaceous and fruity characters. Notes of citrus, hay, cereal, caramel, and spices make them a lovely introduction to Scottish single malts.
This expansive territory that extends north of Glasgow and Edinburgh to Scotland’s northernmost reaches counts several dozens of distilleries and as many varieties of whiskies. It is thus somewhat difficult to define a predominant style for all distilleries. However, most of their whiskies are characterized by robust aromas of caramel, malt, molasses, vanilla, spices, and wood. Some distilleries also produce peaty and smoky whiskies.
This small region tucked away in the Highlands includes forty or so of the most famous Scottish distilleries. This large concentration of distilleries is often attributed to the exceptional quality of the water and the abundance of natural resources. Speyside prides itself on making Scotland’s most elegant and classic whiskies, dominated by aromas of honey, pear and candied fruit with hints of vanilla and flowers.
Often associated with the Highlands, distilleries located in the isles off the western coast of Scotland nevertheless produce their own unmistakable style of whisky. The isle of Islay has eight distilleries, the isles of Jura, Arran, Mull, and Skye each count their own distillery whereas the Orkney Islands are home to two. Whiskies distilled in the isles often present notes of iodine and smoke with fruity and spicy aromas.
The small island of Islay boasts its very own whisky-producing region where it plays host to as many as eight distilleries scattered across an area covering barely 600 km2. These distilleries include some of Scotland’s most famous whose their notoriety comes from the strong smoky, peaty and sometimes iodized character of their whiskies. Their authenticity and inimitable style explain why so many whisky connoisseurs sing their praises.
The city of Campbeltown was once an important distillation hub but most of the producers have since closed their doors. Nevertheless, Campbeltown maintains a distinct production region whose activity is assured by the Springbank distillery, which markets three kinds of Scotch whiskies under different names: Springback, a slightly smoky and iodized Scotch; Hazelburn, a rather light and fragrant Scotch; and Longrow, an intensely peaty Scotch.
The history of distillation in the United States is intimately linked to the arrival of Scottish and Irish immigrants who ferried their know-how with them across the sea. Indeed, they were quick to embrace the types of cereal grown on the New Continent, which explains how corn, a very abundant crop, became the heart and soul of American distillation.
Bourbon is named after a county in the state of Kentucky, which is where most bourbons are still produced to this day. The bourbon appellation, however, is not limited to this state and bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. To be called bourbon, the spirit must mostly be made from corn (51% of its composition) and aged for at least two years in new oak casks. Amateurs of rich and generous whiskies will enjoy its distinctive aromas of vanilla, burnt sugar, banana, cherry, and mild spices.
After being neglected for several years, American rye whiskies, made mostly from rye, are making a noted comeback. Their very spicy almost peppery style is enhanced by aromas of ginger, orange peel, nuts, and caramel. Usually enjoyed straight, they also lend character to whisky-based cocktails. The term “rye” is also associated with Canadian whiskies that were once made from rye, which is rarely the case today.
Years ago, Ireland was the centre of the world production of whisky before Scotland quietly stole the limelight. The distillation tradition is nonetheless still very active in Ireland and Irish whisky need not play second fiddle to its Scottish cousin. The various whiskies made in Ireland are often characterized by triple distillation, which produces a delicate style with herbal, floral and fruity notes underscored by aromas of cereal, vanilla and caramel.
Pure Pot Still
This style of whisky is unique to Ireland. It blends unmalted barley with malted barley, which gives the finished product its distinctive notes of cereal, hay, fresh herbs, and citrus.
Canada is often perceived as a small player on the international whisky scene and yet it has distinguished itself with an attractive array of quality whiskies. How could it be any other way for a country covered in never-ending fields and populated with so many Scottish and Irish whisky-loving immigrants!
Rye, a hardy cereal grain that thrives in the prairie climate, figures prominently with Canadian distillers. The term rye has long been associated with Canadian whisky, which, for historical reasons, is still often designated under this name, regardless of the kind of cereal from which it is made.
At the turn of the 20th century, a young Japanese chemistry student, Masataka Taketsuru, travelled to Glasgow where his fascination with Scotch led him to apprentice at the Longmorn distillery, far from suspecting that he was laying the first stone of a whisky empire. Upon returning to the Land of the Rising Sun, he became head of the brand-new Yamazaki distillery founded in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii. He developed the distillery’s style before leaving in the 60s to create his own distillery, Nikka, while the Torii company became the Suntory giant. Still today, Nikka and Suntory are the two major whisky producers in Japan. Despite Japan’s image as an ultra-modern country with cutting-edge technology, its whisky production remains steeped in Scotland’s traditional style. A style so traditional that it sometimes seems to linger in the 30s, whereas Scotland has since greatly modernised!
HOW TO SAVOUR IT?
Neat, on the rocks or with water? Whisky purists will tell you that whisky must always be enjoyed neat. In truth, there are many ways to appreciate whisky and no one method is better than others. Certain types of whisky are lovely chilled or on ice, bearing in mind that, once melted, the ice dilutes the spirit and makes it lighter. Less complex whiskies make for a great base for a range of cocktails. Top-of-the-line whiskies, however, are best sampled neat so that you can appreciate the richness of their nuances. It is suggested to add a few drops of water to more powerful whiskies to calm their zeal and make them a tad more approachable. Whisky tasting is a moment of pleasure and should never be a source of tension, so it’s always best to leave one to one’s own tasting devices!
WHICH TYPE OF GLASS BEST SERVES WHISKY?
The old-fashioned glass is the most common. It is perfectly adapted for drinking whisky neat or on the rocks, and is the perfect choice for a friendly evening of whisky tasting or for sipping a whisky that you already know and appreciate.
For more serious tasting, and an in-depth analysis of the whisky, choose a glass with a tapered mouth that will concentrate the whisky’s flavours and aromas. Small wine glasses are well suited for this kind of tasting. Finally, to serve whisky mixed with soda and ice, a highball glass fits the bill just fine.
To find out more about Scotches and whiskies, visit our: Scotch table (PDF - 1.3 MB - French only)
Vodka is a liquor that can be produced from grain, but also from potatoes or beets. Today, vodka is produced in many countries, among them Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, Finland, the United States and France. Some are flavoured—with bison grass, like Poland’s Zubrówka vodka, or with pepper, lemon, or other tastes. Some vodkas even have gold flakes suspended in them.
The rum known as rhum agricole is produced by fermenting, then distilling, the juice of the sugar cane known in rum-producing countries as vesou. The fresh cane juice used for rhum agricole is not cooked and re-cooked to extract the sugar, so it retains all its natural aromas. Some rhums agricoles age in barrels for years and achieve an incomparable smoothness.
Industrial or refinery rum is produced from cane syrup, or molasses, a by-product of sugar cane production.
Dry gin is a grain-based liquor flavoured with juniper berries, which give it its particular aroma. It is prepared from a pure alcohol (generally a rye or corn liquor) that is then redistilled and flavoured with juniper berries, coriander, ginger, lemon and orange zest, and more.
Tequila is produced from the blue agave plant, or agave tequilana. To bear the name tequila, it must be exclusively made in the Mexican state of Jalisco and in certain municipalities in the states of Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas. It must also contain a minimum of 51% blue agave. Tequilas made exclusively from this raw material are labelled “100% agave.”
Brandy is a liquor produced by distilling wine. A product of demarcated regions in France, Armagnac and cognac are some of the most well known brandies, and their manufacturing is governed by appellation d’origine contrôlée. Legal notes on the label refer to the brandy’s barrel aging or its source within the region of production.
Liqueur is a flavoured and sweetened spirit with a minimum of 23% alc./vol. It can be flavoured with fruit (Grand Marnier, Triple Sec, Cointreau), herbs (Chartreuse, Drambuie), spices or other aromas such as anise, vanilla and almond.
Spirits with the term "crème de" in their names, such as crème de cacao or crème de menthe, also come under the liqueur category. The "crème de" means the liqueur contains a minimum of 250 grams of sugar per litre.
Cream liqueur is a spirit supplemented with cream, which gives it a smooth, creamy texture. Technically, it cannot be classified as a liqueur because its alcohol level isn’t high enough. This make it unique. Its shelf life varies between one and two years, and it should be kept refrigerated after opening.
Vermouth is an aperitif composed of fortified and flavoured wines that is served alone or in cocktails. Often, producers prefer to keep the ingredients used for flavouring—usually plants, spices and citrus peels—a secret. Vermouth comes in red or white varieties, with the red usually sweeter.