The Captain’s guide to spirits.

A simple and straightforward guide to the spirits I write about, collect and enjoy. The clue here is that my guide only talks about spirits I drink.

I am not about to write a 1000 point piece on the minutiae of every spirit ever made.

Fermentation.

The process of taking grain, fruit or vegetables, adding water, yeast and heat. This process creates beer or ale.

Distillation.

Distillation is the process of separating the components of a liquid by evaporation and condensation.

Basically it means taking the beer we’ve already talked about and putting it into a large mental still and turning into…

Distilled Spirit.

A distilled Spirit is an alcoholic drink produced by distilling grains, fruit or vegetables which have themselves already gone through alcoholic fermention. The term spirit is at least 20% alcohol and contains no added sugar after distillation.

This product is then defined by what happens to it next otherwise it would be called….

Moonshine or White Spirit and comes off the stills usually between 60 and 70%

This is pretty rare though so instead we’ll move on too;

Whisky. The added E usually in Irish or American is just a spelling mistake on their part.

Whisky by definition is a distilled spirit made from various grains usually barely, rye, corn and wheat. Whisky does not need to carry any age statement to be called whisky but there are very strict restrictions when you start to add other words to whisky.

Scotch Whisky.

This is whisky which has been produced, barrel aged and bottled in Scotland. Scotch must be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years (the full maturation being done in Scotland) and be bottled at 40% minimum alcohol, anything else cannot legally be called Scotch.

Scotch whisky also cannot be matured in any cask bigger than 700 litres.

There are though different types of Scotch, the following are the main examples.

Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

This is a bottle of whisky made at one distillery, it may come from different casks and then blended together but as long as it’s from the same distillery it can be called Single Malt.

Malt Whisky is produced using malted grain, barely usually, and then distilled in Pot Stills, usually twice.

Single Grain Scotch Whisky.

Using other forms of grain, usually corn, these grains are sometimes mixed together to form a recipe and then distilled in a continuous column stills rather than pot stills meaning vast amounts can be produced in a minimum of time.

For whisky to be called Scotch it will need to be placed in oak barrels for a minimum of three years, you could think of Single Grain Scotch as Scottish Bourbon because it sort of is.

Most Single Grain whisky is fired into blends although the infamous Haig Club and Haig Club Clubman have brought Grain whisky into the mainstream.

Blended Grain Whisky.

As rare as rocking horse shit this is grain whisky from multiple grain distilleries, it’s just not a popular choice for distilleries or independent bottlers although the excellent Hedonism from Compass Box is a very fine whisky indeed.

Blended Scotch Whisky.

This is mixture of grain and Single Malt whisky from multiple single malt distilleries and grain whiskies

Blended Malt Whisky.

This is a bottle of whisky which has Single Malt from several distilleries, it cannot contain any Single Grain Whisky.

U.S. Bourbon Whiskey.

Bourbon is not just any whisky made in America, there are strict rules which cover bourbon.

Bourbon must be matured in new, virgin, charred oak barrels made in America, it must be at least 51% corn mash, be distilled at no more than 80% Alcohol by volume and bottled, like Scotch, at no less than 40%.

There is no minimum age to bourbon.

Straight Bourbon.

This is Bourbon which has been matured for a minimum of two years and labelled as such.

Canadian Whisky.

Canadian Whisky is whisky which must be distilled, aged and bottled in Canada, the whisky must be matured for a minimum of three years in Canada, like Scotch.

Gin.

Gin is a distilled spirit with added botanicals, often juniper but can contain pretty much anything you care to add.

It’s normally between 37.5% and 40% with some gins higher in strength.

Within the EU there are four distinctions.

Juniper lead spirit drinks. Can be as low as 30%. It is pot stilled and then re distilled with added botanicals.

Gin. Rather than a second distillation gin is single distilled and then the botanicals are then added to the resulting spirit. Gin, according to EU law, must be juniper berry lead in terms of flavour.

Distilled Gin. Distilled gin is produced exclusively by redistilling ethanol of agricultural origin with an initial strength of 96% ABV in stills traditionally used for gin, in the presence of juniper berries and of other natural botanicals, provided that the juniper taste is predominant. Gin obtained simply by adding essences or flavourings to ethanol of agricultural origin is not distilled gin.

London Gin. London gin is obtained exclusively from ethanol of agricultural origin  whose flavour is introduced exclusively through the re-distillation in traditional stills of ethanol in the presence of all the natural plant materials used, the resultant distillate of which is at least 70% ABV. London gin may not contain added sweetening exceeding 0.1 grams of sugars per litre of the final product, nor colorants, nor any added ingredients other than water.

In America the legal minimum for gin is 40%, I wish it was this here.

Rum.

Rum is a distilled spirit made using sugarcane by products or directly from sugarcane juice. It is then usually stored in oak barrels but really it can be turned out pretty much straight away.

There are several different types of rum, dark rum is usually aged in heavily charred barrels and use caramelised sugarcane when being distilled. Dark and super rich in flavour.

Gold Rums are medium bodied rums, usually aged in lightly charred casks they offer a less full on rum experience. The aged golden rums are a joy to behold.

Light Rums. Light or white rum is usually a pretty tasteless drink used for mixing, they tend to have a sweetness but not much else.

Spiced Rum. Rum which has had a load of vanilla and a few spices thrown in. They are okay.

Absinthe.

A distilled spirit which is then flavoured with fennel, wormwood, anise and whatever else distillers find lying about.

A strong spirit often bottled over 50% it has a bad reputation, none of which is fair.

The best way to have Absinthe is by slowly adding ice cold water, I tend to mix it down to a 5 to 1 ratio if not more.

Some people add sugar but I prefer it without.

Absinthe is made all over the world but the French seem to know what they’re doing but you might also find small craft distillers producing Absinthe.

Cask Strength.

A spirit which has not be diluted at all and is presented at whatever strength it comes out the cask as.

This doesn’t always equate to quality or strength, I’ve had some pretty grim cask strength bottles and I’ve got one bottled at 40.3%.

That said if colouring is added to the whisky can it still be cask strength?

Americans tend to use the term Barrel Proof rather than cask strength.

Single Cask.

A bottle of whisky which has come from a single cask at a distillery rather than being a blend of single malts.

Natural Colouring.

A lot of whisky has E150 caramel colouring added, it’s added to give a balanced colour consistency to a whisky. E150 darkens the spirit, making, usually younger whiskies, appear to look more like the perceived image of whisky. Whisky which is marked natural has no E150 poured in.

I don’t really care either way if a bottle of whisky has a small amount of this added.

Chill Filtered.

This is a process where whisky is cooled to between -10 and 4 degrees Celsius and passed through a fine filter. This removes some fatty acids and proteins and is done to stop the whisky getting cloudy when water or ice is added and it’s a shame because it also strips some of the flavour.

Many whiskies are now advertised as non or un chill filtered.

This I do care about, I understand the rationale behind it but it’s stripping a whisky of flavour for no real reason and it must cost money too, adding to the end cost of the bottle.

Independent Bottlers.

Spirits are produced by distilleries, even small distilleries can produce a fair amount of spirit each year and whilst most is bottled by those distilleries there are also independent bottlers and blenders. They don’t make any whisky but buy casks and bottle it themselves.

Independent bottlers often give the buyer a chance to taste a different version of a whisky to that of the official or distillery bottles, many are un chill filtered and bottled at higher strengths. They are a great opportunity to get a very different experience and should be embraced.

NAS Non Aged Statement.

Whisky either carries an age statement or it doesn’t. It doesn’t need too but I, and many others, argue that part of a whisky’s price is the time spent in a cask and that if a whisky is expensive, as all whisky is now, then it perhaps should carry either an age statement or at least some explanation as to why it’s more expensive than something else.

This causes arguments all the time, I buy loads of NAS whisky but I’m very critical of a product I feel is over priced, especially if that product does not carry an age statement.

And I think that’s it for now. If anyone has anything else they’d like added to this let me know and I’ll write it up.

The Captain.

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