Distilled Spirits
Essential Product Knowledge and Information about Distilled Spirits for Beverage Alcohol Retailers
By Richard Brandes & Robert Keane

Today’s beverage alcohol consumers are looking for more of everything — more flavor, more excitement and more sophistication, and premium distilled spirits is one way they get it.

But today’s consumers have questions about everything they buy, and they expect intelligent answers. For that reason alone, it has become important for everyone in the beverage alcohol industry, particularly retailers and their staffs, to have, at the very least, a basic understanding of the various distilled spirits categories and the differences between them.

In order to be able to talk persuasively to customers about the wide array of brands and categories found in most liquor stores, a number of factors must be considered, including water sources, geography, raw ingredients, production processes, cooperage and aging. All of these factors play a part in determining the character and quality of the thousands of distilled spirits products currently on the market. In addition, it’s also helpful for retailers to be conversant with a variety of key product characteristics, historical details, the latest category sales trends and any other information — such as merchandising tips for product categories — that might aid them in selling spirits products.

That is the purpose of the following pages, to serve as a reference tool which retailers and their staffs can refer to year-round, so that when, for example, a customer asks the difference between a bourbon and a Tennessee whiskey, they can look it up (if they don’t already know the answer).


The common denominator for all types of beverage alcohol is fermentation, which is nothing more than the natural decomposition of organic materials containing carbohydrates and the conversion of the sugars in those carbohydrates into ethyl alcohol. While fermentation is pretty much universal, historically different cultures have used whatever source of carbohydrates was most common in their region. France, Spain and Italy were all wine producing countries where grapes were plentiful; as a result they developed a tradition of distilling wine or the leftovers from the winemaking process and gave the world cognac, armagnac, brandy de jerez and grappa. In the British Isles, grain was more plentiful and, as a result, the first whiskies developed, while in Mexico fermenting the juice of the agave plant was the first step in the development of tequila.

Fermentation occurs in nature whenever the two necessary ingredients, carbohydrate and yeast, are combined in a liquid, and it was probably the accidental combination of the two which resulted in the first beverage alcohol. The liquid in which the fermentation takes place is also sometimes called the mash. Fermentation stops when the sugars in the mash are depleted or when the alcohol level reaches about 14% and kills the yeast. In making beer and wine, fermentation is the most important part of the process.

For distilled spirits, however, that’s just the beginning. After fermentation, the liquid is then distilled one or more times, which reduces the original water content and greatly increases the alcohol level. Where beers on average have an alcohol content ranging from 2% to 8% and wines from 8% to 14%, distilled spirits are usually in the range of 35% to 50% alcohol, although individual products may be either higher or lower. Distilled spirits labels often list proof in addition to alcohol content by volume. The proof level is always twice the alcohol content. (A bottle of 100 proof bourbon, for example, has an alcohol content of 50% by volume.)

You’ve Got To Have Sugar

The carbohydrates used for making distilled spirits are of two basic types: those containing a high concentration of natural sugars and those containing other carbohydrates that can easily be converted to sugars by enzymes. Among the most commonly used materials with high sugar contents are grapes, sugarcane, agave, molasses and, not surprisingly, sugar itself. Starches that can easily be converted to sugars include grains such as corn, rye, rice, barley, wheat and potatoes.

After combining carbohydrates and yeast together in a liquid base and allowing it to ferment, the next step is distillation. The secret behind the distillation process is that the boiling points of alcohol (173.3


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