Monday, December 31, 2007

40% Booze

‘Tis the drinking (and dessert) season, so here’s a short post about booze.

In my mind, there are three basic categories of alcoholic drinks: beer, wine, and “spirits”. Spirits are, as far as I’m concerned, any alcohol for drinking that has been produced by distillation. For some reason, these three categories, despite containing the exact same active ingredient, usually in the same absolute volume when consumed, are frequently sold in distinctly different ways. For example, the province of Ontario has decided (in all its wisdom) that beer only should be sold at “the Beer Store”; wine and spirits are sold at Liqore Stores, although some beer is also sold at the Liquor Store. Anyways, this is not a post about weird jurisdictional things and booze.

I’ll talk about beer and wine some other time. Here, I’d like to describe my internal categorization among spirits. I draw a line under the liquors that contain 40% alcohol, that separates these select few from the rest, which I generally term “liquers”. There are five, and only five, spirits that have risen above this line, mainly through accident of history I suspect.

Gin: I have almost no experience of gin; I shall have to rectify this situation.

Rum: I have little experience of rum to date, a consequence of an unfortunately-ending evening when I was younger. The Captain decided to raid the port and exit, if you catch my drift.

Tequila: Like many people, I’ve met shots of this stuff, in cheap form, while already drunk. But, on one memorable occasion, I had a delicious and mouth-warming “shot” sipped slowly of some very good tequila.

Vodka: Swayed as I am by marketing, I have experience in vodka of only one brand: Smirnoff

Whisky: I do make a distinction between the various national styles and flavours of whisky, such that I don’t consider “scotch” and “rye” to be exactly the same thing.

Did I miss any full-scale 40% boozes?


Carlo said...

Umm Brandy, Cognac, Anisette... There are quite a few more 40% liquors. However, I'm a rye-guy. I absolutely hate the taste of both Scotch and Tequila, but Vodka makes my favorite mixed drink: The Cesar.

I don't drink much hard liquor anymore, never really have the opportunity. It's pretty much all wine for me. I've also tried to swear off of beer as well: Too fattening and gives me weird dehydration headaches.

Necator said...

Carlo is right – there is stuff like Ouzo, Arak, Chinese rice liquor, burnt cane liquor (like Cachaca).

If you want to get into gin (ummm – does anyone actually “want” to get into alcohols?) start with soft mixed drinks like a good gin and tonic. Tonic, gin, lime and ice – awesome in the summer time. I’m partial to the Martini. Gin, dry vermouth strained through ice and garnished with olive. I’ve traditionally consumed Bombay but I’ve gone back to Gordon’s of late. My fave gin would be Hendrick’s gin that has a unique blend of aromatic botanicals that distinguishes it from all other gins I’ve had so far. It has heavy cucumber accent that works really well with a cucumber garnish in a Martini. Only problem is that it’s $35 a bottle (26er).

I agree with Carlo that rye is the most universally tasty whisky, though I enjoy good Bourbons on occasion. I have had limited experience with Irish whiskeys. During my M.Sc. I attended a Scotch tasting and developed an expensive habit for single malt that I couldn’t afford. I tended to stick to Islay single malts – though I’ve been off them the last few years.

I have to agree with you in regard to Tequila. I never paid it much mind until my friend brought some high grade anejo (sipping) Tequila which changed my perception of Tequila forever. Thanks to shrinking agave crops and increased demand though, Tequila has been going up in $$$ the last few years – can’t afford that either.

Vodka – Poles tend to get a bit persnickety about vodka. The earliest written records of vodka distillery precede the existence of the Russian state (15th C) and happen to be Polish, and so Poles tend to claim it as their own. The reality I’m sure is that most Slavic (and Scandinavian) cultures were distilling “little water” before this. Moreover, since distilling technology came from Asia it’s hard to say who “invented” it. Traditionally, vodkas are clear spirits made from triple distilling of rye grain – NOT potato, wheat, barley or anything else - strictly speaking those would be moonshines (‘bimber’ in Polish). Just as Scotch is made from malted barley (exclusively), rye whisky is made from rye, and Bourbon is made from corn – so too, a ‘real’ vodka should be made only from rye (they didn’t have potatoes in the 14th C). Smirnoff, to reduce production costs and increase volume, use corn – cheap, grows fast and produces lots of sugar. Moreover, Smirnoff is a relatively recent distillery originating last century. Smirnoff has the name but in my mind it’s an inferior vodka.

Sadly, as distilling processes became more efficient, vodkas lost their character. Also, since vodka doesn’t enjoy the same trademark protection as say Scotch, or Champagne, anyone can make it. So now we have French and Scottish distilleries producing their own spins on what they consider to be vodka. I have tried some artisanal vodkas that were distilled using traditional methods and ingredients and I have to say that they’re more like diluted whiskeys (diluted in the sense of flavour, not alcohol) and hence have much more character than modern uber-clean vodkas. Next time you pick up a bottle of vodka, try a rye-grain vodka. I personally enjoy the Polsh vodka Wodka Wyborowa (pronounced Voodka Vihborova), but you could try any other rye based vodka (any nationality). Incidentally, in Poland for a spirit to be called a vodka, it must have over 55% alcohol.

TheBrummell said...

I've considered the other 40% liquors, such as Ouzo, Arak, Brandy, Cognac, etc. etc., but I maintain in my mind the distinction and the elevation of the "big 5" because they are made to be mixed with a wide range of non-alcoholic beverages (at least in the culture I'm currently embedded in).

Brandy, Cognac, Anisette (never had), Arak (never had), various South American and Asian distilled liquors (mostly never had), Ouzo, et cetera are all intended, to my knowledge, to be drunk straight, either by sipping or as shots. True, some whiskys and vodkas are similarly intended, but my experience with those has been 'straight' as the exception, not the rule. This isn't to say I don't enjoy these beverages (that I've tried), far from it - I sipped a wonderful glass of apple brandy a couple of years ago, and I'm currently enjoying some quite fine scotch (Glenfiddich) that's really too good to dilute with anything so 'base' as pop or juice.

I'll have to look into those more "traditional" vodkas, Necator, sounds like there's some interesting culinary exploration to be done there. Also with those gins you mention - I think gin is the next on my list for me to experiment with.

ummm – does anyone actually “want” to get into alcohols?

Well, yes - I do. Nobody ever seems to talk about the benefits of alcohol consumption, and I'm not talking here about the associated compounds found (as side-effects, really) in some drinks such as flavinoids in red wine. I'm talking about the benefits of consumption of alcohol in liquid form, not as health benefits but as either immediate-feedback benefits (it feels good; it tastes good when properly mixed) or as social benefits ('liquid courage', for example). Yes, alcoholism is a serious and complex problem, and I'm certainly not advocating an advertising campaign that focusses on getting drunk for the joy of getting drunk. But I'd like to briefly flip a middle finger at all the self-righteous teetotalers out there who harp so consistently on the supposed evils of CH3CH2OH.

King Aardvark said...

Ah, rye. Got me through the rough tutorial days when I had to look after ~180 pissed-off and clueless 2nd year mechanical engineering students. Though I can't say that slamming back numerous shots of Canadian Club every Wednesday afternoon was a great idea.

And I do pay tequila very much mind - I completely avoid the stuff. The night staff at Burger King that had to clean up the mess will understand why.

Hmmm, looks like I need to slowly sip and enjoy my liquors more.

Necator said...


Whisky is a bit of a catch-all. I find that both rye and bourbons mix well but Scotch is a no-no for mixing. The fusel oils really stand out and seem to be impossible to mix with other flavours (ahhh coke, lime and burnt peat....great combo). I was also told never to drink Scotch on ice. It apperently precipitates out solids that otherwise stay in solution and provide flavour. It is however acceptable to mix in a bit of water or carbonated water (Scotch and soda) to 'open-up' the flavours. Incidentaally, in the UK, whisky always refers to Scotch whisky (rigid definition) unless otherwise indicated.

Ohh, and I don't recommend Chinese rice liquor. I've had it half a dozen times or so and it never seems to get better. It's usually sour, smells like acetone and is usually around 60% EtOH. Makes monster headaches as well. Maybe there is a proper way to drink it, but I've not experienced it and my Chinese colleagues never intimaated a 'proper' way to drink it.

As a traditional aside, Poles on the holidaays (particularly Christmas) drink vodka shots with pickled herring and rye-bread chasers. Sounds gross but it really works.


I've never had bad Tequila benders, but my better half does get very ornery when consuming Tequila - it's really fun to watch, like Jekyl and Hyde and ONLY with tequila. Tee hee.

TheBrummell said...

Whisky is a bit of a catch-all. I find that both rye and bourbons mix well but Scotch is a no-no for mixing.

I'd agree with both statements. I know many people who seem confused by the terminology of whisky-type beverages - they'll ask for Rye in Australia, and get blank looks, and talk about Scotch to the Irish (and get angry looks). As far as I'm concerned, "whisky" covers a wide range of brown distilled liquors that have spent several years at least in wooden (ideally Oak) barrels. The flavour of whisky is therefore the flavour of Oak, to a first approximation - how many people do you know set out to consume the flesh of the oak tree? Part of my insistence on refering to this beverage-class as "whisky" comes from a conversation I had with a man from Scotland not too long ago, who told me that in Scotland, the stuff is just refered to as "whisky" (and you can really hear the "h" in there). "Rye" is Canadian whisky; "Bourbon" is whisky from the USA made with corn. Other regions get their names included in the whisky designation: Scotch whisky (abbreviated "Scotch" in North America), Irish whisky, and so on.

Vodka to me is the most basic of all drinkable alcohols, since it seems that many manufacturers of the stuff (at least around here) are aiming for strictly water and ethanol, nothing else. The flavour of Canadian vodka, for example, is just the flavour of ethanol in water at a concentration that does not anaesthetize the taste organs immediately on contact.

As a traditional aside, Poles on the holidaays (particularly Christmas) drink vodka shots with pickled herring and rye-bread chasers. Sounds gross but it really works.

I like rye-bread (in some circumstances) and I've never tried pickled herring, so I have no comment on grossness. But what do you mean by "really works"? What is the goal of such consumption?