Ahhh.. Alcohol. That sweet golden nectar that we humans drink and love.
We all know about it and most of us have enjoyed its magical effects. And yet, so few of us know what it actually is…
So what is alcohol? And what are the most common types?
Throughout this article, that’s what we’re going to explore. From a bartenders perspective. Because knowing about the different types of alcohol is especially important for us.
After all, we serve it every single day and we’re legally liable to serve it responsibly, so we should know exactly what it is.
So to my fellow bartenders and everyone who wants to learn more about this fascinating liquid, we’re about to open up pandora’s box and go through the fundamentals of alcohol.
And that means starting from the beginning.
How is Alcohol Made? – The Fermentation Process
The process for making alcohol is essential to understanding what alcohol is. And it’s actually quite a strange process. The general consensus is that it must have been a complete accident as to how it came to be.
The stories goes something like this:
Around 10,000 years ago, cavemen were figuring out how to make bread. They were grinding up ancient grains into flour, adding water and eventually, they succeeded in making a very rough version of what bread is today.
It’s assumed that these same cavemen must have left their ancient gruel sitting overnight. And lo and behold, when they woke up the next morning, their sloppy gruel had magically turned into alcohol.
To them, it must have seemed like a miracle!
So what happened?
Well, wild yeast (a micro-organism that lives EVERYWHERE) would have been attracted to the gruel because it feeds on sugar (yes, there is sugar in this type of gruel!). And one of the amazing things about yeast is that it poos out alcohol!!!
So yeast is the magical ingredient that turns sugar into alcohol!
This process is known as fermentation and it happens every single day naturally in the world around us.
Since then, humans have refined the fermentation process into an art & science. And absolutely anything that contains sugar, can be fermented into alcohol.
Beer is made from fermenting grains.
Wine is made from fermenting grapes.
Cider is made from fermenting fruits (like apples & pears).
Even milk can be fermented to make alcohol…
So What is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a drug and it’s the oldest & most widely consumed recreational drug on the planet. AND, it’s legal!
According to wikipedia, “alcohol produces euphoria, decreased anxiety, increased sociability, sedation, impairment of cognition, memory, and motor function, and generalized depression of central nervous system function.”
All of us who have used alcohol know and (probably) love its effects. So it’s worth pointing out that alcohol can also be dangerous. And despite the fact that it’s legal, it may be even more dangerous than some of the illegal recreational drugs out there.
Anyone who has experienced a good hangover knows this!
That’s why alcohol is heavily regulated around the world and that’s why we bartenders need to be responsible when we serve it…
With that out of the way, let’s get back to good stuff.
The Distillation Process
You may have noticed that when I listed some of the different types of alcohol above, I didn’t mention any hard liquors.
The reason being is that spirits (also known as liquors) require a step beyond fermentation to become what they are.
Fermentation can only take you so far. As soon as the alcohol percentage of a brew hits around 15%, fermentation is no longer possible. There is either no more sugar left in the brew to ferment or the yeasts themselves drown/die because the alcohol content is too high.
This is where the distillation process comes in.
Distillation is the process of separating the alcohol in a fermented brew from its separate parts. For example, within a fermented brew, there will be water, alcohol & some other ingredients that give the liquid its flavor.
By separating the alcohol from the rest, it will become much more concentrated. That’s what distillation does and it does it by boiling the brew in massive stills and then capturing the alcoholic vapor.
Alcohol has a lower boiling temperature than water so you’re able to separate it in its gas form.
Fortunately, distillation doesn’t separate the alcohol from the rest of the brew completely. A few distillations are necessary to bring it to even 95%.
And the reason I say fortunately is because alcohol doesn’t have any flavor of its own. All of its flavors come from the ingredients used to make it (grains, grapes, fruit, etc), and anything else that was added along the way.
With an understanding of fermentation and distillation, let’s get to the different types of alcohol.
The Different Types of Alcohol
First things first, rather than cover every type of alcohol that exists on the planet, we’re only going to cover the most important ones. Because let’s face it, even though I could google Kalju, find out exactly what it is and then include it on this list, you’re never going to hear about it again.
If you’re looking for an extensive list of alcohols, the guys at nutrients review have written an absolute beast here.
For the record, Kalju is a fermented Finnish beverage made from sugar!
The different types of alcohol can be separated into two major categories. If you’ve read the sections on fermentation & distillation, you’ll know exactly what those categories are: fermented beverages and distilled beverages.
I’ve listed the most common types of alcohol in the categories below.
- Red Wine (pinot noir, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, etc)
- White Wine (chardonnay, sauvingnon blanc, pinot grigio, etc)
- Rose Wine (usually soft red grape varieties)
- Sparkling Wine (Champagne, prosecco are types of sparkling wine)
- Fortified Wine (A combination of wine & liquor)
- Liquor or Spirits (they’re the same thing)
- Vodka – (Smirnoff, grey goose, Belvedere, Absolut, etc)
- Gin – (Tanqueray, Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire, etc)
- Whisk(e)y – (Scotch, bourbon, rye whiskey are all types of whisk(e)y)
- Rum – (Havana Club, Bacardi, Captain Morgan’s, etc)
- Tequila – (Hornito’s, Patron, Don Julio, etc)
- Brandy – (Cognac, calvados and Armagnac are all types of brandy)
- Liqueurs (Below, you’ll find a list of some of the most popular liqueur brands)
- Cocktail bitters
- Alcopops (Also known as RTDs)
Without further ado, let’s take a look at what all of these alcoholic beverages are.
Fermented beverages only go through the fermentation process. As such, they are lower in alcohol content than their distilled counterparts and because of that, they’re much more approachable.
As mentioned above, fermented beverages won’t exceed 15% in alcohol without being modified in some way.
The 2 big categories of fermented beverages are beer & wine. Obviously, we’ve all heard of them. Some people argue that cider falls into the wine category but it doesn’t really matter.
I think calling cider a type of wine is confusing which is why I’m giving it its own category.
Beer is fermented grain juice and beers usually sit between 3-8% in ABV. Any type of cereal grain that has been fermented can be considered a type of beer. In most cases, the cereal grain barley is used. Wheat is also commonly fermented to make beer.
On top of that, beer is usually flavored with additional spices (usually hops) to impart certain characteristics into it.
There are 2 main categories of beer – Ales & Lagers. The difference between them is the way in which they’re made and the type of yeast that’s used. Ales are heavier & fuller in color & flavor than lagers. And lagers are generally light, crisp, & clean beers.
If you want to learn more about beer and its different types, you can check out this detailed article here.
Types of Ales
- Pale Ale – The most commonly consumed pale ale. Lighter than the rest, but fuller in flavor & color than lagers and very approachable for a lager drinker.
- India Pale Ale – A heavily hopped and high in alcohol ABV% style of the pale ale. General ABV% ranges from 6-8%.
- Stouts & Porters – Dark colored ales (almost black). Guinness is a type of stout.
- English Bitter Ale – Not as bitter as the name suggests but called bitter ale nonetheless and usually served warm in cozy English pubs!
- Amber Ales – Amber colored ales. Flavours of toffee & caramel are commonly associated with amber ales.
- Wheat Beers – Although wheat beers can be technically made as lagers also, they’re almost always made as ales. Germany & Belgian make fantastic wheat beers.
Types of Lagers
- Pale Lager – The most commonly consumed beer in the world. They’re light, clean & crisp beers. Heineken, Stellar, Budweiser and Peroni are all pale lagers.
- Pilsner – A style of pale lager that has been flavored with the Saaz Hop giving it more flavor & bitterness.
- Dark Lager – No-where near as common as pale lagers but as the name suggests, they’re a dark-colored lager.
The world of wine is complex & fascinating and I highly recommend exploring it. But wine is one of those subjects that you could spend a lifetime learning about it and still know nothing…
So for the sake of this article, we’re going to keep things simple.
If you’re new to wine, this article series was made specifically for bartenders to help you explore the subject deeper.
Wine is fermented grape juice and table wines usually range between 12-15%. Fortified wines are stronger and sit between the 20-30% ABV mark. There are 5 broad categories of wine: red wine, white wine, rose wine, sparkling wine, and fortified wines.
The differences between them are the types of grapes that are used and the way in which they’re made.
There are so many different factors that influence a wine’s flavor profile, like the weather that year, ‘le terroir’, how skilled the winemaker is, the aging process, the type of barrels they’re stored in, etc, etc.
But the most important thing that will determine the end wine is the grape itself. The different types of grapes are known as ‘grape varieties’ and they will also largely determine the category they fall under.
You guessed it, red wine is red! It’s the skins on the grape that determines the color of the wine. Therefore, the skins of the red wine grapes are left on during the fermentation process.
Some of the most common red grape varieties are:
- Pinot Noir – A light-bodied red wine grape. It’s also used to make Sparkling wine & Rose.
- Cabernet Sauvignon – A full-bodied red wine grape. Goes great with rich meals & red meats.
- Merlot – A Medium-bodied red wine grape. Combine this with the Cab Sav and you get the infamous Bordeaux blend.
- Syrah/Shiraz – A full-bodied red wine grape. The Shiraz from Australia is incredible.
- Grenache – A medium bodied red wine grape. One of the most underrated red wines grapes.
Unlike red wines, white wines are white (or yellow) and their skins are removed before they go through the fermentation process.
Some of the most common white wine grapes are:
- Sauvignon Blanc – A light-bodied white wine grape. Almost always made dry & highly acidic. The New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are very popular right now.
- Pinot Gris/Grigio – A light-bodied white wine grape. Gris is the French style. Grigio is the Italian style.
- Chardonnay – A full-bodied white wine grape. Majestic and commonly aged in barrels to impart certain flavors.
- Moscato – An aromatic white wine grape. Commonly made into a sweet white or rose.
- Riesling – An aromatic white wine grape. Very delicious and can be made sweet or dry.
Rose wine is rose/pink in color and unlike red & white wines, they don’t have any specific grape varieties of their own. The reason they’re rose in color is because the skins of red wine grapes are removed during the fermentation process once the winemaker is happy with its color.
This gives it a lighter appearance than normal red wines.
Both Grenache & Pinot Noir are commonly used to make rose wines.
Similarly to rose wine, sparkling wines don’t necessarily have their own grape varieties. It’s the winemaking process that determines its style. Sparkling wine is always carbonated and mostly made to be light in color.
Styles of Sparkling Wine:
- Champagne – The most well-known style of sparkling wine made by the French in the region of Champagne, hence its name.
- Prosseco – An Italian style sparkling wine. I personally prefer Prosseco over Champagne.
Among all the types of alcohol on this list, fortified wines are the oddity. That’s because they’re a combination of both fermented & distilled beverages.
Fortified wines are wines that have had a distilled spirit added to them in order to increase the ABV%. Spices and herbs are also commonly added to give them certain flavors.
Types of fortified wines:
- Vermouth – A fortified, aromatized (aromatic herbs and spices are added) wine made in two styles (red/sweet, white/dry) and they’re commonly used in the making of cocktails. Think the Martini, Negroni, and Manhattan.
- Port – A dry or sweet (usually sweet) fortified wine, dark in color and made in Portugal.
- Sherry – A dry or sweet (usually sweet) fortified wine that’s red in color and made in Spain.
- Muscat – A sweet fortified wine made from the Moscato grape.
As I mentioned earlier, cider is occasionally classified under the wine category. But in my books, it deserves its own category.
Cider is fermented fruit juice. Apple & pear ciders are the most common ciders on the market, but you’ll also see blood orange ciders, strawberry ciders and different combinations of fruit ciders.
Ciders are refreshing and a great alternative to beer if you’re not a beer drinker. They can be made both dry or sweet and they usually sit around the 4-6% ABV mark.
Distilled beverages take fermented beverages and make them stronger by putting them through a process known as distillation (you can read about this process above). As such, they are higher in alcohol % and they’re usually mixed with soft drinks (whiskey & coke), fruit juices, water, or made into cocktails to make them more palatable.
Note: that doesn’t mean that they should always be mixed. Fine spirits are often sipped & savored neat or on the rocks.
Distilled beverages can range from the 20% ABV mark (usually liqueurs) to around 60-70% (e.g. cask strength whiskeys). However, most spirits sit around the 40% ABV.
Note: The alcohol percentage of spirits are commonly referred to in proof terms, e.g. 80 proof. To arrive at the ABV%, you simply half that number. I.e. 80 proof spirits = 40% ABV.
The 2 big categories of distilled beverages are spirits & liqueurs.
You probably know about them, but the difference between them might not be so clear. So let’s clear things up.
A liqueur is a liquor that has been sweetened (and often flavored) in some way. A liqueur, by its very definition, must be sweet.
Another common point of confusion is the difference between a liquor and a spirit. So let’s get that out of the way first… They’re the SAME thing! These terms are used interchangeably in the alcohol world.
The definition of a liquor is plain and simple – a distilled fermented beverage. It’s worth knowing that anything that has been fermented can be distilled into a spirit. It’s not always advisable and it doesn’t always turn out well…
For example, moonshine is the term given to home-made distilled spirits and if they’re not made properly they could potentially kill you! So be careful when a friend offers you their premium moonshine ;-). This is another reason why spirits are regulated so heavily.
Because liquor can be made from any fermented beverage, there are tonnes of different types. But for the most part, you won’t see them in the majority of bars.
So with that in mind, there are 6 major types of liquor. And they all generally sit around the 40% ABV mark.
Vodka is defined as a neutral-flavored clear spirit that is generally made from grains (mostly grains) and potatoes. It’s meant to be virtually tasteless, odorless and clear in color but, vodka does have subtle flavor profiles that can be distinguished between brands.
Some of the most popular brand names are Smirnoff, Skyy, Belvedere, Grey Goose, and Absolut.
Gin is essentially flavored (but not sweetened) vodka. It’s clear in color and flavored with various botanicals and spices. The most important ingredient in gin is the juniper berry. Gin MUST be flavored with the juniper berry or it isn’t Gin… Period!
Some popular brand names are Gordons, Beefeater, Tanqueray, Hendricks, and Bombay.
Among the different types of liquor, whisk(e)y is the most confusing. Even its name is spelled differently depending on where it’s from.
For whisk(e)y to be whisk(e)y, it must be distilled from fermented grain juice (essentially beer!) and depending on where it’s from, it must adhere to strict legal requirements.
Bourbon, Scotch, Irish Whisky, blends, single malts, etc all have certain requirements they need to adhere in order to earn their names. You can read more about that here.
Some popular brands of whisk(e)y are Johnnie Walker (Scotch), Jamieson (Irish Whisky), Jack Daniels (Tennessee Whiskey), Woodford’s Reserve (Bourbon), and Canadian Club (Canadian Whisky).
Rum is distilled from sugar cane or molasses (a thick dark brown juice obtained from raw sugar, most rums are made from molasses). It’s often aged in wooden barrels and because it’s primarily made in the Caribbean, it’s requirement laws are nowhere near as strict as whisk(e)y.
Rum is sometimes flavored with other spices to make ‘spiced rums’.
Some popular brand names of rum are Havana Club, Appleton Estate, Bacardi, Diplomatico and Ron Zacapa.
Tequila is made by distilling fermented blue agave (a plant native to Mexico) juice. And it has quickly become the up and coming spirit in recent years. Once considered a mediocre spirit reserved for shots, the quality of tequila has risen dramatically and the more premium brands are meant to be sipped and savored – similar to single malt Scotch.
Some popular brands of Tequila are Patron, El Jimador, Don Julio, Hornitos and Jose Cuervo.
Brandy is made by distilling fermented fruit juice. Technically, any fermented fruits can be made into brandy but the majority of the time, fermented grapes (wines) are used.
Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados (apples) are all types of brandy and they’re often aged for several decades in barrels before they’re bottled and subsequently consumed.
Pisco is also considered a type of brandy.
If you want to learn more about the different types of liquor, you can check out this article here.
Liqueurs are sweetened spirits. They usually range between the 15-30% ABV mark and they’re often flavored with various herbs or spices. But, the flavoring and ABV% aren’t strict requirements. The only requirement needed for something to be called a liqueur is that is has been sweetened in some way.
If a liquor is flavored and not sweetened, they’re simply a flavored liquor.
Liqueurs are a big part of a bartender’s arsenal and there are hundreds of different types. They’re most commonly used to make cocktails & shots and they’re occasionally consumed as an after-meal digestif or a before-meal aperitif.
Types of Liqueurs:
- Absinthe – An anise-flavored green liqueur. Absinthe is renowned for being high in alcohol (55-75%) and it was once rumored to induce hallucinogenic effects. However, that has since proven to be false.
- Amaretto – An almond based liqueur. Disaronno is a popular amaretto brand.
- Aperol – An Italian aperitif made of bitter orange, rhubarb, and other spices. Used to make the Aperol Spritz.
- Averna – An Italian Digestif made from herbs, roots, and citrus rinds.
- Baileys – An Irish Whiskey cream based liqueur. My wife is obsessed with it!
- Campari – An Italian aperitif known for its bitterness. It’s commonly used in cocktails.
- Chambord – A Raspberry flavored liqueur originating in France.
- Chartreuse – A French Liqueur made by monks. It’s composed of over 100 herbs, plants & flowers local to its region and its resulting flavor is very unique.
- Creme de anything – Creme de cassis, violet, cacao, etc, are flavored liqueurs. E.g. Creme de cassis is a blackcurrant flavored liqueur. The names are in French, but they’re not necessarily made in France.
- Drambuie – A scotch-based liqueur flavored with honey, herbs, and spices. Used to make the ‘Rusty Nail’ cocktail.
- Fireball – A cinnamon flavored Canadian based whisk(e)y. Commonly taken as a shot.
- Frangelico – A hazelnut & herb flavored liqueur produced in Italy.
- Galliano – A yellow, sweet, and herbal liqueur originating in Italy.
- Grand Marnier – A brandy-based orange-flavored liqueur. It’s the brandy version of triple sec.
- Goldschlager – A Swiss cinnamon schnapps with visible flakes of gold (the gold is real!) floating in it.
- Jagermeister – A thick, sweet, herbal liqueur coming from Germany. There are 56 different herbs and spices in it and its most commonly taken as a shot.
- Kahlua – A rum-based coffee flavor liqueur originating in Mexico.
- Limoncello – An Italian lemon liqueur mainly produced in Southern Italy. The Italians are obsessed with it!
- Maraschino – A strong sweet liqueur made from Marasca cherries. Luxardo is the most common brand.
- Midori – A bright green colored melon-flavored liqueur.
- Ouzo – A dry anise flavored aperitif that is widely consumed in Greece. Similar to Sambuca but not as sweet.
- Patron XO Cafe – A tequila-based coffee flavored liqueur. This has become extremely popular lately.
- Pastis – An anise flavored aperitif widely consumed in France. Commonly taken with still water.
- Sambuca – An Italian anise flavored liqueur. It’s usually colorless (sometimes black – appropriately labeled black Sambuca) and commonly taken as a shot.
- Sloe Gin – A red liqueur made from gin and sloe berries. It’s absolutely delicious!
- Southern Comfort – An American peach & spice flavored liqueur made from fruit, spice, and whiskey.
- St Germain – An elderflower flavoured liqueur.
- Tia Maria – A dark coffee flavoured liqueur made from Jamaican rum.
- Tripel Sec – Originally called curaçao triple sec is an orange flavored liqueur. Cointreau is a highly regarded and popular brand of triple sec.
- Tuaca – A naturally flavored brandy-based liqueur that’s brown in color and has strong vanilla notes.
There are a couple of other types of alcohol that you’ll commonly find behind the bar that doesn’t fit well into the above categories. That’s why I’ve kept them separate here.
Fortified wine could have made this list but since it has wine in its name, I chose to include it there.
The ‘others’ are Cocktail Bitters and Alcopops, also known as ‘Ready to Drink’ or RTDs.
Yes, believe it or not, that little bottle of cocktail bitters we bartenders use to flavor cocktails contains alcohol. Well, the majority of them do anyway. Cocktail bitters are made from spirits and various herbs, spices, and botanicals. You can read more about the bitters making process here.
Cocktail bitters are only used to flavor a drink, not as the drink themselves, which is why I haven’t included them in the liquor category. It just wouldn’t make sense.
The two most popular brands of bitters are Angostura and Peychaud’s. You’ll find the former in almost every bar, even ones that don’t make cocktails.
Alcopops (RTDs – Ready to Drink)
Alcopops are spirits and mixers in a can or bottle. They’re a combination of a distilled spirit and some type of soft drink (soda, fruit juice, milk, etc) to dilute their strength. Sometimes, they’re bottled cocktails. They’re made ‘ready to drink’ hence their other name and they usually sit between the 4-7% ABV mark.
Some popular brand names are Breezers, UDL’s, Whisk(e)y & Cokes from various brands, etc. You’ll find a whole bunch of them in bottle shops and you’ll know exactly where they are because they’ll be surrounded by hovering teenagers.
Take a break and digest what you’ve just learned because we’ve just covered A LOT! If it didn’t all make sense, please let me know in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to explain.
If you’re a genius and you have an attention span greater than me (not the biggest feat), you might as well continue exploring the different types of alcohol.
These articles on liquor, beer, and wine will cover those subject more in-depth. I recommend reading them eventually anyway :-).
- The Different Types of Liquor – A Bartender’s Guide
- The Different Types of Beer – A Bartender’s Guide
- A Bartender’s Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert
Enjoy! And let me know how you get on in the comments section below.