Distilled spirits play a massive role in cocktails, providing a ‘base’ for us to add various other liquors and flavors to, and are even used in the making of more complex and nuanced spirits.
There are just six ‘base’ liquors among the many distilled spirits on the market: these include vodka, whiskey, brandy, gin, rum, and tequila, and these six base spirits are enjoyed in a myriad of ways, whether straight up, on the rocks, or mixed into a complex, flavorful cocktail.
Understanding the differences between each of these 6 types of distilled spirits will allow you to use them more effectively in your cocktails and mixed drinks.
- Neutral taste
- Rarely aged
- Typically 40 to 50 ABV (80 to 100 proof)
- Clear coloring (but can have flavors/colorants added)
Vodka is a clear distilled alcoholic beverage originating from Europe, with varieties from Poland, Russia, and Sweden.
It is composed primarily of water and ethanol, which makes it one of the most versatile distilled spirits available, mainly because it has a neutral alcohol/ethanol taste that can be adapted to pretty much any flavor profile – whether savory or sweet.
Vodka can be distilled from almost anything, but the most common methods are distillation from neutral grains such as rye, corn, and wheat, or potatoes, though it’s possible for vodka to be distilled from beets, grapes, and other bases.
While it is traditionally clear in coloring, flavored vodkas are a popular category today.
Some modern brands have also developed more interesting varieties of vodka, using fruits, honey, or maple sap as the base.
Traditionally, Vodka is drunk “neat”, meaning it’s not mixed with water, ice, or other mixers. In the vodka belt of Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Ukraine, it is usually served freezer-chilled.
However, vodka is also popular in cocktails and mixed drinks, such as the Vodka Martini, Cosmopolitan, Vodka Tonic, Screwdriver, Greyhound, Black or White Russian, Moscow mule, Bloody Mary, and Caesar.
Serving suggestions: neat, or freeze-chilled, paired with soda water, cola, or lemonade, or in a cocktail such as Cosmopolitan, Bloody Mary, or White Russian.
- Typically 40 to 50 percent ABV (80 to 100 proof) or higher
- Whiskey is typically aged in charred oak barrels
- Can be blended or single malt
- Varieties found all over the world
Whiskey comes in many styles and has a diverse flavor profile making it a versatile cocktail base.
It is produced all over the world, but the various styles are often defined by the country or region in which they’re produced, such as Irish Whiskey, Japanese Whiskey, or Tennessee Whiskey.
Whiskey is made from fermented grain mash, and different varieties of the distilled spirit are made from various grains (which may be malted), such as barley, corn, rye, and wheat.
Typically, whisky is aged in wooden casks, usually old sherry casks or barrels made from charred white oak.
Some styles of whiskey, such as bourbon, use new barrels, while others use a mixture of new and previously-used whiskey or wine barrels.
Moonshine (also known as white dog) is the only variety that isn’t aged, and while some whiskeys are blended, others are single malts.
Whisky is strictly-regulated all over the world, and comes in many classes and types.
The unifying characteristics usually depend on the fermentation of the grains, distillation process, and ageing in wooden barrels.
Whiskey mixes well with other liquors to create complex drinks, but it also pairs well with dark fruits, and is often used in warm drinks, too.
Despite its many varieties, whiskey has notes of roasted and malted grain with oak undertones, though each style will have distinct characteristics.
Serving suggestion: Neat, or with water or ice, in an old-fashioned or tulip-shaped glass, or mixed with cola. Use high quality whiskey in three-ingredient cocktails such as Manhattan or Old-Fashioned.
- Dry profile with herbal flavors
- Made from juniper berries
- Typically unaged
- Typically 40 to 47 percent ABV (80 to 94 proof)
Gin has seen a significant rise in popularity in recent years, and it comes in many different flavors and varieties, though the most popular styles are London Dry Gin, Plymouth Gin, Old Tom Gin, New American Gin and Generver.
It’s produced worldwide, though it is associated mainly with the UK and Europe (especially the Netherlands).
Gin has a distinctive dry profile which makes it perfect for dry (non-sweet) cocktails such as classics and martinis. It’s a good base spirit for cocktails which contain fever ingredients, and pairs well with mixers and fruits.
In order for a spirit to be classed as gin, it needs to be derived from Juniper berries, though gin is distilled from neutral grains such as barley, corn, rye, and wheat and is flavored with a variety of botanicals, which vary depending on the brand.
Gin has a distinctively herbal and dry taste, with a “piney” aroma, and the old styles of gins such as Old Tom and Plymouth have a subtle sweet hint to them.
Gin’s first ingredient is juniper, but it’s also flavored with a variety of botanical or herbal flavors, spice, floral or fruit flavours or a combination.
It’s often drunk with tonic water, and is also used as a base spirit to produce flavoured gin-based liqueurs such as sloe gin, which also uses additional flavorings as well as fruit and sugar for a distinctively sweeter taste.
Serving Suggestion: paired with tonic water, or in cocktails such as Tom Collins, Martini, Gibson, or Negroni.
- Distilled from some form of sugar
- Aging depends on climatic conditions
- Typically 40 percent ABV (80 proof). Overproof rums can reach 75 percent ABV (150 proof)
- Mainly produced in the Caribbean and South America
A popular feature in tropical drinks and warm cocktails, rum’s sweeter flavor makes it one of the most versatile spirits. It was one of the first liquors to be mixed into drinks and comes in many varieties.
Rum is mainly produced in the Caribbean and South America, and some varieties are unique to countries, such as Cachaça which must be produced in Brazil.
This spirit is distilled from some form of sugar, with Molasses being a common option, or in some cases, pure sugar cane.
Flavor profile varies depending on style, region and aging process, though typically rum has a sweet, toasted flavor.
Light rum usually isn’t aged, but other rums are aged in oak barrels though aging times vary depending on climate, as rum produced in warm climates require less barrel time than rum from colder climates.
Rums are also produced in various grades. While light rums are commonly used in cocktails, “golden” and “dark” varieties were traditionally consumed neat, “on the rocks”, or in cooking, but today they’re commonly consumed with mixers, too.
Flavored rums are infused with fruit flavors such as banana, mango, orange, starfruit, pineapple, coconut, or lime, and spiced rums are also popular – these obtain their flavors through the addition of spices and, occasionally, caramel, and tend to be darker in color.
Serving suggestions: neat, slightly warmed, over ice with a slice of lime, with cola, or in cocktails such as Mojito, Daiquiri, Strawberry Daiquiri or Piña Colada.
- Typically 40 to 50 percent ABV (80 to 100 proof)
- Tequila must be produced in Mexico
- Can be aged or unaged
- Distilled from the agave plant
Tequila is best known for being served in shots at the bar and served with salt and lemon, but this distilled spirit has a great flavor profile that works well in a range of cocktails – most famously margaritas and frozen cocktails where the tequila is mixed with any fruit imaginable.
Tequila is also used in spicy cocktails.
Distilled from the fermented juices of the agave plant, Tequila has a distinctive earthy flavor with semi-sweet and spicy tones. It can be aged or unaged:
Blanco (or silver) tequila is unaged, while the Reposado and Añejo varieties are aged, often in used whiskey (bourbon) oak barrels.
Tequila is a special liquor as it’s the most tightly regulated and can only be made in Mexico.
Spirits distilled from the agave plant that are produced outside of Mexico cannot be sold as “tequila.” For example, agave spirits such as mezcal, pulque, sotol, raicila, and baconara, are not considered “tequilas.”
The regulations surrounding Tequila are defined under an Appellation of Origin, which was established in 1978, and the industry is overseen by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT).
Serving suggestions: Neat, in a shot glass, or in cocktails such as the Margarita, Tequila Sunrise, The Paloma, Tequila Collins, or Tequini.
- Distilled from fruit
- Typically 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof)
- Typically aged in oak
- Distilled worldwide with several styles distinct to certain regions
Brandy features in several classic cocktail recipes but it is often enjoyed on its own.
While it is produced all over the world, there are specific styles of brandy that are unique to certain regions, such as Cognac, Armagnac, Spanish Brandy, American Brandy, Pisco, Grappa, and Eau-de-vie, to name just a few.
While brandy is traditionally used in drinks with a few simple ingredients, today you’ll find it in many modern cocktails which are pushing the boundaries of this classic spirit and experimenting with its complex flavor.
Brandy is distilled from fruit, traditionally from grapes, but it can be distilled from other fruits such as cherries, peaches, apples and apricots.
It has a dark, fruity wine taste with a pleasant oakiness, which is owed to the fact that it’s typically aged in oak and often blended.
Other varieties are coloured with caramel to give the impression of aging, and some are produced using a combination of both aging and colouring
There are no distinct worldwide regulations for brandy, though some styles must be produced in certain regions using particular ingredients or methods.
Traditionally, Brandy is served at room temperature, neat, from a snifter, wine glass or tulip glass.
It is often warmed slightly by holding the glass cupped in the palm or by gentle heating, though excessive heating can cause the alcohol vapour to become too strong and overpowering.
Serving Suggestions: Neat at room temperature or slightly warmed, or in cocktails such as the Brandy Sour, the Brandy Alexander, the Sidecar, the Brandy Daisy, and the Brandy Old Fashioned.
Whether you’re looking to add to your home bar or liquor cabinet, or you simply want to mix things up a bit, understanding how the 6 base liquors are made, and their flavor profiles, is the best way to know how to consume your alcoholic beverages in a way that brings out all their complexities.
Experimenting with these spirits, and trying them both mixed and straight, can help you appreciate the underlying notes and flavors of these liquors, as well as help you identify what cocktails they work well in, or what mixers they complement.