How to Run a Bar: Basics of Distilled Spirits and Liqueurs

In bars, the term distilled spirits is a catchall term for liquor with an alcohol content of 35 percent or more and a low sugar content. Spirits include liquors such as gin, tequila, and whiskey. If a liquor has a 35 percent alcohol content and a high sugar content, it’s usually known as a liqueur. Grand Marnier, crème de menthe, and amaretto are familiar liqueurs.

Hard liquor brings the people in. So, here’s a brief explanation and list of products available for your bar. You should consult with your managers and bartenders about which brands to have available.

  • American whiskey: Whiskey distilled from grain or a blend of grains. It has a warm, spicy flavor that warms your whole body on the way down. Aging whiskey gives it its familiar caramel coloring, among other things. White whiskey is unaged and thus colorless, or white, and is becoming increasingly popular.

  • Bourbon: A whiskey that must be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged in new, white-oak barrels. Its flavor is purer (but still spicy) than a scotch that’s aged in barrels previously containing other spirits (like port or sherry).

    Tennessee whiskey differs from bourbon in that it’s filtered through sugar-maple charcoal before it’s aged. The sugar-maple charcoal makes the difference. Jack Daniel’s is a sour mash whiskey, not technically a bourbon.

  • Brandy: Made by distilling wine or fruit and then aging in oak barrels. Brandy can be American or from other parts of the world. The flavor of brandy varies based on the wine or fruit used, but it tends to be a bit sweeter than a whiskey and not as sweet as a liqueur.

  • Canadian whisky: Whisky from Canada. Note that there’s no “e” in the spelling of this whisky. Canadian whisky tends to be a little less strong in flavor than American whiskey.

  • Cognac: Brandy from the Cognac region of France. Its flavor fully depends on the wine used to make it.

  • Cordials/liqueurs: Made from infusing the flavors of fruits, herbs, spices, and other plants with a spirit such as brandy, whiskey, schnapps, or another mildly flavored liquor. There are hundreds of cordials.

  • Gin: A distilled-grain spirit flavored from different plants, mainly the juniper berry. Its flavor reminds some people of chewing on pine needles, but in a good way.

  • Irish whiskey: Triple-distilled from barley and other grains, sometimes in pot stills, and aged between five and ten years. Its flavor is smooth, mellow, and slightly sweet with honey overtones. The Irish have been distilling whiskey for at least 600 years. God bless ’em!

  • Rum: Distilled from sugar cane, it’s closely akin to vanilla. It’s much less flavorful than vanilla but accepts flavoring easily. It comes in light, dark, spiced, and flavored.

  • Scotch whisky: Whisky (again, without an “e”) from Scotland. It must be distilled in Scotland, though not necessarily bottled there. Its flavor varies widely based on where it’s distilled, for how long, and how. It’s traditionally aged in barrels that previously contained other liquor, like sherry or wine.

    Most quality scotch is described by connoisseurs as smoky and smooth. Scotch comes in many different varieties. Look for blended (a combination of malt and grain whiskies) and single malt (from one barrel) scotch.

  • Tequila: Produced from the heart of the weber blue agave plant. It’s a tart liquor with a bit of a bite at the finish. Just as champagne must come from the Champagne region in France, tequila must come from the town of Tequila in the Jalisco region of Mexico.

    Tequila is a type of mezcal; however, mezcals don’t need to be produced in Tequila and can be made from other species of agave plants or even a blend of other plants.

  • Vodka: Distilled from grain, wheat, potatoes, rye, or corn. It’s known to be flavorless and pairs well with almost any mixer. It is the most-called-for spirit in America. Look for gluten-free vodkas that don’t contain wheat to satisfy patrons with a gluten intolerance.

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