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What'll You Drink? Clear Spirits, Dark Spirits

All spirits (vodka, rum, tequila, bourbon, and so on) fall into one of two broad categories: clear spirits and dark spirits. Clear spirits are the ones you can see though; dark spirits range in color from warm amber to deep brown. All distillates come off the still as clear liquids. The taste, smell, and appearance of the final product depends on how the distiller processes the liquid.

The clear spirits

All clear spirits are, well, clear, but depending on the foods from which they were distilled, some have a specific flavor.

  • Gin comes in two basic styles. There's the original Dutch jenevre (juniper, or genievre in French), a distillate of malt spirits that include juniper berries. London dry gin is a clear spirit that's redistilled with juniper berries and further flavored with aromatic botanicals (plant products).
  • Rum is distilled from molasses or sugar cane. All rums start out as totally clear spirits; some are aged in barrels. Aging turns the rum golden, amber, or very dark.
  • Sake is a clear spirit distilled from rice wine.
  • Tequila is distilled from the fruit of the blue agave plant. Like rum, all tequilas start out clear, but some turn golden or amber with aging.
  • Vodka is a true neutral spirit, crystal clear, with no discernible flavor or aroma. Modern vodka producers, however, may flavor their vodkas, changing the taste and sometimes the color to match the color of the fruit juice or synthetic flavoring.

The dark spirits

With the exception of brandy, which is distilled from wine, dark spirits are beverages distilled from grains.

Like clear spirits, the dark spirits start out clear, but aging in barrels and the addition of coloring agents such as caramel (burnt sugar) to maintain color consistency from year to year turns them characteristically golden amber.

  • Brandy is a spirit distilled from wine or a mash (fermented mass) of any fruit, most commonly grapes.
  • Whiskey is a spirit distilled from grain, such as barley, corn, rye, or wheat. A straight whiskey is made from the distillate produced by one operation of a still and added neutral spirits. A blended whiskey contains several straight whiskeys and added neutral spirits.
  • Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey are distilled spirits made only in the United States; by law, they must be made of 51 percent corn.
  • Canadian Whisky is a distilled spirit made in Canada, generally from a mix of grains, primarily corn, plus rye, wheat, and barley.
  • Irish Whiskey is a distilled spirit made in Ireland from a mix of grains dominated by barley.
  • Scotch Whisky is a distilled spirit made in Scotland from a mix of grains, primarily barley, plus "small grains" — so-called because they're used in limited amounts. The small grains usually include oats.
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