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Cheat Sheet

Whiskey & Spirits For Dummies

Enterprising drink-makers have been distilling alcohols from myriad sources for centuries. Although some of the laws, ingredients, and technology have changed, the process of distilling alcohol into whiskey and other spirits remains largely the same. If you're interested in liquors, liqueurs, and other spirits, here are some basics you should know.

A Closer Look at the Alcohol Content of Liquor

By law, the labels on containers of distilled spirits and wine must show either alcohol by volume (ABV) or proof. Here is what those two measurements mean. (Beer labels aren't required to provide this information.)

  • Percent ABV = percent alcohol by volume, which is the percentage of the liquid that is pure alcohol

  • Proof = two times ABV

So 40 percent ABV = 80 proof.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, written by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, defines moderate drinking as two drinks a day for a man, one drink a day for a woman. But how much alcohol should that one drink contain?

When these two U.S. government regulators say "one drink," this is what theey mean:

  • 1.5 ounces distilled spirits (80 proof)

    This is the amount of liquid held by a standard shot glass.

  • 5 ounces wine

  • 12 ounces (regular) beer

Foods from Which Spirits Are Distilled

The different types of liquors and spirits get their distinctive flavors and aromas from the foods used in the distillation process. Here are some of the foods used to distill common spirits:

  • Grains

    • Barley, corn, oats, rye wheat: whiskeys

    • Wheat: vodka

  • Fruit/Vegetables

    • Agave: Tequila

    • Apples, grapes, and other fruits: brandies

    • Potatoes: vodka

  • Sweeteners

    • Sugar cane, molasses, honey: rum, cachaça, cordials/liqueurs

The Vocabulary of Distilling Whiskey and Spirits

The distillation process goes through several stages involving different contraptions, containers, and compounds, and each one has its own name. The following terms can come in handy when you're discovering all there is to know about distillation:

  • Batch: Alcohol distilled in one limited run through the still.

  • Fermentation: The process by which microorganisms digest and convert carbohydrates (sugars and starches) to a liquid (alcohol) and a gas (carbon dioxide).

  • Milling: Procedure to strip away the outer covering of grains used in making distilled spirits.

  • Mash: Soupy mass of fermenting food from which spirits are distilled; the process of creating a mash is called mashing.

  • Neutral spirits: The ethyl alcohol collected and condensed during distillation.

  • Still: The container in which the alcohol/water liquid from fermented food is distilled.

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