Spirits are distilled liquor extracted from and flavoured with any number of different of vegetative or botanical substances to make strong alcoholic beverages, whereby the liquid is heated, then the evaporated gas cooled to return it to liquid. This typically happens up to three times before the precious liquid is matured, blended and bottled into one of thousands of recognised brands (of which these are but a few) and sold to us via pubs, supermarkets, off-licences and other establishments.
While beer and cider might be the starting point for a boozy evening but the finishing point is generally spirits, probably because the sheer volume of gassy liquid and the number of trips to the loo become untenable after a while. Of course, some drink spirit-based alcopops or G&Ts all night, though it’s only fair to begin with a warning that we should never drink to excess (see my warning here!!)
However, in the spirit of moderation, this is a blog in praise of spirits, though many are an acquired taste, of which a number I will never acquire. Anything made with aniseed, for starters, so that’s Pernod & Ricard, Pastis 51, Sambuca, Ouzo and hundreds more anisette brands out of the window to begin with!
However, the occasion gin and tonic is highly refreshing, as are gin-based drinks like various schnapps derivatives. I don’t drink vodka very often, but the occasional shot of ice-cold flavoured voddie can be delightful, as can the occasional cocktail such as Margarita or Mojito (based respectively on tequila and white rum.) Judging by this collection, you can apparently distil the liquor from almost any grain, fruit or veg (cactus in the case of tequila.) The ones that sell are generally mixed into longer drinks and therefore impart largely depth and character through their alcohol content.
My daughter, like many of the younger generation, seems to go for a range of alcopop variants, such as WKD, Bacardi Breezers, generally based on vodka or rum – though personally I find them sweet, sticky and not serious drinks – though in sufficient quantity they can certainly get you squiffy! However, there is an alcopop for grown-ups, namely the perennial British summer drink, Pimms no 1 (another gin-based drink.) Worth repeating the full history of the Pimms range:
- Pimm’s No. 1 Cup is based on gin and can be served both on ice or in cocktails. It has a dark-tea colour with a reddish tint, and tastes subtly of spice and citrus fruit. It is often taken with “English-style” (clear and carbonated) lemonade, as well as various chopped fresh ingredients, particularly apples, cucumber, oranges, lemons, strawberry, and borage, though nowadays most substitute mint. Ginger ale is a common substitute for lemonade. Pimm’s can also be mixed with Champagne (or a sparkling white wine), called a “Pimm’s Royal Cup”. Its base as bottled is 25 percent alcohol by volume.
- can also be purchased as a pre-mixed fortified lemonade (Pimm’s & Lemonade) in 250 ml cans or 1-litre bottles, at 5.4 percent.
- Pimm’s No. 2 Cup was based on Scotch whisky. Currently phased out.
- Pimm’s No. 3 Cup is based on brandy. Phased out, but a version infused with spices and orange peel marketed as Pimm’s Winter Cup is now seasonally available.
- Pimm’s No. 4 Cup was based on rum. Currently phased out.
- Pimm’s No. 5 Cup was based on rye whiskey. Currently phased out.
- Pimm’s No. 6 Cup is based on vodka. It is still produced, but in small quantities
I’ve never had any other than Pimms no 1, though I did get as a present once Sloe Whisky (as opposed to Sloe Gin.) Sounds revolting but is actually rather pleasant, once you get to know it!
The typical alcohol content of most regulated spirits used to be around 40%, though some are notably sold at lower concentration. Once mixed they are generally no stronger than wine, but it is also still possible to get spirits distilled to a much stronger alcohol content. The legendary drink with allegedly psychotropic characteristics, earning it a ban in many countries in spite of its popularity in Paris in the “gay 90s” was absinthe – yet another aniseed-flavoured spirit (apparently, since I’ve never drunk any.)
Absinthe was made in a similar way to gin, flavoured with “botanicals” – notably juniper berries. Each recipe is guarded jealously, though this blog speculates on a few of the common botanicals added to give gin its deliciously tangy flavour – which someone once described to me as tasting like drinking broken glass, though I refrained from asking how they knew that! Like many spirits, gin is an acquired taste, best mixed and served as an aperitif, but equally it has a history, and did not gain the nickname “mother’s ruin” by accident.
On the subject of over-limit spirits, regular readers will know I once spent some months working in a factory in Harrisonburg, Virginia. This being a town way out in the sticks, many of the factory workers had family who ran hog farms out in the hills, and at one of these I found they still make illicit moonshine for old times’ sake, in remembrance of the days of prohibition. The stuff they produced was typically anywhere upwards of 70% proof and tasted foul. Some bottles were made with sticks of candy to sweeten them – one local alternative to the worm in the Mexican tequila or the strand of bison grass in the vodka, maybe? Somewhere, I’m not sure where, there is a pic of a 20 year old me wearing cool shades and holding a home-grown bottle of moonshine. If I find it, I will scan and post it!
Getting back to the main thread, my favourite spirits are, without doubt, single malt whiskies, which for the purist are either drunk neat or with a little water – while blended whiskies can be mixed with ginger ale or whatever other combination you fancy. Whisky is not to every taste, but it does come in many varieties, some smoky and peaty, others remarkably light and fresh, depending on the characteristics of the region from whence they originated and the method of manufacture and maturation.
At one time I went for the heavier, smokier varieties, particularly Islay malts with a distinct iodine whiff of the sea about them, but in recent years I’ve mellowed and found value in each region. As you can see from the pics above, I have a fair number of empty whisky bottles adorning my bookshelves, not to mention a healthy collection of spirits and liqueurs on my drink shelf (slightly depleted – need to stock up again.)
Although I enjoy the Irish stuff (whiskey rather than whisky), I’m generally into Scotch, and not the blended stuff either. Without being too much of a whisky bore, the difference undoubtedly comes in the maturation process, since a bottle declaring itself to be 10 or 12 years matured refers to the youngest vintage within the blend. By contrast, American bourbon whiskies are typically matured for 2 years, and are the harsher for it. The finest single malt Scotch is a very smooth, mellow, smoky drink, and much the better for it.
Maybe that is just a sign of age, though as of yet I never really developed a taste for cognac or any of the more serious brandies. Is that the next stage of development for growing old disgracefully?