Clarity through simplicity by Richard J. Serrano

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when discussing the definition of pornography in 1964 wrote, “I know it when I see it.”

I think of this phrase when I consider the average person’s definition of various spirits. Consider asking someone if they know what Rum or Brandy is. They’ll tell you with certainty that they do, without understanding the core of what makes a Rum a Rum, or a Brandy a Brandy. The true core of those categories are the actual raw ingredients that make said spirit.

It’s simple enough with varietal wines. A Chardonnay wine is just that: wine made from Chardonnay grapes. (Yeah, yeah. We can talk about the 75% rule, but let’s stay on target.) Spirits, when viewed the same way, is just as straight forward. So that being said, let’s review the main categories of full-proof spirits in a simple, clear way.

Rum: Spirits made from sugar cane, or molasses, which is simply a sugar by-product.

Tequila and Mezcal: Spirits made from the agave plant.

Brandy: Spirits made from fruit. Whether it’s Cognac made from grapes and aged in barrels, or an unaged eau de vie made from loganberries, it’s all Brandy.

Whiskey: Spirits made from cereal grains, which are grains such as corn, wheat, barley, rye, spelt, rice, millet, oat, triticale…

Vodka: This is actually the tricky one, as Vodka can be made from just about anything, from grapes, to wheat, to spuds. The main identifier for Vodka is that it must be distilled to 190 proof, which renders it fairly neutral tasting, in most cases. (All other spirits are distilled to lower proofs.) It is worth noting that the vast majority of Vodkas are distilled from wheat.

Gin: Gin begins life as “neutral grain spirit,” which happens to be, you guessed it, Vodka. Simply put, Gin is the world’s first, and greatest, flavored Vodka. The flavoring must include juniper, and while other botanicals are used, juniper is the only constant.

And there you have it. When looked at through the prism of raw ingredients, full-proof spirits become a fairly simple thing to define. So while Justice Stewart may have felt that he knew his pornography, we certainly know our Rum and Brandy.