Spirits Ranked by Difficulty to Identify
So, once you’ve zeroed in on the size of your bottle, the next step is to identify what’s actually in it.
Most regulatory standards, foreign and domestic, require spirits producers to declare the contents of the bottle pretty openly on the label. In this regard, spirits are a bit easier to deal with than wine, which tends to heavily emphasize the producer and the grape varietal, but doesn’t always state – Cabernet, or Merlot, or Syrah, in many instances, unless you know exactly where to look.
But one trick to use if you run into a particularly tricky spirit bottle is to look at the bottles to the left and right of it on the shelf and see if you spot a trend. If that doesn’t work, then look for small print on the bottom of the front label or somewhere on the back label to identify what precisely you’re working with.
Now, I’m going to make an assumption that most adults who are allowed to go into a liquor store will be able to navigate themselves to the correct aisle or shelf that holds the particular spirit they’re looking for. But if you’re having trouble, of course, just ask someone who works there.
Instead of going over the characteristics of every spirit, I’m going to group various spirits from easiest to hardest in terms of how difficult it may be to identify them at first glance.
Easy: American Whiskey, Gin, Vodka
Starting with the easiest spirits to identify, we’ve got American Whiskeys, Gins of all sorts, and most vodkas. American whiskey is almost always going to specify whether it’s a bourbon or a rye, gin will almost always designate a specific “style” that gives you hints about its flavor characteristics, such as “London Dry,” “Old Tom,” “Hollands,” and others, and Vodka will almost always say something about the base grain used to distill its neutral spirit, which is one of a very few things that sets vodkas apart from one another. I can’t think of a time when I’ve had a trouble immediately identifying these spirits on the shelf.
Intermediate: Rum, Scotch & Irish Whisk(e)ys, and Brandies
Next in line, we’ve got rums, Scotch and Irish Whiskeys, and Brandies–both fruit-based, and grape-based. Rums are pretty easy to tell apart using the color of the liquid–a white rum vs. a gold rum vs. an aged rum won’t be difficult to distinguish, although telling apart a dark rum vs. an aged rum might require a more detailed consultation of the label. One of the important things to know about rums is that they’re largely divided into a British style and a French Style, which I’m not going to go into much here, but if you see the word “agricole” on your rum bottle, it’s a French style. Scotch and Irish Whiskey tend to focus mostly on the age of the spirit and the region or distillery where it was produced. So you might need to read the full label to determine exactly what you’re working with.
Brandies are a little trickier still. You’ve got regular grape brandy, much of which is produced in France, where they grow a ton of grapes. Now, if you know about wine, you know the French really like to draw very strict geographical boundaries around their production regions, such that sparkling wine made on one side of an imaginary line can be called “Champagne,” but sparkling wine produced just across the street cannot make the same label claim. Well, they do that with Brandy as well. The two regions of grape-based brandy that are important for you to know are Cognac, which is the most common, and Armagnac, which is similar, but somewhat less common. Then we’ve got the fruit brandies–most commonly apple-based. American Apple brandy is often called “Applejack,” and French apple brandy is called Calvados. The last thing we need to cover with Brandies is the way you understand the quality of what’s in the bottle, but we’re going to hold off and cover that later on when we talk about understanding the age of certain spirits.
Difficult: Agave Spirits, Liqueurs, Asian Spirits, and Eaus de Vie
One degree of difficulty deeper, we encounter agave-based spirits like tequila and mezcal, Liqueurs and Amari, Asian spirits, and Eaus de vie.
The agave spirits differ primarily based on where and how they’re produced. By law, tequila can only be made using blue agave, and there are certain geographical boundaries it must adhere to. Mezcal, on the other hand, is made using a slightly different process that involves smoking, and it’s way more flexible in terms of the varieties of agave-like plants that can be used. Both tequila and Mezcal, appropriately, tend to have Mexican or Spanish names and playful label art, which can both be barriers to identifying the spirit, so you may need to do a bit of reading to figure out if you’re dealing with tequila or mezcal. We’ll talk about how to understand the age or quality of your Tequila or Mezcal a little bit later in this episode.
Moving on to Liqueurs and Amari, there are a couple factors at play that can make reading the label a bit difficult. First off, until recently, most of these producers (based largely in Europe) didn’t care about the American market at all. During most of the 20th century, their products didn’t match our Mac n’ Cheese-ified cultural palate, and we were too caught up in our own national delicacies–like Budweiser–to care about their bitter, floral, and herbaceous products. Now, obviously, times have changed, but most liqueur and amaro producers still haven’t Anglicized their labels all that much. So, when you’re going to the store to buy a liqueur, it really helps to know exactly what you want because you’re rarely going to find a place that will let you taste test the entire shelf, and you could be there for a long time poring over labels before you get a good feel for the selection–so show up prepared.
Asian spirits like Arak and Sochu are another tricky case. Most Americans can stumble through a bit of Spanish or French on a label, but very few of us can read Chinese or Arabic. So, if you’re at a liquor store that has a decent selection of Asian spirits, it might be well worth your while to get assistance from an employee right from the get-go. Otherwise, you might end up going home with something totally unexpected, or of a different quality than you intended.
Finally, we’ve got Eaus de vie ( French for “water of life”), which is a generic term for unaged, fruit-based spirits made in the style of vodka, but possessing very different flavor qualities. Here, I’m referring to things with such foreign names as Aguardiente (from Portugal), Singani (from Bolivia), Akvavit (from Scandinavia), and Grappa (from the Mediterranean Basin), just to name a few. These spirits sit on the opposite end of the spectrum from their expensive, carefully aged, and blended counterparts, so instead of more information about where they’re made and how they’re created, you tend to get less. Eaus de vie are really fun to experiment with and compare across cultures and base fruits, but they’re definitely still more obscure than most spirits you’ll be using for your home bartending experiments–at least initially.