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Caipirinha Culture

Introduction to Mixology Part 1

So you want to be the mixologist with the most, eh? Or if your ambitions are slightly less lofty, you at least want to be able to hold your own when hosting a party. Not a problem. You can do it, and I’m here to help. But the very, very first thing you need to do is this: learn your way around a liquor shelf. You can’t mix up delectable drinks if you’re unfamiliar with what, exactly, you’re working with. It’s all about the tools. In this article, study the main ingredients for your quaffing creations, a little history on their origins, and, because in the end, it all comes down to your wallet, how much they cost.

In order to avoid making this post too long to be enjoyable, I am going to go ahead and split it into two posts about mixology. Part 1 will be about the most usual cocktail spirits, like vodka, tequila, and so on. In part 2 we will look at some more exotic spirits as well as beverages not usually associated with cocktail mixing.

Well…enough intro talk for now..let’s get started shall we?

Bourbon

Bourbon is an unblended American corn-based whiskey made from one or two different kinds of mash, which is then crushed, ground corn, and other grain(s) used in the fermentation process. The mash is either sour or sweet. Sour mash is a new sweet mash combined with some of
the residues from the previous batch’s fermentation. Sweet mash is made from scratch with fresh yeast.

Bourbon takes its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it was first produced and shipped down river to the original sin city, New Orleans. Before shipping, barrels were stamped with the corn whiskey’s place of origin, and the name just stuck. Many fine bourbons are on the market. Some are reasonably priced and good for mixing cocktails. Others are sipping bourbons to be savored. Here are some of the most well-known brands and their usual prices: Old Forester ($15), Knob Creek ($25), and Booker’s 8 years ($55).

Gin

The original martini maker, this juniper berry-based spirit has a distinctive, herbal taste that seems to draw very clear-cut reactions from imbibers: they either love it or hate it. The name is derivative of its main ingredient, from the Dutch word jenever. In fact, gin seems to have originated in Holland as well, although some argue that it was first made in Italy. Wherever you believe its origins are rooted, the creation process is the same. Gin is made when juniper berries are distilled with a grain mash usually made up of some or all of the following—corn, barley, rye, and wheat—and other flavors such as cassis, coriander, fennel, ginger, lemon peel, and a host of another special (and almost always unnamed for reasons of holding onto secret recipes) botanical flavorings.

Gin can usually be classified into dry and Dutch gin. The first one is generally around 40 to 45 percent alcohol and is the most common gin used in cocktail mixing and general bar requests. Dutch gin is contained usually around 35 to 40 percent alcohol and is really more of a sipping gin with a malted grain flavor and aroma along with the juniper influence.

Some popular brand names of gin are Gordon’s ($13), Tanqueray ($25) and Old Raj ($50).

Rum and Cachaça

The word conjures up dreamy images of palm trees and sandy beaches and bluer-than-blue skies. You can almost hear the steel drums and the waves lapping against the shores. And with good reason, as much of it is produced in the gentle lands of the West Indies and the Caribbean. Rum is made from boiled-down sugarcane, which eventually goes through a few processes before it becomes molasses. The thick, pungent sweet molasses is heated and combined with water and yeast during the distillation process, and the rum is then aged in oak barrels from 6 months to 7 years, depending on what the desired final product is. For instance, light and gold rums are aged from the minimum amount— 6 months—up to 4 years. Dark rum gets a taste and color boost from the addition of caramel and an aging minimum of 3 years, although the process can go on as long as 12 years.

Rum comes in three general types—light-bodied (white or silver), medium-bodied (gold or amber), and heavy-bodied (dark). Because this is essentially a website about cachaça, I suppose I will be coming back to the subject of rum many times in the future, but for now, that is it. Here are some popular rum brands in the market today: Bacardi Gold ($16), Montecristo 12 years ($30), and Angostura 1824 ($60).

Tequila

It’s got a song. It’s got romance. It’s sometimes even got a mascot (that scary occasional worm). But what you need to know about tequila is this: it comes in two overarching categories: mixto (average stuff ) and 100 percent blue agave (the good stuff!). Mixto must contain a minimum of 51 percent blue agave (the beautiful, spiky plant that grows in abundance in Mexico). The rest of the mix can come from other sources. To be 100 percent blue agave, well, it’s got to be made from 100 percent blue agave. Period.

Tequila gets its name from the eponymous town it is named for in the Jalisco province of Mexico. Just about all tequila is made there. In fact, by law, to be able to call it tequila, it must be made in or around Tequila.

If you like tequila but you haven’t ventured out of the mixto yet, I can’t begin to stress how great it is the first time you taste a super-duper 100 percent blue agave tequila. It’s a whole different flavor sensation. It’s clear, elegant, and smooth. If you don’t want to plunk down the money for a bottle, head to a reliable watering hole, and do sampling.

For all your tequila needs, here are some basic prices of everything from your run-o’-the-mill perfectly acceptable affordable tequila to the auspicious añejos: Jose Cuervo Silver ($18), Herradura Silver ($40), and Cabo Wabo Anejo ($70).

Vodka

It’s crystal clear. It’s easy on the palate. From coast to coast, it’s one of the most popular spirits for mixing. Every freezer really ought to have a nice, chilly bottle of it inside. It’s vodka—and no bar should be without it.

Sometimes folks get confused with how vodka is made and have a notion that it’s all about potatoes. Although, yes, there is potato vodka, most vodkas are made with corn or wheat grain. Vodka is a rectified spirit or goes through at least three rounds of the distilling process.
During the final round, it is filtered through charcoal. Because of their abundance of grain, Eastern Europe and Russia is where vodka was born.

When the name given a spirit is a derivative of the Russian word for “water” (voda), you know the creators of it take it very, very seriously. Both Poles and Russians claim to have distilled the first batch of vodka, but Russia documented it at the end of the eighth century, so they get the honors here. By the mid-sixteenth century, it was the national drink of both Russia and Poland.

Don’t know your Absolut from your Olifant? Here’s a rundown by the price of who’s who on your liquor store shelves. Absolut ($19), Charbay ($32), Ultimat ($50).

Whisky

Whisky lovers and connoisseurs may well be the most opinionated tipplers of the lot. Sure, tequila devotees and gin gurus and wine lovers have their very, very strong opinions, but whisky drinkers? Just see what happens when you make a declaration statement around one. It’s begging for trouble—or, at least, an hours-long conversation about everything whisky.

In general, whisky is made from grain. However, which grains, how much, where from, and the process used determines what kind of whisky you’re drinking. In Ireland and Scotland, whisky is made from barley, oats, rye, or wheat. The grain (or grains) is malted (after it has sprouted, it is dried in a kiln and ground into a powder), which causes it to turn starch into sugar and then to alcohol. Scotch whisky, however, takes on a smoky flavor because the drying part of the process occurs over burning peat. Irish whiskey grains are dried in a kiln, and the whiskey has a gentler, sweeter flavor and aroma than Scotch whisky. Canadian whisky undergoes a similar process to Scotch but is always designated as blended(more on that in a minute). American whiskey is made from corn and grains.

The spelling of this spirit may leave you a bit befuddled at times. Is it whisky or whiskey? And what’s the difference? In Scotland and Canada, it’s whisky. In Ireland and America, it’s whiskey. There now. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Be it Canadian, Irish, or Scotch, there are plenty of fine whiskies from which to choose. Check out the following sampling of variously priced whiskies to help you familiarize yourself with what’s available. Kilbeggan Irish ($19), Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey ($27), and Johnnie Walker Gold Scotch Whiskey ($80).

Brandy

Regardless of which brandy’s pleasure, the basics are still the same. Brandy is distilled from wine and/or fermented juices (peach, apple, pear, or cherry, for instance). Like French wine, French brandy is known for its high quality and strict regional demarcation. There are many types of brandy, including Armagnac, Cognac, Calvados, Grappa, Koniak, and Spanish brandy.

Brandy came into being when a clever Dutch trader tried to condense his cargo by taking the water out of wine by heating it and putting it back in once he reached his final destination. The taste of it after this process earned it the name brandewijn, or “burned wine.”

Not sure which brandy is the best for you? Here are some examples of what’s available: Blackberry Brandy ($12), Clear Creek Bartlett Pear Brandy ($35), and Frapin V.S.O.P. Cognac ($60).

This is it for the first part of this introduction to mixology. To continue reading, please feel free to go to Introduction to Mixology Part 2 now. I would also like to state that most of the sources used on these articles were taken from the great eBook The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending. I am not calling you an idiot, but I do think it is a great resource to have and recommend you get yourself a copy.