In this FAQ, I classify liquor into five classes. Crazy, some may say, preposterous, others may. Any attempt at classification is doomed from the start, say yet others, usually those who haven't won spelling contests when little. And there are the people continuing to read who probably think something like this more overdue than 100% literacy or a tax cut is. Something like this is probably more overdue than a firm stance against grammatical errors and plummetting moral standards, though I wouldn't go that far. Not without seeking legal advice first, anyway.
The five main classes, at least for this FAQ are:
Essentially, beer is the combination of water, grain, yeast and hops. The water provides, well, the water, which is the bulk of the beer. The grain, usually barley but occasionally wheat or rice, provides the body and flavour to the beer. Before the grain can be used for making a beer, it must be "malted", a process about which I have little knowledge except to say that it has something to do with bringing out the sugar (carbohydrates) in the grain. The hops provide bitterness and the yeast is the fermenting agent which converts sugars in the grain to alcohol. As a side-effect of the fermenting process, heat and carbon-dioxide are released. Too much heat can "skunk" the beer and it should be dissipated as quickly as possible. Carbon-dioxide provides the carbonation, or "fizz", to the beer.
Much of the infinite variety of beer comes from changing the proportions of these basic ingredients, changing their types, and changing the brewing process. Plunging headlong into this manic desire for classification, I put beers into two broad classes: ales and lagers. Having classified rashly, I'll just mention now that beers have so much variety that these two classes are insufficient. More about this later.
Lagers: Lagers are the result of "German"-style brewing techniques. Lagers are lighter beers, often lighter-coloured and crisp-tasting. They're usually served cold and have (relatively) lower alcohol content. During fermentation of lagers, the yeast remains at the bottom of the liquid. Lagers tend to be very "fizzy", so if you pour a lager for a friend, take care to tilt the glass and pour to the side of the glass so as not fill the glass with just foam. If you pour a lager for a foe, you ought to be shot.
A special kind of lager is a "pilsner". I believe the name "pilsner" comes from a small town named "Pilsener", probably in erstwhile Czechoslovakia. The brewing technique in this humble city required a giant metal drum, also called pilsener, in a refreshing display of low imagination. Doubtless an ancient Herr Pilsener had a hand in the process as well. Pilsners are more-lager-than-thou lagers. They are especially light, very pale in colour and very crisp in taste. You can't go through Eastern Europe without being pelted with pilsners. Strangely, Indian beers are pilsners, despite the obvious potential of British influence. Kingfisher, from India, is a commendable pilsner.
A good lager, served cold, is an excellent cure for a hot summer day (which probably explains Indians' choice). Lagers are good for consuming in volume, if volume be what you want. They don't fill you up quite as much, and their alcohol content is low, usually around 3% by volume. Warm lager should be avoided as far as possible because it probably is indistinguishable in taste, texture and odour from bodily discharge. When sampling a lager or pilsner, you should be able to down it smoothly, and after every swig feel a clean taste in your mouth.
Ales: Ales are the result of "British"-style brewing techniques. Ales are heavier beers, often darker-coloured and fuller-tasting. They're usually served at room temperature and have (relatively) higher alcohol content. During fermentation of ales, the yeast floats at the top of the liquid. Ales tend to be low on fizz. Sometimes, ales will be impregnated artificially with extra carbon-dioxide or nitrogen. A favourite trick of many bartenders is to pour an ale, then get a strong head of foam at the top of the glass and make little shapes in the firm foam.
Ales themselves can be classified further. Stronger ales are often called double or triple ales. Even stronger ales are probably stouts, bocks, double bocks, triple bocks or porters. Progressing further along that line usually means drinking darker and more flavourful beers, not necessarily beers with more alcohol. Ales (and their variants) are very popular in the UK and the US. In particular, the microbreweries in the US have proved to be a very popular alternative to the sludge that is mass-produced. Once you get to be a beer-snob (and who doesn't want to be one?), it's a clear choice between the bursting-with-flavour ales and the tepid commerical slush. Don't let me influence you.
If you're hankering for a beer on a cold, muggy day, you probably want an ale. Some of the finest ales in the world are made in British Isles and in Seattle and Portland, where the weather, for most of the year, is cold and muggy. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? An ale is not meant for the despicable practice of "chugging" - consuming beer after beer rapidly by the expedient of not tasting them. Ales must be savoured, sipped and enjoyed slowly. Although ales tend to have a slightly higher percentage of alcohol - 5% - you don't drink ales to get tipsy because they're pretty heavy. A thick porter or two can be a meal by itself. One of the most famous ales in the world is Guinness, an Irish ale.
Beers today defy rigid classification, thanks to the innovation of brewsters and ad executives. Whereas until recently you could look a beer in the eye and call its bluff, today you may find yourself looking at hybrid beers that look right back at you with the question "Do you dare?" For example, we now have Pale Ales - ales that are crisp-tasting and light, both in colour and flavour. Pale ales were invented by the British because they found that their darker beers did not do well on the long trip to India, whereas their lighter ones did. Thus were born India pale ales. Then there are wheat or weiss or white beers. Typically, these beers are made by replacing barley with, you guessed it, wheat. Wheat beers are served in tall, thin glasses with a funicular top that release the beers' aromas. Wheat beers are made like ales, but are very light in colour, and often have interesting flavours. For example, Celis White is a tasty, tasty white beer with aftertastes of orange peel and coriander.
Microbrewers, ranging from small companies to fraternity boys in their basement, have done all sorts of things to beers these days. There are meads, which have honey in them. Adding honey increases the sugar content, which provides more raw material for the yeast to convert to alcohol. There are lambics, which may have fruits or berries added to them. Rice beers are popular in Eastern Asia. There are now more summer ales and winter brews (with hints of nutmeg or cinnamon) than there are days in summer and winter. And there are amber lagers, which are heavier lagers that are almost ales. One microbrewery, Red Hook, even makes ales with coffee in them! In general, you don't want to go nuts with the basic flavour of a beer, though I have to admit the coffee in the beer is a pretty good mix.
And finally, a word about what I may have been referring to charitably as The Sludge. Somewhere in the not-too-hoary past, some Americans tracing their ancestry to Germans decided to mass-produce beer in the US. What began as an intelligent gleam in the eye became distorted into what's sold in virtually every grocery store in the US. Most of these atrocious beers substitute barley with rice - not a bad idea in itself if done right (the Japanese do it), but alas, doing it right would be too much to ask. The alcohol content is usually low - around 3% - which doesn't quite explain why folks think its studly to drink it. Internationally-known beers such as Budweiser, Heineken, Millers, Fosters, Michelob, Coors, Busch, Milwaukee's... the list goes on, but I should stop before I retch... are examples of badly-made mass-market beer. Most of these beers would be indistinguishable from water in a blind taste test. These beers are sold in brightly-coloured packaging, as if they are the equivalents of Amazonian poison-dart frogs, whose bright colours warn predators that these critters are foul-tasting. Given a choice between one of these beers and a no-name beer you haven't tasted before, go for the latter... a clear case where a bird in hand is better than two in the Busch.
Apart from the rudimentary classification based on colour, wines are differentiated by the grapes used to make them. No, the grapes you get in the market for post-dinner chomping are not the same as those used for wine-making. In fact, they actually make pretty disgusting wines. Wine grapes tend to be smaller and much more tart when eaten off the vine.
Wine is made by crushing grapes, letting the juice ferment with a bit of yeast, and then letting the fermented juice age in oak casks in cool temperatures. During the fermentation process, the sugar in the grapes gets converted to alcohol. Typically, alcohol content in wines tends to be between 8-18%.
Reds: Red wines are made from, unsurprisingly, red grapes. After crushing, the skins are allowed to be in contact with the grape juice for a long time in order to impart the red colour to the wine. Because of the long contact, the grape juice tends to become more tart. Red wines are usually allowed to age for a long time (two years upward) before they become potable.
When served, they are allowed to "air" for about five minutes to release their flavour. You can "air" a wine by just letting it stand open or by pouring it into a decanter. Red wines are usually served at room temperature. Red wines go well with strong-flavoured foods, for example, spicy Indian foods, or red meats like beef and pork.
Popular grapes that are used to make red wines are: Cabernet Sauvignon (usually very sharp, very strong), Merlot (flavourful, even spicy), Pinot Noir (unassuming), Shiraz or Syrah (new Australian grape) and Norton (extremely tart). A Bordeaux is a wine made in that region of France, but not necessarily from a particular grape.
Whites: White wines are made from less red grapes. After crushing, the skins are allowed to be in contact with the grape juice for a very short time. Because of the short contact, the grape juice tends to be light-coloured. White wines are drunk shortly after they are bottled; wait too long and they turn to vinegar.
White wines are usually served chilled. Not frozen, not ice-cold, just chilled. White wines go well with delicately-flavoured foods, for example, seafood and chicken. Stronger-flavoured foods tend to overwhelm white wines.
Popular grapes that are used to make red wines are: Sauvignon Blanc (a bit sharp), Riesling (sweet German grape), Gewurtzraminer (another sweet German grape), Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay (the most popular white wine grape).
I would be the last one to pontificate on wine. Well, maybe not. Maybe I will pontificate before many others. In drinking wine, I believe, the most important requirement is the willingness to try it. You'll read a lot about the fine points of drinking wine, and if you can appreciate wine at that level, great. But you don't need to know a wine's bouquet (aroma), its nose (aroma), its legs (viscosity) and its attitude (who knows?) in order to know what you like and what you don't.
A few terms though. A varietal wine is a wine made with a single variety of wine. For example, a Merlot wine is made almost entirely with Merlot grapes. Sure, a particular manufacturer may cut the wine with a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon for complexity, but the wine is a Merlot. Also, a varietal will be made with the grapes grown in one year. In other words, a 1998 Merlot will be made from grapes harvested in 1998. Varietal wines will usually have the grape and year printed prominently on the label, although the snobbish French are reticent about such matters. A blended wine will be made from multiple types of grapes. Given a choice between varietals and other wines, go for the varietals.
Rosés: In case it wasn't obvious by now, red and white wines can be mixed, and have been mixed. The resulting wines are pink in colour, naturally, and are called "rosé" wines. Some rosés are made by using red grapes but making them like white wines. Most pink wines are best enjoyed by pouring them down the drain. However, the occasional Zinfandel actually happens to be good.
Greens: The only place where I have heard of green wines is a Portuguese restaurant in Boston. And the wine was white.
Dessert Wines: These are white wines with high concentrations of residual sugar. In other words, in these wines, not all the sugar is converted to alcohol. However, a lot of sugar is converted to alcohol, so you should find these wines stronger than the rest. Dessert wines, as the name suggests, are good after-dinner aperitifs to be had with desserts.
Port Wines: These are red wines with high concentrations of sugar. These wines are also good after dinner, preferably with a delectable dessert.
Sherry: Sherry is fortified wine, much like vermouth (explained later), but it rarely has additives, hence it's in this section. Sherry tends to be sweet, or maybe that's just my experience.
Champagnes: Champagnes are essentially white wines that have carbonation in them. In a good champagne, the carbonation a should be natural, i.e., part of the process. In cheap champagne, the carbonation is added after the process. The process, to which I keep annoyingly referring, is known as the Methode Champenoise, and I am sure I have mangled it somewhat. Only champagne made in the Champagne region in France can be called "Champagne"; the rest is "Sparkling Wine". Of course, everyone would like to drink Dom Perignón, but for the less wealthy among us, there are plenty of decent champagnes available at less-than-outrageous prices. However, at all costs (ha ha!) avoid pink champagnes.
Sparkling Wines: See "Champagne". Asti Spumante is pretty good sparkling wine.
Beware of the abominations made with fruits other than grapes - plum wines, apricot wines, peach wines, and the like. Most of these are quite beastly. However, a unique wine is the Japanese "Saké", which is a rice wine. Saké, when served warm in the traditional way, is an excellent accompaniment to some delicate sushi.
While French wines are probably the best in the world, they are often highly-priced because of that whole dratted supply-demand theory. Other European wines often provide excellent and less expensive alternatives. For example, there's nothing wrong with some German Rieslings and Gewurtraminers, or some of the Italian (e.g., Chianti), Spanish and Portuguese reds. Yet other wine-producing countries are Argentina and Chile. The US, of course, makes wine. Thomas Jefferson was the first man to import wine grapes into the US, influenced as he was by his experiences as US ambassador to France. His efforts failed but about a hundred years later, viniculturists tried their hand again, this time with better technology and hardier grapes. In the Napa and Sonoma counties of California they found they could almost exactly duplicate French conditions. As a result, a large number of wineries in the US are located there. Most of the Californian wines are good, though some of the bigger producers have become purveyors of pretty insipid stuff. Try Virginian wines for a refreshing change. In general, if your wine of choice is sold in 2-litre bottles, avoid it. And always, always, turn your nose up at plastic.
Some of the low-quality table wine can be used in cooking. Wine is a very good alternative for oil in cooking, though not for all dishes. Lightly-flavoured dishes do well in a wine sauce. For that special Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, I recommend adding a decent red wine.
Vodka: Vodka is perhaps the most basic of all the hard liquors. Most vodkas are pretty tasteless, odourless and colourless. Consequently, they make excellent mixed drinks; their contribution is the "punch" in what's otherwise essentially fruit juice. Unless you're a dour Russian, you generally do not drink vodka straight, on the rocks or in "shots". Some of the better brands of vodka - Absolut (especially the flavoured ones), Smirnoff, Stolichnaya, Grey Goose, Skyy - are probably very good straight out of the bottle, but if your vodka comes in plastic bottles, you would be well-advised to mix it with something else.
Traditionally, vodka used to be made by distilling potatoes (the Russians had and have enough potatoes to make furniture out of them). Nowadays, different grains are used, the ubiquitous rice being one of them. Although earlier I mentioned that vodka is tasteless and odourless, good vodka certainly makes mixed drinks taste much better. And naturally, good vodka makes a vodka martini taste much better.
As the drink popularised by James Bond, a vodka martini is a very fashionable drink. In its most basic form, a vodka martini involves very little vermouth with a lot of vodka shaken over ice and poured into a conical glass. The quantity of vermouth used varies greatly and determines how "smooth" or "dry" the martini is. A smooth martini has one part vermouth for 3-4 parts of vodka. A very dry martini involves the bartender pouring the vodka and only sniffing the vermouth. My choice is to rinse the inside of the glass with vermouth and discard the rest. Then, pour the vodka chilled over ice into the glass. You may want to add an olive into the drink. Or perhaps a small cocktail onion. Or replace the vermouth with sweet vermouth and add a cherry. Or add some of the juice of an olive to get a "dirty" martini. It's all about having the choice.
Other well-known vodka drinks are: Screwdriver (vodka with orange juice), Black Russian (vodka and Kahlua), White Russian (vodka, Kahlua and cream/milk), Long Island Iced Tea (vodka and a whole host of liquors, but no tea), Bloody Mary (vodka, tomato juice and a piece of celery - heady and healthy). Another popular drink, Cosmopolitan, is a vodka martini with Lemon Vodka, Triple Sec (or Cointreau), a lime cordial (or lime juice) and cranberry juice. Vodka is also used to make "jello shots" - little servings of jello (jelly, for non-US readers) with vodka added to them before chilling.
Rum: Rum is what you drink when you want to smell like the drunk on the street. Rum smells nasty, tastes nasty and makes your bodily discharges (all of them) reek the next day. Rum is the citified cousin of country liquor, that rotgut that's brewed illegally in every country, state and town by enterprising youngsters with tremendous enthusiasm and little money or talent.
Rum comes from fermenting sugarcane. By the time you're reading this line, you probably know that the whole process of making any alcohol involves fermenting sugar into alcohol. Usually, the sugar is present in some main ingredient, for example, barley, wheat, rice, grapes, potatoes, etc. When your main ingredient is sugarcane, you know you're making something serious. Well, that something is rum. Most legal producers of rum restrict the alcohol content in rum to the normal 40% or 80-proof, but if you're buying from your friendly neighbourhood bootlegger, caveat emptor.
One of the most famous producers of rum is Bacardi. Bacardi produces 3-4 kinds of rum, ranging from the almost-odourless White Rum to the strong Black Rum. White rum is a good mixer for fruit drinks, such as a daiquiri. A daiquiri is made by crushing ice and strawberries together, adding a hint of lime juice, some white rum and some fancy liqueur such as Cointreau or Triple Sec. A sprig of mint or slice of pineapple could be a nice garnish. Black Rum, on the other hand, goes very well with a cola, such as Coke or Pepsi. The Indian rum, Old Monk, is another (strong!) black rum that goes well with a strong cola, such as Thums Up. If you go to an exotic country, say Kenya, and find yourself buying cane alcohol, you are buying rum. According to one my readers, "Good rums range from Pusser's (Royal British Navy), to Mount Gay and Cruzan (esp. the 2-yr). A kickass rum made on the Caribbean isle of St. Lucia is aptly named Strong rum. Although light in color [sic], Whoa. Most other light or white rums are for girly drinks."
Other rums are available for your pleasure. Malibu produces a coconut-flavoured rum that's used to make a Piña Colada. A piña colada is pineapple juice with coconut rum served over ice. It's a breezy tropical drink that's popular on a hot beach. Gosling makes a dark rum that's not bad to drink, but is often used to make "flambeéd" desserts. If you're one of those people who believes that providing flaming foods to your guests is a great way to break the ice, then you may want to research Greek foods which involve flaming cheese. To bring the night to a fiery finish, you could serve crèpes, bananas or ice cream flambé. Basically, the process involves making your dessert in your own inimitable way first. Then, heat a shallow pan on medium heat. When the pan becomes warm to hot, add rum, wait a few seconds for the first alcohol fumes, then light them on fire. Dump the burning alcohol on your dessert, and serve it still burning to your by-now-speechless guests. Unless your guests are rubes fresh out of the back country, they will have the sense to douse the flames before eating. Keep a fire extinguisher handy, just in case. Also, it doesn't hurt to have the fire brigade on speed dial.
Popular rum drinks are: Rum and Coke (need I say more?), Piña Colada, Strawberry Daiquiri, Long Island Iced Tea (vodka, rum and a whole bunch of other liquors, but no tea).
Whiskey: Whiskey is one of those weird drinks that can mislead you about a drinker. When someone tells you that his poison of choice is whiskey, you have to wonder where this human stands in the fool chain. Could he be drinking rotgut? Away with his ghastly presence, then! Perhaps blended whiskey. Well, that's tolerable. Maybe it's Canadian whiskey or sour mash or bourbon. Nice touch of eccentricity there. Maybe its Chivas Regal, in which case, we have a pretender to high class. Or maybe it's that elusive drinker, that fine connoisseur of single-malt scotch. If it is, hang on, you may have a winner here.
Whiskey is made with malt and barley, pretty much the same way as beer, initially. However, whiskey is allowed to ferment in barrels for many years (even decades) before it is permitted to be potable. The kind of grain used, the region where the whiskey is made, the barrels used, the duration of the aging period all determine the final flavour of the whiskey. (And, yes, I refuse to spell it "whisky" - whiskey has nothing to do with whisking).
Scotch is the most famous kind of whiskey everyone has heard about. Scotch whiskey implies it comes from Scotland, and indeed it does. However, some Scotches are more Scotch than others. I refer, of course, to single-malt Scotch. As the name implies, single-malt Scotch is made with just one malt. Before you get visions of extremely diluted liquor, let me rush in to explain that what that really means is that the whiskey produced in one year is made solely from the malt of that single year. Although the process used to make a particular brand of single-malt is the same year after year, because the malts used vary from year to year, the flavour of the same brand of whiskey varies from year to year. At least, that's what the advertisers say, in order to make you buy the same whiskey year after year. Practically speaking, a particular brand of whiskey made in 1987 may vary a bit from the same whiskey made in 1986 or 1988, but the bigger differences are between brands, not between years.
Single-malt scotches have very distinct flavours. They're also pretty strong (perhaps in alcohol, but definitely in taste), and it takes a hardy fellow to cultivate a taste for them. One of my favourite Scotches is Talisker. Talisker has a strong flavour of the sea, probably because the brewery is right next to the sea in Scotland. My introduction to Talisker was with a like-minded friend one chilly winter evening. We poured the whiskey into snifters and let them sit for a while in the room. Pretty soon, the aroma pervading the room got us in the mood for a taste. The first few sips had me scrunching my face, but sent fingers of warmth down my chest. Eventually, I figured out the knack for "drinking" the stuff - you sip a bit, keep it on your tongue and let it evaporate. Inhale the vapours in. Heady stuff. After a while, we tried the same drink, but with a single ice cube in it. Suddenly, the flavour of the whiskey opened up. We had strong flavours going up to our nose and more rounded taste going down the gullet. I was hooked. Since then I have tried other single-malts, and my preferences (in decreasing order) are: Talisker, Isle of Jura, Arran, Oban, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie.
In my opinion, a pretty poor single-malt scotch still trumps a well-made blended scotch, such as Chivas Regal. Blended scotches are made from the malts of several years. Consequently, their flavour tends to be uniform from year to year, but they also tend to be somewhat boringly simple. None of your Johnny Walkers - red, blue, black, gold, beige, ecru, aquamarine or fuschia - comes spittingly close to a Glenmorangie. As for the Jim Beam and Jack Daniels, well, they ain't even Scotch.
Whiskey made in places other than Scotland is still whiskey, but it may have other names. For example, there's Canadian whiskey, and that's about all you can say for it. Bourbon is whiskey made in Bourbon, Kentucky. Apparently, the denizens of said Bourbon decided to impart a unique flavour to their whiskey by burning oak barrels, scraping off the charred husks and aging the whiskey in those one-use barrels. Bourbon usually is smoky in flavour, not surprisingly. Meanwhile, some enterprising residents of Tennessee decided to copy most of the technique, but not having a quaint town to name their stuff after, decided to call it sour mash.
The most famous whiskey drink, is, naturally, whiskey-and-soda. A pretty decent alternative is whiskey-and-sours. Sours are just juices of limes or lemons. Manhattan is a drink made like a martini but with whiskey instead of vodka or gin.
Tequila: Every party that's gone out of hand ends in tequila. Many begin with tequila as well. Once you have started on the tequila path, there's no going anywhere else. You can't really shift from tequila to say, scotch, because that's like driving a smooth, purring Cadillac after you've experienced the bump-and-grind of a 15-year old Korean reject. Sure, the reject made your insides churn, but didn't you feel like you grew chest hair driving it?
Tequila is made from the leaves of the agave plant. If you have never heard of the agave plant, fear not. Most of the people who down tequila haven't either. For all they care, tequila could have come from the wrong side of a leaky toilet. And tequila often ends in that very place. The agave plant has blue leaves and grows in semi-desert conditions, such as those found in Mexico. It's amazing what people will distill and ferment for alcohol.
Most tequila is nasty stuff. You don't want to taste it because it'll make your stomach turn. The two choices are: mixed drinks and shots. Shots are small quantities of alcohol that you drink by just opening your throat wide. No tasting permitted. To drink a shot of tequila the "correct" way (is there really a correct way?), you lick the skin between your thumb and forefinger, rub some salt on it, then lick the salt, throw back the tequila and chow down on a wedge of lime immediately. Repeat until you throw up. Somewhere between your second and fifth tequila, someone will suggest the idea of "eating the worm". One of the most popular tequilas used for shots is a brand named Mezcal. Mezcal's main selling point seems to be the little worm that's at the bottom of every bottle. If you're down to drinking shots of tequila, it's a small step down to eating the worm.
Tequila is used extensively in mixed drinks. The most famous is the margarita. To make a margarita, crush ice and lime juice in a blender. Add tequila and a little orange liqueur such as Cointreau (for the snobbish margarita, if such a being exists) or Triple Sec. Next, take a wide-mouthed, long-stemmed glass, moisten its rim and turn it over in a saucer of rock salt. Pour in the tequila, add a lime, and muy bueno! José Cuervo, especially the cheaper varieties, is a pretty good brand for mixed drinks.
Surprisingly, there is actually good tequila to be found. At least three brands of tequila - Patrón, Herradura and Sauza - are actually sipping tequilas. While your Cuervos and Mezcals are golden yellow in colour, the sipping tequilas are straw-coloured to colourless. You can't really compare sipping tequila to scotch, but the sheer impertinence of tequila that doesn't require to be swallowed carries them through. Among sipping tequilas, "gold" carries more premium than "silver". Careful here - to differentiate between the nasty stuff and the sipping stuff, you want to err on the side of lighter colour, but once you're in the realm of sipping tequilas, you want to err on the side of darker colour. Have a few shots of tequila to clear the matter for you.
Gin: Gin is the traditional main liquor in a martini. Time was when you could order a martini and the bartender wouldn't come back with "Gin or vodka?". If you say a martini, you mean a gin martini, dammit. Every jackass with a bad Bond imitation of "shaken but not stirred" has expected a martini to be a vodka martini, only to be flabbergasted when the gin version (version? the original!) arrives.
Gin has an interesting history. In the 1920s and 1930s, when Prohibition was in effect in the United States, people could not buy liquor legally. Some folks decided to brew their own by crushing juniper berries in their bathtub, and that's how gin (or at least bathtub gin) was born. After Prohibition was lifted, people discovered they had grown accustomed to the taste of gin. Since then, gin has been refined into a high-society drink, and can be made from other berries, not just juniper. Sloe gin is made from sloeberries, and is used in many drinks whose names make a pun of "sloe" and "slow" (sloe screw against a wall, sloe sex on the beach, etc.).
Apart from martinis, gin is famous for lime or lemon cordials (lime or lemon juice and gin over ice) and gin-and-tonic. Yet another interesting story about gin actually has to do with tonic. When Britain was a world power (and not just a quaint island with odd accents), her soldiers in the tropical colonies (like India) often contracted malaria, which had the unhappy side-effect of killing them off more painfully than the boredom of managing docile natives. Quinine, the drug for malaria had to be administered to the troops, and it was done so by dissolving it in water. This water was called a tonic, and ironically, it hardly acted as a tonic upon the troops. The petulant British soldiers actually refused to take tonic because it tasted nasty! That's when the British hit upon the idea of serving tonic with gin, gin being the cheapest rotgut they could find that would not kill their soldiers more quickly than malaria. Today, when you order a gin-and-tonic at a swank bar, remember how you're killing two birds with one stone(-drunk) - the malaria virus with the tonic and your brain cells with the alcohol.
The Federal Standards of Identity define cordials and liqueurs as products obtained by mixing or redistilling distilled spirits with or over fruits, plants, or pure juices therefrom, or other natural flavoring materials, or with extracts derived from infusions, percolation, or maceration of such materials, and containing sugar, dextrose, or levulose, or a combination thereof, in an amount not less than 2.5 percent by weight of the finished product. The Standards prohibit use of the terms "distilled" or "compound" when describing or labelling the product.That definition notwithstanding, there are many, many liqueurs and they come in exciting shapes and sizes, and have all sorts of aromas and tastes. Here, I'll just talk about the few that I know about and trust you to find out about the others.
Brandy: As a child, I'm sure you have had brandy and honey administered to you for a particularly bad cold. Well, maybe that was just in my family. Brandy is made by distilling wine. A good brandy should have a strong aroma and should go down smoothly. Typically, brandy is served in a special kind of glass called a snifter. A snifter has a wide bottom and a narrow top, much like your average politician, although the snifter tends to crack under pressure. The shape of the snifter enables funnelling the aroma of the brandy.
Brandy from the Cognac region in France is called, surprisingly, "Cognac". Good cognacs are actually pretty easy to find. Look for the label "VSOP" under the name. If VSOP is a bit too much for your wallet, settle for the inferior VS (Very Special). Good brands of brandy/cognac are: Courvoisier, Remy Martin, Martell. Brandy from the Armagnac region in France is called, guess what, Armagnac!
Technically, brandy is not a liqueur because it neither has enough residual sugar nor any added flavourings, but somehow it feels like it should be here.
Vermouth: Vermouth is fortified wine, which means it's probably hard to break down its defences. Seriously though, vermouth is just white or red wine to which an assortment of flavours can be and indeed, are, added. Most of these flavourings make the wine itself unpotable, but make for a decent additive. Most bars stock on vermouth mainly for the martinis, although the savvy martini drinker wants merely a whiff, not a quaff of the vermouth.
Cognac: See "Brandy". Drink Cognac.
Amaretto: Almond-flavoured liqueur that's good with coffee, cookies, or in mixed drinks, with sours. Rather sweet. Popular brand: DiSaronno.
Frangelico: Hazelnut-flavoured liqueur, originally made by Franciscan monks. Excellent with coffee.
Grand Marnier: Orange-flavoured liqueur. Excellent served warm with cookies. Used often in mixed drinks such as margaritas and in baked goods.
Drambuie: Liqueur made by distilling whiskey even further. Good for sipping.
Galliano: Liqueur tasting of licorice (anise). Comes in a weird-shaped bottle that looks like a baseball bat. The liqueur itself has a sickly greenish-yellow colour. Best used in mixed drinks.
Irish Cream: Very popular liqueur that goes superbly with coffee. Make a pot of good but not overly-strong coffee. Add Irish Cream instead of milk and sugar for a good post-prandial drink. Also good just by itself over ice. Popular brand: Bailey's.
Schnapps: Schnapps are usually made from fruits. They are strong, aromatic liqueurs that are often used in mixed drinks. Most popular schnapps: peach. Used for making a Fuzzy Navel (peach schnapps, orange juice). Try peppermint schnapps if you like your mouthwash to have an added kick. Cinnamon schnapps are spicy!
Triple Sec: Another orange-flavoured liqueur, but a bit low-end. Can be imbibed over ice, but perhaps best known for use in margaritas. Popular brand: De Kuypers.
Curaçao: Yet another orange-flavoured liqueur, but its main selling point is its striking blue colour. Originally made in the Dutch colony of Curaçao. Today used for making wacky-coloured drinks.
Cointreau: The king of orange-flavoured liqueurs. Made from orange peel actually. Very aromatic and flavourful, with high alcohol content. Can be used instead of Triple Sec to make expensive margaritas (don't forget to use expensive tequila as well, and charge the moon).
Sambuca: Fennel-flavoured liqueur. Odd taste repels most drinkers except Indians who are used to champing on fennel after dinner. Add three roasted coffee beans to change the flavour of the liqueur radically. Popular brand: Romana.
Ouzo: Anise-flavoured liqueur, and the national drink of Greece. Anise tastes very similar to fennel.
Coffee Liqueur: Yes, liqueur that tastes like coffee. Often added to coffee as well. Popular brands: Kahlua and Tia María. Kahlua is also used to make Black and White Russians - the drinks, not the humans.
Melon Liqueur: Nasty stuff. Whoever hit upon the idea of making liqueur that tastes like honeydew? Well, it's out there in glorius green colour. Mainly used to make greenish mixed drinks, like Grasshopper. Popular brand: De Kuypers.
Grenadine: A pomegranate syrup, not a liqueur. Mainly famous for its bright red colour. Used to make funky layered drinks along with Triple Sec and Curaçao. Layered drinks, as you can imagine are delicate concoctions involving gently pouring liqueurs of slight-varying specific gravities over one another until they form distinct coloured layers. The drinks look cool, but are nasty to drink.
Pastis: French anise-flavoured liqueurs. Can be diluted with water.
Southern Comfort: An exceptionally smooth liqueur related to whiskey. Used in mixed drinks, for example, margaritas, but tastes good on its own, or on a bed of ice.
Jägermeister: A drink so foul that it is usually kept frozen to lock in the taste. Usually used in mixed drinks, especially as the night gets along.
Unterberg: A digestif, i.e., a drink enjoyed after dinner to aid digestion of the food, although some may take issue with the use of the word "enjoyed". Unterberg is particularly vicious-tasting, and in a well-advised move, is sold in tiny bottles.
Cider: Made from apples usually, occasionally pears. Ciders can be non-alcoholic, but what's the point? Usually, alcohol content in hard ciders is comparable to beers. Given that there are about 5 dozen varieties of apples in the world, the range of ciders is pretty large. Ciders made from Granny Smith apples, for example, are very tart and somewhat harsh, whereas other ciders can be dark and smooth. Popular brand: Woodchuck.
Wine cooler: Abomination. Nobody is quite sure what these creatures are. The usual concoction contains some kind of cola with some kind of alcohol, and that's about how charitable the description can get.
Barley wine: Very strong beer made from barley. Barley wines tend to be sweeter than beers likely because they have more sugar that's converted to alcohol. Alcohol content tends to be in the 9-14% range, sometimes higher. One of my readers advises "As such, it is usually served in a short-stemmed wine glass, no more than about a 1/2 pint at a time. Barley wine is a beautiful thang!... and an acquired taste."
Country liquor: Nothing good ever comes out of country liquor, no matter what the country. Rumours abound about them being brewed in a manner similar to making compost.
Feni: Cashew liqueur from Goa, India. Good-quality feni is hard to find, and all feni tends to stink up the area within a radius of a mile.
Sangria: Sangria is actually a mixed drink, but worth mentioning not just because it's the national drink of Spain, but because it combines the oddest ingredients together. First, take some halfway-decent red wine. Sip a few glasses of it to make sure it's good. Then chop some fruit - oranges, apples - and add it to the wine. Next, find shome vorka and dunk a quantity of it in, making shure to ship each dunk. Then add shome Cointreau enshuring shtict qualty contrl along th'way. Add some line juice, some shodah, some brandy (never fogettin g to chek for goodness). Add some ice, throw some salt oiver your shoulder, grin shtoopidly, anf dvae fune!