For many of us, alcohol is a big part of holidays and celebrations, thanks to its flavor pairings with different mixers and food — not to mention its magical effects. But, even though alcoholic beverages are a billion dollar industry, and the majority of adults have drunk alcohol at some point in their lifetime, very few of us actually know much about it.
So, as the holiday season approaches, now is as good of a time as any to learn more about the different types of alcohol and what makes them unique.
What Is Alcohol?
The history of alcohol goes back thousands of years. There is evidence of alcoholic beverages in early Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, and Indian civilizations, and they all came from fermented grain, fruit juice, and honey.
Knowing the alcohol-making process is essential to understanding what alcohol is. Yeast is the magical ingredient in the process because it turns sugar into alcohol. This is known as fermentation, and humans have turned this naturally-occurring process into an art.
You can turn anything that contains sugar into alcohol. Fermenting grains become beer, fermented grapes turn into wine, and fermented fruits become cider. However, for hard liquor, you have to go farther than fermentation. When the alcohol percentage hits 15 percent, there is no sugar left to ferment, so you must add distillation. The process of distillation is basically separating the alcohol from other parts of the brew to make it more concentrated.
Alcohol doesn’t have any flavor of its own. Instead, the flavors of each type of alcohol come from the ingredients used to make it.
Most Common Types Of Alcohol — Fermented
As we mentioned earlier, some alcoholic beverages only go through the fermentation process which has a limit of 15 percent alcohol (unless you do something extra to it), giving them a lower alcohol content compared to distilled alcohol (spirits). The most popular types of fermented alcoholic beverages are wine, beer, and cider.
The wine category is complex, which means it can get extremely confusing, thanks to the hundreds of varieties and styles. A result of fermented grape juice, the five basic wine groups are red, white, rose, fortified, and sparkling. The major differences come from the type of grape that is used and the process in which it is made. However, there are many factors that can influence a wine’s flavor, including the skill of the winemaker, the weather, type of barrel used for storage, and the aging process.
The skin of the grape determines the color, and to make red wine they leave the skin on during the fermentation process. Red wine is usually served at room temperature, and some of the most popular types of red wines are:
- Cabernet Sauvignon – This full-body option is the most popular red wine in America. Always paired with meals featuring red meat, Cabernet usually has a taste of dark fruits like cherries, vanilla, and green pepper.
- Merlot — A medium-body wine that is often recommended to new red wine drinkers. It often has a plummy taste with notes of chocolate, and is easy to drink on its own, but also pairs well with food.
- Pinot Noir – This light-body wine is made from grapes also used to make rose and sparkling wine. It was born in the Burgundy region of France, and is still produced in the region. However, they call it red Burgundy, not Pinot Noir. It has a berry flavor and goes well with many types of food. And, you can also enjoy it by itself.
White wines are different from red because winemakers remove the grape skins before they put them through the fermentation process. Usually paired with fish and poultry dishes and served chilled, white wines are often sweet with rich flavors. The most common types include:
- Chardonnay – The most popular white wine on Earth, Chardonnay is full-bodied and often aged in different kinds of barrels to impact the flavor.
- Pinot Grigio/Gris — This light-bodied wine has two different names, based on the region it comes from. Grigio is the Italian style, while Gris comes from France.
- Moscato – An incredibly sweet white wine, Moscato is low in alcohol content and easy to drink on its own or with a meal.
- Sauvignon Blanc – This light-bodied wine is usually made dry (not sweet) and is known as summer in a glass. And, the New Zealand version is incredibly popular at the moment.
- Riesling – A delicious wine made sweet or dry, Rieslings have a citrus flavor featuring lemon, lime, pineapple, and apricot.
Rose wines have a pink color, and they don’t come from a specific grape. It gets it color because winemakers remove the grape skin during the fermentation process, and the most popular types feature strawberry, raspberry, and citrus flavors.
Sparkling wines do not have their own grape variety. Instead, it is the process that determines the style. It is carbonated and light in color, and you will also know sparkling wine as champagne or prosecco.
Fortified wines have a higher alcohol content because it is both fermented and distilled. They also have different flavors than other wines because of the herbs and spices added. Popular fortified wines include vermouth, port, and sherry.
Made from barley, water, hops, and yeast, there are two major types of beer available — ales and lagers. The difference between the two is how the brewer uses yeast. For ales, you would use top-fermenting yeast with a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees, while lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast at a temperature between 50 and 58 degrees.
Ales tend to have a fruitier taste, as opposed to the clean, crisp taste of a lager. The majority of beers have an alcohol by volume content between four and six percent, but there are breweries known to make beer with a volume content as high as 67 percent.
When it comes to ales, pale ales are the most popular. They are lighter than other ales, and they also have a full flavor and color. There are also India pale ales which are heavily hopped and have a higher alcohol content.
Other types of ales include amber ales (toffee and caramel flavors), wheat beers, English bitter ales, and stouts/porters. Stouts and porters are extremely dark, almost black, and one of the most popular types of stout is Guinness.
If you have tried beer, chances are you have tasted a lager. Pale lagers are the most commonly consumed beers on the planet. Budweiser beers are all pale lagers with a light, clean, and crisp taste. Pilsners are a type of lager with a bitter taste because of the Saaz Hop used in the brewing process, and dark lagers are also available, but not nearly as popular as the pale variety.
Sometimes classified as a wine, ciders are fermented fruit juice, with apple and pear being the common types found on the market. If you are not a beer drinker, cider is a popular alternative, and it comes in both dry and sweet styles.
Most Common Types of Alcohol — Distilled
Distilled beverages, also known as hard liquor or spirits, are stronger than fermented beverages because of the distilling process. To make them more pleasant to the taste buds, people usually mix them with soda, juice, or water. Spirits are also used in cocktails, but you can also choose to drink them neat (straight up, by itself) or on the rocks (with ice).
Most spirits have around 40 percent alcohol by volume, but some can go as high as 70 percent.
Usually made from fermented grain mash that includes barley, rye, wheat, and corn, whiskey has a distinctive taste because it is fermented in charred white oak wood. However, the world of whisk(e)y can get very confusing because it is spelled differently based on where it came from.
Different types of whiskey include bourbon, scotch, and Irish Whisky, and they all come in different blends, malts, and grains. Some of the most popular brands include Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker, and Jameson.
Made by distilling fermented blue agave, tequila comes from Mexico, and it is available in various colors because of the various methods and aging processes. At one time, tequila was mostly consumed as a shot, but lately more premium brands have emerged that are meant to be sipped like whisky.
Some of the most popular brands of tequila are Patron, Jose Cuervo, and Don Julio.
One of the most loved spirits in the world, vodka is the result of distilling fermented cereal grains or potatoes. However, there are some brands who will use wheat, rye, corn, sugar, or fruits. You can drink vodka neat or on the rocks, but it is most popular as part of a cocktail. Cosmopolitans, Bloody Marys, Martinis, and Screwdrivers are all popular vodka-based cocktails, and some of the most popular brands are Absolut, Grey Goose, Ketel One, and Ciroc.
Often mixed with soda, rum is distilled from molasses or sugar cane and aged in wooden barrels. You can also find “spiced rums” with different spices added, and some names you might know include Bacardi, Captain Morgan, and Havana Club.
Gin is similar to vodka, and it is made from juniper berries which give its unique taste. You should never drink Gin neat. It is meant to be mixed with juice or other mixers.
We have just scratched the surface when it comes to the different types of alcohol. When it comes down to it, the best thing to do to find what you like the most is to try samples. Most bars and restaurants that feature a variety of beers and wines will be more than happy to let you try a sample — all you have to do is ask.
No matter what kind of flavors you prefer, there is definitely a type of alcohol on the market that you can enjoy. It just takes a little bit of trial and error to find the perfect drink for you.