WSET® 2 Reading, Chapter 20: Spirit Categories and Styles (Class Notes)

There are many different spirit styles and categories available that vary from country to country. At each stage of the production process, the distiller can make choices that can affect the final flavours and style of a spirit, and, ultimately, which category the spirit ends up in. The flavour of a spirit depends on the type of raw material (fruit, grain, sugar cane), the type of distillation process (high strength and neutral, or low strength and characterful), and the maturation (if any) it receives after distillation (period of time in oak, type of oak).

  • Brandy
    • Wine is made by fermenting whole, fresh grapes, If this is distilled, the product is brandy. Most brandy is aged in oak and/or coloured with caramel before bottling, so it is brown or amber in colour.
    • Cognac: An oak-aged grape brandy from a delimited region to the north of Bordeaux. It must be double distilled using a copper pot still. The result is that Cognacs generally have distinctly fruity-floral aromas (grapes, perfume), and are medium to light in body, with smooth alcohol.
    • Armagnac: An oak-aged grape brandy that comes from a delimited area to the south of Bordeaux. Nearly all Armagnac is made using a version of the column still, which gives a relatively low-strength spirit that is full of character. Armagnac typically shows dried-fruit aromas (prune, raisin, fig) and is medium or full-bodied.
    • Oak maturation is an important part of the production of Cognac and Armagnac. This maturation makes the spirit smoother, and adds flavours of vanilla, toast, nuts, sweet spices, fruitcake, and dried fruits. The labelling terms VS, VSOP, and XO (Napoléon) are used to indicate the age of a spirit. The minimum ageing periods for these terms are set in law, although many companies age components of their blends for much longer than the legal minimum. Many other brandies use the same labelling terms but their usage is not controlled and they rarely have the same character or complexity.
  • Whiskies
    • Whiskies are characterful oak-aged spirits made from grains such as barley, corn, and rye. Unlike grapes, grains contain starch rather than sugar, and are solid rather than liquid. So, before fermentation takes place, the grains must go through a conversion process to turn the insoluable starch into fermentable sugars. This conversion occurs after the grains have been coarsely ground and mixed with hot water. However, for barley the process is slightly different. Before the starch can be converted into sugar, the barley grain is encouraged to germinate. Once growth is underway, the germination process is stopped by heating and drying the barley using a kiln. Peat is sometimes used as fuel in the kilning process, giving the final whisky smokey flavours characteristic of some Scotch whiskies. The resulting grain, now called ‘malted barley’, is then mixed with hot water.
    • Scotch Whisky: Must be both distilled and aged in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years. However, most are aged for much longer than this. An age statement on the bottle indicates the age of the youngest component.
      • Malt Whisky
        • Made using only malted barley, as described above. Distillation must take place in copper pot stills.
      • Single Malt Scotch Whisky
        • Malt whisky that comes from just one distillery. Single malt whiskies very greatly in style depending on how they are made. The level of peat used when kilning the barley, the type of cask used for maturation, and the length of maturation all have an impact on the flavour of the spirit. Because of these variations, it is impossible to generalise about styles. Peat can be a defining flavour but it is not always present. Other flavours may include floral, honey, fruity, dried fruit, nutty, medicinal, spicy, cereal and woody notes.
        • Highland: Scottish region, north of a line from Greenock to Dundee. Malt whiskies from this region are generally very intensely flavoured.
        • Islay: Island off the west coast of Scotland. Islay malt whiskies are generally very peaty, with seaweed, medicinal, and brine aromas.
        • Campbeltown: Town on the west coast of mainland Scotland. Campbeltown malt whiskies vary in style, but the best are very complex.
        • Speyside: Scottish region, within the Highlands (q.v.) Speyside malt whiskies are generally very elegant, and well-balanced, with subtle peat and complex fruit, floral, and honey aromas.
        • Lowland: Scottish region, south of the line from Greenock to Dundee. Lowland malt whiskies are generally light and smooth, with floral, grassy, and cereal aromas.
      • Grain Whisky: is a second kind of Scotch, which is made from a mixture of grains including corn, wheat, and malted barley. It is distilled in a column still, and produces a spirit that is smoother and lighter in flavour compared with a Single Malt Whisky. Grain whisky is rarely seen on its own, but instead, tends to be blended with malt whisky to create Blended Scotch Whisky. The quality and character of a blended whisky will depend on the characteristics of its component parts (malts and grains), and how well they are matched together. Some blended whiskies are intense in flavour; others are more delicate. Some have almost no peaty/smoky flavours; others are noticeably peaty. The best blended whiskies have a smooth spirit component and a well-balanced combination of flavours. Blended whisky is a very important whisky category, so each blend must be consistently produced year after year.
    • Irish Whiskey: Irish whiskies are generally made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley, along with other grains, though there are some Irish malt whiskies. They are usually unpeated, though some use peat and are produced using pot stills and column stills or a combination of the two. Irish Whiskey tends to be much smoother and lighter in flavour than Scotch Whisky, with soft and mellow flavours of fruit, hooney, flowers, and oak.
    • North American Whiskies: Whiskey can be made anywhere in the USA, but Kentucky and Tennessee are two key states for whiskey production.
      • Bourbon is made using a mixture of grains, although by law it must contain a minimum of 51% corn. Corn produces a spirit that seems sweeter than other grain-based spirits. The distillation procss produces a relatively low-strength spirit with pronounced flavours. Much of the character comes from ageing the spirit in heavily charred new American oak barrels, which adds flavours of sweet coconut, vanilla, toffee and spice. Bourbon can be produced anywhere in the USA but the vast majority is produced and aged in Kentucky.
      • Tennessee whiskey can only be produced in the state of Tennessee. It is produced in a similar way to Bourbon. However, unlike Bourbon, the new make spirit in filtered through sugar maple charcoal before being put into barrel. This mellows the whiskey, resulting in a smoother spirit.
  • Rum: To be classified as a rum, the spirit must be made from a sugar cane product, of which molasses is most commonly used, producing rich rums, with flavours of toffee and ripe tropical fruit. Molasses, which is a thick syrupy substance, must be diluted with water before it can be fermented and then distilled. Distillation can occur in either pot or column stills, and as with other spirits, the distillation strength plays a major part in determining the style of the rum. After distillation, some rums can be aged in oak, adding flavours of spice, dried fruit, coconut and toffee. Colour can also be adjusted by the addition of caramel. It is common to divide rums into white, golden, spiced, and dark rums.
    • White Rum: White rums are by far the most common style of rum and are a popular cocktail ingredient. The majority are distilled to a high strength, producing rums that are dry and neutral in the character, rather than vodka. They are light in intensity, yet retain some characteristics from the raw material. Thse distilled to a lower strength are very flavoursome, with very intense tropical fruit flavours. Note that white rums may have been aged in oak and then stripped of colour by charcoal filtration.
    • Golden and Spiced Rum: Golden rums are usually dry or off-dry, with smooth spirit due to a period of oak ageing. The better ones have intense, complex, fruity, and oak aromas (banana, coconut, toffee). Spiced rums are typically golden rums that have spice flavourings added.
    • Dark Rum: Dark rums are generally full-bodied and sweet in style, with dried fruit and sweet spice flavours (fig, raisin, clove, cinnamon). Those that have most of their colour determined by added caramel may be harsh and spirity. The best are aged for several years in oak, and can be very smooth, intense, and complex spirits.
  • Tequila
    • To be called Tequila, the spirit must be produced from 51% blue agave in the delimited Tequila region in Mexico. The agave, a succulent and not a cactus, grows for around 7-10 years before being harvested at maturity for Tequila production. Once harvested, the outer leaves are removed and the hard core is cooked to create fermentable sugars. These sugars are then extracted, fermented, and typically double pot distilled to make Tequila. Blue agave produces a spirit with distinct flavours of grass, citrus, earth and pepper, with sharp alcohol. As the spirit ages, the agave flavours mellow and are balanced by oak aromas of vanilla and sweet spice.
    • Tequila Styles:
      • For many purists, Blanco/Silver Tequilas are the most authentic expression of an agave-based spirit. They are dry, with intense vegetable and spicy flavours (pepper).
      • Many Joven/Oro/Gold Tequilas are simply unaged Tequillas that have had caramel added to alter the colour and soften the flavour. Reposado (rested) Tequilas are aged in oak for a short time, whereas Añejo (aged) Tequilas are aged for much longer than this.
  • Vodka 
    • Vodka can be produced anywhere in the world. The classic raw materials used for the production of vodka are grains such as barley, wheat, and rye, but other raw materials, including grapes and potatoes, can also be used.
    • By law, vodka must be distilled to a high strength of at least 95-96% abv. This strength can only be achieved using a column still, although some producers will use pot stills during part of the production process. By distilling the spirit to such a high strength, little of the character of the base material remains. Many vodkas are filtered through charcoal to remove any remaining undesirable flavours and impurities. The final spirit is then reduced, by the addition of water, to a bottling strength of around 40% abv. They are typically un-aged.
    • Vodka Styles:
      • Most vodkas are made to be as neutral as possible. It is the light, neutral character that has made vodka such a popular and versatile spirit, ideal for cocktails and mixed drinks where the flavours of the other components are supposed to shine.
      • However, some vodkas are more characterful. These include many Polish and Russian vodkas, and some other premium vodkas. The flavours of these are still delicate, compoared with those of any whiskey or brandy, but hints of the base material (grain, grape, potato) will show on the nose and the palate.
  • Flavoured Spirits
    • There are many spirits made by adding flavourings to a 95-96% neutral base spirit. These include flavoured vodkas, and other categories such as gin and liqueurs. Flavourings can be added using the following techniques:
      • Maceration, by soaking the flavouring ingredients in the spirit.
      • Re-distillation, by re-distilling the spirit with the flavour ingredients.
      • Essences, by adding artificial flavours to the spirit.
    • Flavoured Vodka: a range of flavoured vodkas are widely available. These are produced by adding extra flavourings, such as vanilla, fruit, toffee, herbs, and spices, before bottling. Flavouring can be added either through the use of essences or by maceration.
    • Gin: a neutral base spirit that has been flavoured with ingredients called ‘botanicals.” To be called gin, it must have juniper as the main flavouring. Other flavourings can be added, with the most commonly used being coriander seeds, angelica root, and citrus peel.
      • By law, London Dry Gin must be produced by re-distilling the neutral spirit in a pot still with juniper and other botanicals. Once re-distillation is complete, no other flavourings can be added. This creates a high-quality product with intense and lasting flavours.
      • Distilled Gins are made in the same way as London Dry Gin except that other flavourings may be added after the re-distillation.
      • The production of inexpensive gins will see flavours added to the neutral spirit in the form of essences.
      • Gins are typically un-aged.
    • Liqueurs:
      • A liqueur is a distilled spirit that has been flavoured and sweetened. Most liqueurs are made using a neutral base spirit, but there are those which are based upon more flavoursome spirits such as brandy, rum, or whisk(e)y. Flavouring is added to create different style s of liqueurs.
      • The type of flavouring ingredients used can very, but broadly speaking, they can be divided into four main categories: Dairy, Herb, Fruit, and Seed/Nut. Many inexpensive liqueurs use artificial flavourings and colouring. This can make an enormous difference. For example, liqueurs made using real cherries or orange peel have a much more natural, genuine, persistent flavour than those using artificial flavours. This difference will be reflected in the price.
      • Before bottling, sugar is added. To be classified as a liqueur, the spirit is required by law to have a minimum level of sweetness. This level varies depending n where the spirit is made across the globe. Water is usually added to reduce the liqueur to a suitable alcoholic strength for bottling. Most liqueurs will then undergo some colouring. Artificial colourings are widely used as they give producers a broader range of colours to work with, and they help keep the final colour stable.

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