Make Cocktails at Home

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Category: Easy Guides

Lime, Roses Lime cordial

Easy guide to lime juice – fresh lime, Roses cordial and the Gimlet

Is all Lime Juice the same?

There seems to be some confusion for the newly enthusiastic home bartender as to what exactly is meant by lime juice – do we literally mean only the freshly squeezed juice of a lime or could you use one of the green lime bottles littering the shelves at the supermarket?

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Why use lime at all?

When we make cocktails we are aiming to take a selection of different ingredients and mix them together, producing something that (hopefully) tastes better than when we started. To get good flavours we need to make balanced use of some of the 5 primary tastes – sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami. I’ll go into a detailed explanation of each of these in an upcoming post but for now we are interested in the main taste associated with lime – sourness.

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When drinking freshly squeezed lime juice you notice a strong sour taste on your tongue – this is because limes contain a relatively high level of citric acid which our bodies note as being sour. A sour acidic flavour, when balanced with other tastes (such as sweetness from sugar) adds to the overall depth of the cocktail so if we use it correctly we can give our drinks a crisp, refreshing flavour.

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Fresh squeezed Lime

Easily the most important lime for us – the vast majority of cocktails that you’ll come across on this blog referring to lime juice are asking for freshly squeezed lime juice. Buy a bunch of limes from your local grocer, wash them, cut them in half and squeeze with a citrus press or reamer to extract all the juicy, natural goodness. Real, fresh limes will provide the acidic bite that we are looking for and provide a more natural flavour in the final drink.

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Depending on where you live these can be pretty costly so try and buy a citrus press to make sure you can get as much juice as possible out of each lime. A tip; use the palm of your hand to push on the lime and roll it around on your bench a few times before juicing and you’ll get more out of it. Expect to get around 15ml juice per half lime/ 30ml per lime.

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‘Fresh’ Lime bottles

Often found in the soft drink section of your local convenience store or supermarket, these squeezed lime bottles tend to contain concentrated lime juice that has commonly had preservatives and other bits and pieces added. While these bottles may save a few seconds over the hand-squeezing of a real lime, unfortunately they tend to fail on the taste test, generally lacking the true sour or acidic bite as fresh lime juice and are therefore best left on the shelf.

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Roses Lime cordial, other brands of Lime cordials

Lime cordials were originally a mix of concentrated lime juice and sugar although the ingredient list on many modern bottles seems to have grown somewhat with a mix of added preservatives and colourings. Hmm. But anyway…

 

The original and best known is Rose’s lime cordial, invented by a Mr Lauchlin Rose in 1867 in part as a way to help British sailors in their fight against scurvy, a nasty disease bought on by a diet lacking vitamin C.

 

Sensible medical types had discovered that limes and other citrus fruits were a good natural source of vitamin C and therefore helped in the fight against scurvy and quickly pushed for laws to ensure that all ships carried a ready supply of citrusy goodness for their sailors. While good in theory, problems arose quickly – citrus fruits were not always easy to source, and even when you could find them they were not particularly appetising when they’d been stored in the hold of a ship for a few weeks. Added to this, drinking straight lime juice is not particularly appealing at the best of times and while it could (and was) made more attractive by adding it to the daily rum or gin rations it was still something to be drunk out of necessity rather than choice. Time for Mr Rose.

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Lauchlin Rose had a business supplying provisions for ships and after a bit of experimentation discovered that a mix of concentrated lime juice with sugar allowed him to create a cordial which would provide the necessary vitamin C but in a sweetened, more palatable form than simple lime juice. Added to this the lime and sugar combination was stable when bottled and could be stored for lengthy periods without going off. Created just in time for the Merchant Shipping Act of 1868, which made the carrying of citrus a legal requirement, Rose was on to a winner.

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Nothing is perfect however. The sugar that helped so much in creating the cordial is often its downfall when used in cocktails. Remembering from earlier, the main reason we use limes in good cocktails is to add an acidic bite from the citric acid contained in the juice. Unfortunately the sugar that is used to help stabilise the cordial weakens this acidity, ultimately giving a kind of sweet general lime flavour but without the acid that we really want. This results in an unbalanced and (often) unpleasant drink when compared to fresh squeezed lime.

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Conclusion

Unless specifically stated, use freshly squeezed lime juice for cocktails – your drinks will taste better. Avoid buying pre-squeezed as squeezing by hand will result in better juice and a better drink.

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Lesson – Making a Gimlet

A real classic cocktail now, we are going to start by going against what I’ve just been telling you and using Rose’s cordial rather than fresh lime.

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You will need

  • 50ml Gin
  • 20ml Roses Lime Cordial

Gin and Rose's

Method

Stir in glass

Nice and easy, this can be made in the glass or stirred in your mixing glass and strained into a cocktail glass. We are going to do the ‘stir in glass’ method today.

Take a rocks glass, old fashioned glass or similar and fill with ice. Measure in your gin and lime cordial and use your bar spoon to stir the ice and liquid until it is well mixed and cold – this should take around 30-40 seconds. Garnish with a lime slice and drink, feeling happy in the knowledge that you are tackling the fight against scurvy head-on.

Finished Gimlet.

 

Variations to try

After making a traditional Gimlet, make another but replace the Roses lime cordial with freshly pressed lime juice. Prepare in the same manner and taste the difference. You should notice that the new fresh lime Gimlet is very sour from the citric acid in the lime juice. To improve the taste add a small amount of simple syrup and stir – the sugar should help bring the drink back into balance and improve the overall taste.

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There you go – more than you’d expect to read about lime juice on any given day. Try making the drinks and let me know in the comments section how they turned out.

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// David

Mozart chocolate liqueur

Easy Guide to Alcohol pt 2 – Liqueurs

Mozart chocolate liqueur

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Liqueurs

 

For an explanation of how alcohol and spirits are made check out the first post in the series,

Easy Guide to Alcohol pt 1 – fermentation, distillation and spirits

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Time for some sugar.

 

The easiest way to differentiate between spirits and liqueurs is that liqueurs are usually much sweeter do to the addition of significant amounts of added sugar. If you compare the sweet taste of the Italian liqueur Lemoncello to a lemon vodka (as both are lemon based) you’ll notice the Lemoncello is significantly sweeter – it has had a significant amount of sugar added to it.

 

How Liqueurs are made

 

A typical liqueur is a combination of a base spirit, such as vodka or brandy, raw flavouring ingredients, and added sugar.

 

Broken down and simplified this becomes:

 

Base Spirit + Flavouring + Sugar = Liqueur

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Let’s look at each of these components in a little more depth.

 

Base Spirit

 

The base spirit refers to the distilled alcohol that makes up the bulk of the liqueur. Depending on the mash (fermented alcohol) that was used in distillation and how the spirit was treated post-distillation (was it aged in barrels? Charcoal filtered?) the spirit can be used merely to add the alcoholic-bulk to the liqueur or as an actual flavour component.

 

If the major flavouring of the liqueur is to come from the added ingredients (oranges, coffee etc) then the makers will commonly use neutral spirit (odourless, flavourless spirit with a very high ABV – you can think of it like a very strong vodka). The high level of alcohol and lack of flavour in the spirit helps draw the flavours out of the added ingredients and allow them to be fully pronounced and uninfluenced by the spirit. A well known example is the French liqueur Cointreau. which is made by soaking orange peels in neutral spirit – when you taste Cointreau you get orange flavours but the taste of the spirit itself remains very much in the background.

 

Other liqueurs may want to use the spirit to add to the overall flavour – spirits such as whiskeys or brandies tend to be distilled to a lower ABV and retain more of the flavour from the mash, and are also commonly barrel aged. When used as your base they will give the liqueur some of the more complex flavours that tend to go along with these spirits – smokey flavours, rich chocolate or coffee notes, vanilla, it all depends on the particular spirit used.

 

Let’s look at an example of a brandy based liqueur to compare to neutral spirit liqueurs:

 

Grand Marnier

(c) Grand Marnier

 

Grand Marnier

Like Cointreau, Grand Marnier is a French orange liqueur brand, made by soaking orange peels in spirit,  however Grand Marnier has a darker colour and heavier, richer flavours (it also tends to cost a bit more).

 

Why?

 

Grand Marnier is made from a blend of neutral spirit and Cognac. Cognac is a type of French grape brandy that by law must be aged in Oak barrels for a minimum of two years; during this time the Cognac picks up flavouring and colour from the barrels. Therefore, when the Cognac is used as a base spirit the final finished liqueur is also going to show these added flavours.

 

Flavour

 

Liqueurs are made from a huge variety of raw ingredients which gives us a similarly huge variety of flavours. Common raw ingredients include fruits, herbs, spices, cream, coffee – almost anything you can cook with you can use to make a liqueur, and the flavours tend to be stronger in liqueurs than in spirits.

 

So how do we actually get these flavours into the liqueurs? There are a few methods:

 

  • Maceration/Infusion – soaking the raw ingredient in alcohol or water, which slowly draws the flavours out (this process can take months). You can think of this as similar to how you get flavour from tea.
  • Percolation – similar to brewing coffee and often used when the raw ingredient is a leaf or a herb. The spirit (often heated) is allowed to drip through the raw ingredient, extracting the essence and flavour as it goes.
  • Distillation – the same method as flavouring distilled spirits, the raw ingredients are placed in the still to steep for a couple of hours before the mixture is re-distilled, giving a lighter, softer flavour.

 

Sugar

 

Liqueurs usually have at least 100g sugar per liter of alcohol which gives us that strong, sweet taste that they’re known for (not much luck if you’re ‘Low Carb and Loving It’). Different brands and styles of liqueur will have different amounts of sugar depending on what they intend to be used for.

 

Particularly high sugar liqueurs are sometimes known as Crèmes, such as Crème de menthe or Crème de banane; this is because they have so much sugar added they have reached an almost syrup like consistency and is not referring to the use of dairy. Crème liqueurs tend to be relatively low in alcohol (15-25%) and used only as cocktail ingredients as this level is sugar makes them simply too sweet to drink by themselves (if you’re bored then try drinking a glass of Crème de Banane – you’ll be looking for your toothbrush in no time).

 

Sugar is often added after the spirits have been flavoured in the form of a sugar syrup or simple syrup – a mixture of dissolved sugar and water. This allows all the components to mix together well and the water also  has the other happy side effect of lowering the ABV to the desired level ready for consumption.

 

An example Liqueur

 

We’ve looked at base spirits, flavours and sugar. Let’s recap this by looking at all of these in an example of a common liqueur:

 

Triple Sec

 

Triple Sec is an orange flavoured liqueur which gets its orange flavour from the oils in bitter orange peels. These peels are soaked in neutral spirit so the spirit is giving no distinctive flavour of its own – it is neutral. The high level of alcohol helps draw the oils and flavour from the orange peels, giving us what is basically an orange vodka (although a very strong one at this stage).

 

Once we have this orange vodka we can add plenty of sugar and water (essential a simple syrup, or sugar syrup) to bring it the ABV and flavour that we are looking for; in the case of Triple Sec that would be around 25% abv. Put it in a bottle and it’s ready to be used in your Margarita!

 

So, to brake it down Triple sec would be:

 

Base spirit + Flavouring + Sugar = Liqueur

Neutral Spirit + Bitter Orange Peels + Sugar + Water = Triple Sec

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Liqueurs are pretty easy to make at home –there will be an upcoming lesson showing you just how to do this.

 

Why is all this important?

 

If we want to make great tasting cocktails at home then we need to understand what we are actually making. If we understand the different ingredients and components of a cocktail then it will be easier for us to make them. By now we should have a good foundation of spirits and liqueurs which means that we’ll be able to look more in-depth at the other components of the cocktails themselves – to do this, we’re going to deconstruct the cocktail in an upcoming post.

 

Key Ideas So far

 

Fermentation – chemical conversion of sugar in alcohol and co2 buy yeast, gives us alcohol to around 15%.

Distillation  – Pot and column stills separate the alcohol from other liquids in the mash and increase the ABV.

Spirits – Distilled beverages, abv over 20%, little to no added sugar or colour (whisky, gin etc)

Liqueurs – sweet from added sugar and strong in added flavours, base spirit + flavour + sugar

 

If you have any questions or comments  then feel free to leave them below or contact me.

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// David

 

Woodford Reserve Bourbon

Easy guide to Alcohol pt 1 – fermentation, distillation and spirits

Easy guide to Alcohol – explaining fermentation, distillation and spirits

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.What do you think of when you hear ‘cocktail’? James Bond and his ‘shaken, not stirred’ Martini? Maybe you think of big fruity drinks with small umbrellas, served poolside on a resort holiday? Or (god forbid) Tom Cruise flipping bottles in the famous oh-so 80s movie of the same name?

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The word cocktail has actually been in use for around 300 years and managed to evolve quite significantly during this time; starting off as the name of one type of mixed drink (“a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”, The Balance and Columbian Repository, 1806) it has moved to our more modern use of the word, as a general term that applies to mixed drinks that use distilled alcohol as a main ingredient.

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Alcohol you say?

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Yes, alcohol! If we’re going to look at cocktails and mixed drinks we first need to understand what exactly we mean by alcohol.

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Fermentation

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Let’s start at the beginning. The alcohol we use in mixed drinks is Ethyl Alcohol, or ethanol. (Not Methanol! – really, unless you want to be made blind this not a mistake you want to make, so no sipping the white spirit you find in your garage). We can create alcohol through the process of fermentation, which is the name we give to the chemical conversion of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeast.

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I’ll try to explain this more easily using a simplified example of old-school wine production (as wine making is literally turning grape juice into alcohol).

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To make wine we press grapes to get grape juice, which contain naturally occurring sugars. Once we have this sugary grape juice we can transfer it into a container, such as a barrel, and the bacteria (yeast) that exists naturally will come along and start to interact with the sugars, eventually converting them into ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and co2 (and, most importantly in this case, wine!). So to put it simply:

“Sugar + yeast + time = alcohol + co2”

(Actual modern wine production is obviously much more complicated and scientific than this but that’s not important at the moment)

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Fermentation allows us to make beer (through the process of brewing malted barley), wine, cider (using the sugar in the apples, pears etc), and similar alcoholic beverages up to an ABV (alcohol by volume) of around 15%, before a number of natural factors come along and stop the process. This is all fine and good, but what if we want something a bit stronger? After all, that bottle of gin in your kitchen cabinet is certainly more than 15% right?

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That’s where distillation comes in.

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Distillation

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Distillation is the name of the process that allows us to separate the alcohol we’ve made through fermentation from the rest of the non-alcoholic liquid. This increases the ABV (from say 15% alcohol to something like 45% alcohol), while also changing the taste, flavour and removing the colour. Continuing with the wine example – if we distil fermented grape juice (wine around 10-15% abv) then we end up with Brandy (at around 40% abv). The more we distil, or the closer we get to pure ethanol, or 100% alcohol, the less of the original flavours from the fermentation remain – we end up with what we call neutral spirit, as it is relatively odourless and flavourless.

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How can we do this?

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Water and alcohol have different boiling points. You’ll probably remember from science class that at sea level water has a boiling point of 100°c. Alcohol on the hand has a boiling point of approx 78.4°c. This means that if we were to pour a mixture of water and alcohol into a pan and heat it up, the alcohol would boil and turn to vapour before the water, disappearing from our jug (and from our hearts) and into the sky.

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Luckily for us, over 1000 years ago humans developed basic tools called ‘stills’ which can make use of the different boiling points and collect the alcohol vapours instead of letting them fly off into the heavens.

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The first, and most simple, is the aptly named, Simple Still, or Pot Still.

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Pot Still

A simple diagram of a Pot Still

The pot still has two main components – the boiler and the condenser. In the boiler we place our mash (our fermented alcohol), which we then heat up. Once the liquid inside raises in temperature and reaches the boiling point for alcohol, the alcohol will change from liquid to a vapour and rise up through the swan neck and along the pipe into the condenser. As the condenser is not heated the alcohol will start to lower in temperature and eventually change back into a liquid again, and in the process we’ve now moved the alcohol while leaving (most) of the other liquid behind. There are some other compounds that come along for the ride as well, so distillers will break the liquid into cuts, with the heads and tails being the first and last parts of the distillation that can contain some pretty nasty compounds so need to be discarded. The body, making up around 80% of the total distilate, is what we will actually use.

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In reality one distillation will usually take us to an ABV somewhere around 25-45%, so in many cases we will do this whole process again (a second distillation) giving us a higher ABV again before we decide whether to bottle our alcohol (with some added water of course!) or rest it in vats or barrels.

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Column still

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A pot still is great as it allows us to boost the alcohol while retaining flavour from the original ingredients (remember that as the ABV increases you’re basically getting closer and closer to pure ethanol and losing flavour) but it’s not the most efficient way as its very much a stop/start process. Luckily for us around the time of the industrial revolution in the early 1800s the column still, or continuous still was invented. A column still lets us continue to add the mash while the distillation process is taking place, so the still can operate for far longer periods of time.

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The actual distillation is a little bit more complicated than the pot still but basically how they work is that the still is set up as two large stacks (or columns); one column acts as a still and one as a condenser. The still has a series of bubble plates, basically metal plates with small holes in them. The mash is added from the top and steam is forced in from the bottom. As the mash fights its way down through the holes the steam, moving up, heats the alcohol and seperates it from the mash, which allows us to collect just the alcohol vapors at the top. Through this process we can get really high ABV levels relatively quickly  – up to around 96% (effectively making a odourless, flavourless, neutral spirit).

 

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Spirits

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The pot and column stills have allowed us to take our fermented mash and concentrate the alcohol. The result is that we have made spirits. Spirits is the term we use for distilled alcoholic beverages with an ABV >20%, with very little added other than water, colouring or sometimes a very small amount of sugar. You’ve seen spirits before – regular whiskies, vodkas, rums, brandies are all examples of spirits.

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Spirits can be made in pot stills (where flavour tends to be more important – whiskeys, cognac and similar), column stills (where we want a more neutral flavour, so vodkas, gins etc) or using both pot and column stills as a blend, for a sort of ‘best of both worlds’ approach (getting flavour from the pot still, but bulking it out with the cheaper to produce column distilled alcohol).

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Adding Flavour to spirits

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Once our spirit has been distilled there are still a couple of extra ways we can add flavour.

Oak Barrels

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The most well known method is by storing the alcohol in oak barrels. Originally used as a method of storage and to help with transportation, early distillers noticed that the alcohol they placed in barrels often ended up tasting much better than it had when it was first put in.

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Alcohol that has been stored in a barrel will take some of the colour of the barrel, so depending on how long it’s been stored, will be anywhere from a light, straw yellow to a deep dark brown colour (I should probably also note that many spirits allow colouring to be added to the alcohol so don’t always trust what your eyes tell you!). Along with the colour it can take on flavours; if you’ve tried aged whiskeys, brandies or rums you may notice flavours such as vanilla, or kind of woody, smokey tastes.

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Different brands will age their liquor for different lengths of time, anywhere up to and over 30 years. Because wood is porous a certain amount of alcohol will evaporate over this time, how much really depends on where the barrels are being stored. Humid conditions (say, rum in the Caribbean) will lose more to evaporation per year than whiskey stored in Scotland, with some producers losing up to 10% per year. This lovely process of losing alcohol is known as the angels share, for reasons I’m sure you can work out.

 

I’ll go more in depth about barrel aging and it’s role in specific spirits in later posts.

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Filtration

Another way we can change the taste of our spirits post-distillation is by filtration. Filtering the alcohol through activated carbon or something similar can help to remove contaminants or impurities that may be left over during the distillation process, but it can also remove some of the very precious taste (oh no!) so you tend to find that filtration is usually done on neutral based spirits, things like vodka or gin, where this isn’t so much of a problem.

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Flavoured Spirits

While they may seem like a new trend people have been flavouring spirits almost as long as they have been distilling them. One of the earliest and most common uses of distilled alcohol was as medicine and it was thought that flavouring alcohol with herbs, berries, flowers and similar could have a positive effect on your health (positive for that time, anyway!).

In terms of more modern products, people are often confused at the difference between flavoured spirits, such as Absolut Vanilla or Bacardi Razz, and liqueurs. The easiest way to think if it is the difference in the amount of sugar – flavoured spirits tend to have no (or very little) added sugar, so you’re basically tasting more of the actual spirit while liqueurs are much more heavily… sugared (if that’s a word).

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Also, while liqueurs tend to get their flavouring added to the spirit after distillation, some (but not all) flavoured spirits actually get their flavour during the distillation process, by putting the flavour (whether its raspberry, lemon, whatever) in with the mash during distillation. This gives a softer, and perhaps more subtle flavour than adding in the ingredients post distillation as you would with liqueurs.

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An example of spirits flavoured during distillation are most good dry gins.

Brands like Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire and the like take neutral spirit (so flavourless, odourless alcohol around 95% abv) and place it in a still along with juniper berries (the main flavour with gin) and other ‘botanicals’ (which is a fancy way of saying the ‘other ingredients’ in the gin, herbs and spices if you like).  They then re-distil the neutral spirit and botanicals and the result, known as distilled gin, is the light, floral smell and taste we see in most of the good brands made today.

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It’s important to understand the difference between flavoured spirits and liqueurs when making drinks as you’ll end up with very different drinks if you substitute flavoured spirits for liqueurs, or vice-versa. Experimenting is good; but destroying, not so much!

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And that’s it for spirits! Quite a lot to take in but hopefully it makes some sense; there’ll be a follow up covering liqueurs coming soon so keep an eye out for it (or join the mailing list at the top of the page or like me on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss out).

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Let me know if you have any questions or comments.

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/ David

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