CHOW Tips:  Fine Spirits

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Whether you’re just discovering alcoholic beverages for the first time or already a bit of a connoisseur, CHOW Tips will help you understand the styles and tastes of various spirits and guide you in stocking your bar.  Learn how to taste fine spirits, when to blow on your liquor, how to enjoy absinthe, how to make the perfect martini and more with CHOW Tips.

Choose from 28 quick and easy CHOW Tips that will help you become a connoisseur of fine spirits.

Fine Spirits


An alcoholic beverage is a drink containing ethanol, commonly known as alcohol.  Alcoholic beverages are divided into three general classes beers, wines, and spirits.  They are legally consumed in most countries, and over 100 countries have laws regulating their production, sale, and consumption.  In particular, such laws specify the minimum age at which a person may legally buy or drink them.  Most nations set it at 18 years of age.

Alcoholic beverages have been drunk by people around the world since ancient times.  Alcoholic beverages are often an important part of social events in these cultures.  Reasons that have been proposed for drinking them include:

Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that has a depressant effect.  A high blood alcohol content is usually considered to be legal drunkenness because it reduces attention and slows reaction speed.  Alcohol can be addictive, and the state of addiction to alcohol is known as alcoholism.

Some religions forbid, discourage, or restrict the drinking of alcoholic beverages for various reasons.  These include Islam, Jainism, the Bahá'í Faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Church of Christ, Scientist, the United Pentecostal Church International, Theravada, most Mahayana schools of Buddhism, some Protestant denominations of Christianity, some sects of Taoism (Five Precepts (Taoism) and Ten Precepts (Taoism)), and some sects of Hinduism.

Many Christian denominations use wine in the Eucharist or Communion and permit alcohol in moderation.  Other denominations use unfermented grape juice in Communion and either abstain from alcohol by choice or prohibit it outright.  Judaism uses wine on Shabbat for Kiddush as well as in the Passover ceremony, Purim, and other religious ceremonies.  The drinking of alcohol is allowed.  Some Jewish texts, e.g.  the Talmud, encourage moderate drinking on holidays (such as Purim) in order to make the occasion more joyous.

The term spirit refers to a distilled beverage that contains no added sugar and has at least 20% alcohol by volume (ABV).  Popular spirits include brandy, fruit brandy (also known as eau-de-vie or schnapps), gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and whisky.

Distilled beverages that are bottled with added sugar and added flavorings, such as Grand Marnier, Frangelico, and American schnapps, are liqueurs.  In common usage, the distinction between spirits and liqueurs is widely unknown or ignored; consequently all alcoholic beverages other than beer and wine are generally referred to as spirits.

Beer and wine, which are not distilled beverages, are limited to a maximum alcohol content of about 20% ABV, as most yeasts cannot reproduce when the concentration of alcohol is above this level; consequently, fermentation ceases at that point.

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Alcohol Content of Beverages

The concentration of alcohol in a beverage is usually stated as the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) or as proof.  In the United States, proof is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume at 60 degrees Fahrenheit (e.g. 80 proof = 40% ABV). 

Ordinary distillation cannot produce alcohol of more than 95.6% ABV (191.2 proof) because at that point alcohol is an azeotrope with water.  A spirit which contains a very high level of alcohol and does not contain any added flavoring is commonly called a neutral spirit.  Generally, any distilled alcoholic beverage of 170 proof or higher is considered to be a neutral spirit.

Most yeasts cannot reproduce when the concentration of alcohol is higher than about 18%, so that is the practical limit for the strength of fermented beverages such as wine, beer, and sake.  Strains of yeast have been developed that can reproduce in solutions of up to 25% ABV.


Alcohol is a moderately good solvent for many fatty substances and essential oils.  This attribute facilitates the use of flavoring and coloring compounds in alcoholic beverages, especially distilled beverages.  Flavors may be naturally present in the beverage’s base material.  Beer and wine may be flavored before fermentation.  Spirits may be flavored before, during, or after distillation.

Sometimes flavor is obtained by allowing the beverage to stand for months or years in oak barrels, usually American or French oak.  A few brands of spirits have fruit or herbs inserted into the bottle at the time of bottling.

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Types of Spirits

A distilled beverage, liquor, or spirit is an unsweetened alcoholic beverage containing ethanol that is produced by distilling (i.e., concentrating by distillation) ethanol produced by means of fermenting grain, fruit, or vegetables.  Spirits have have an alcohol content of at least 20% ABV.  This excludes undistilled fermented beverages such as beer, wine, and hard cider.

The term hard liquor is used in North America to distinguish distilled beverages from undistilled ones (implicitly weaker).

The names of some alcoholic beverages are determined by their base material.  Below is a list of some of the more popular spirits.


Gin is a similar distillate but it is flavored by juniper berries and sometimes by other herbs as well.  The minimum bottled alcoholic strength for gin is 37.5% ABV in the E.U., 40% ABV in the U.S.  There are several distinct styles of gin, with the most common style today being London dry gin.


Vodka is one of the world's most popular liquors.  It is distilled from fermented grain or from potatoes.  Because it is highly distilled, it contain less of the flavor of its base material.  Today, the standard Polish, Russian and Lithuanian vodkas are 40% abv (80 proof).


Rum is a distilled from sugarcane by-products such as molasses, or, directly from sugarcane juice.  The distillate, a clear liquid, is then usually aged in oak barrels.  The majority of the world's rum production occurs in Caribbean and Latin America.  The alcohol content varies by the country and region.  Light rums are commonly used in cocktails, whereas "golden" and "dark" rums are typically consumed individually (i.e., "straight"), or for cooking.  Rum may also be used in a number of cooked dishes.  It may be used as a flavoring agent in items such as rum balls or rum cakes.  Rum is commonly used to macerate fruit used in fruitcakes. 



Whiskey (or whisky) is made from grain or a blend of several grains.  The type of whiskey (Scotch, Rye, Bourbon, Corn, or Tennessee) is determined by the primary grain, alcoholic content, and quality.  Most whiskies are sold at or near an alcoholic strength of 40% ABV.


Brandy (from brandywine), is a spirit produced by distilling wine.  Brandy generally contains 35%–60% alcohol by volume and is typically taken as an after-dinner drink.  Some brandies are aged in wooden casks, while some are simply coloured with caramel colouring to imitate the effect of such aging (and some brandies are produced using a combination of both aging and colouring).  Brandy may be served neat or on the rocks.  It is added to other beverages to make several popular cocktails, such as the Brandy Alexander, the Sidecar, and the Brandy Sour.


Tequila is a blue agave–based spirit made primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands (Los Altos) of the western Mexican state of Jalisco.  The red volcanic soil in the surrounding region is particularly well suited to the growing of the blue agave.  Mexico has claimed the exclusive international right to the word "tequila", threatening legal actions against manufacturers in other countries.  Tequila is most often made at a 38–40% alcohol content (76–80 proof), but can be produced between 35–55% alcohol content (70–110 proof).


Absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit derived from herbs, including "grande wormwood", together with green anise and sweet fennel.  Absinthe traditionally has a natural green color but can also be colorless.  Absinthe is bottled at a very high proof (45–74% ABV / 90-148 proof) but is normally diluted with water when consumed.  Although absinthe was once vilified and banned, it has not been shown to be any more dangerous than ordinary spirits.  Its psychoactive properties, apart from those of alcohol, have been much exaggerated.  Consequently, absinthe has experienced a revival since the 1990s, when countries in the European Union began to reauthorize its manufacture and sale, with now nearly 200 brands of absinthe were being produced in a dozen countries.


Cachaça is the most popular distilled alcoholic beverage in Brazil.  It is a liquor made from fermented sugarcane.  It is typically between 38% and 54% alcohol by volume.  When it is homemade it can be as strong as the distiller wants.  Up to six grams per liter of sugar may be added.  The major difference between cachaça and rum is that rum is usually made from molasses, a by-product from refineries that boil the cane juice to extract as much sugar crystal as possible, while cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice that is fermented and distilled.  Although 1.3 billion liters of cachaça are produced each year though only 1% of this production is exported (mainly to Germany).  Outside Brazil, cachaça is used almost exclusively as an ingredient in tropical drinks, with the caipirinha being the most famous cocktail.

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Serving Terminology:

Neat or Straight

Neat or straight refers to a single, unmixed liquor served at room temperature without being cooled and without any water, ice, or other mixer; it is often served in a rocks glass but may be served in a shot glass or a cocktail glass.  Expensive whiskey and other aged liquor is most often served neat.  A shot of whiskey, tequila, or vodka is typically served neat in a shot glass, often with a chaser.

Straight Up

Straight up refers to an alcoholic drink that is shaken or stirred with ice, strained, and served without ice in a stemmed glass.

On the Rocks

On the rocks is when the liquor is poured over ice cubes.  The ice cubes are the "rocks."   Cheap whisky is usually served on the rocks.


A cocktail is a mixed drink typically made with a distilled beverage (such as gin, vodka, whiskey, tequila, or rum) that is mixed with other ingredients.  If beer is one of the ingredients, the drink is called a beer cocktail.

Cocktails contain one or more types of liqueur, juice, fruit, sauce, honey, milk or cream, spices, or other flavorings.  Cocktails may vary in their ingredients from bartender to bartender, and from region to region.  Two creations may have the same name but taste very different because of differences in how the drinks are prepared.  (See also List of Cocktails).


Shooter is an alcoholic mixed drink that contains between 25 ml and 100 ml of two or more spirits.  Many shooters also have a non-alcoholic ingredient.  They are generally drunk quickly, rather than being sipped.  Shooters can be shaken, stirred, blended, layered, or simply poured.  Shot glasses or sherry glasses are the usual drinkware in which shooters are served.  They are most commonly served at bars, and some bartenders have their own "signature" shooter.  The names of shooters are quite varied, and some of them incorporate vulgarities for shock value and word-of-mouth advertising.

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Alcohol Expectations

Alcohol expectations are beliefs and attitudes that people have about the effects they will experience when drinking alcoholic beverages.  They are largely beliefs about alcohol's effects on a person’s behaviors, abilities, and emotions.  Some people believe that if alcohol expectations can be changed, then alcohol abuse might be reduced.

The phenomenon of alcohol expectations recognizes that intoxication has real physiological consequences that alter a drinker's perception of space and time, reduce psychomotor skills, and disrupt equilibrium

A single study found, if a society believes that intoxication leads to sexual behavior, rowdy behavior, or aggression, then people tend to act that way when intoxicated.  But if a society believes that intoxication leads to relaxation and tranquil behavior, then it usually leads to those outcomes.  Alcohol expectations vary within a society.  People tend to conform to social expectations, and some societies expect that drinking alcohol will cause disinhibition.  However, in societies in which the people do not expect that alcohol will disinhibit, intoxication seldom leads to disinhibition and bad behavior.

Alcohol expectations can operate in the absence of actual consumption of alcohol.  Research in the United States over a period of decades has shown that men tend to become more sexually aroused when they think they have been drinking alcohol—even when they have not been drinking it.  Women report feeling more sexually aroused when they falsely believe the beverages they have been drinking contained alcohol (although one measure of their physiological arousal shows that they became less aroused).

Men tend to become more aggressive in laboratory studies in which they are drinking only tonic water but believe that it contains alcohol.  They also become less aggressive when they believe they are drinking only tonic water, but are actually drinking tonic water that contains alcohol.

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Alcohol Intoxication

Alcohol intoxication (also known as drunkenness or inebriation) is a physiological state that occurs when a person has a high level of ethanol (alcohol) in his/her blood.  Common symptoms of alcohol intoxication include slurred speech, euphoria, impaired balance, loss of muscle coordination (ataxia), flushed face, vomiting, reddened eyes, slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths a minute), pale bluish skin, cold clammy skin, reduced inhibition, confusion, dangerous anger, and erratic behavior.  In severe cases, it can cause seizures (fits), coma or death.

Acute alcohol intoxication results from a very high level of alcohol in the blood.  This term is used by health care providers, often in emergencies.

Ethanol's acute effects are largely due to its nature as a central nervous system depressant, and are dependent on blood alcohol concentrations:

  • 20–99 mg/dL – Impaired coordination and euphoria
  • 100–199 mg/dLAtaxia, poor judgement, labile mood
  • 200–299 mg/dL – Marked ataxia, slurred speech, poor judgement, labile mood, nausea and vomiting
  • 300–399 mg/dLStage 1 anaesthesia, memory lapse, labile mood
  • 400+ mg/dL – Respiratory failure, coma and death

As drinking increases, people become sleepy, or fall into a stupor.  Ultimately, the respiratory system becomes depressed, and the person will stop breathing.  The most important thing for friends who witness someone "passing out" from too much alcohol is to get them emergency medical treatment.  Commonly, comatose patients aspirate their vomit (resulting in vomitus in the lungs, which may cause "drowning" and later pneumonia if survived).  CNS depression and impaired motor co-ordination along with poor judgement increases the likelihood of accidental injury occurring.  It is estimated that about one third of alcohol related deaths are due to accidents (32%), and another 14% are from intentional injury.

In addition to respiratory failure and accidents caused by effects on the central nervous system, alcohol causes significant metabolic derangements.  Hypoglycemia occurs due to ethanol's inhibition of gluconeogenesis, especially in children, and may cause lactic acidosis, ketoacidosis and acute renal failure.  Metabolic acidosis is compounded by respiratory failure.  Patients may also present with hypothermia.

Alcohol is metabolized by a normal liver at that rate of about one ounce (one "highball", a normal beer, a regular sized glass of wine) every 90 minutes.  An "abnormal" liver, one with hepatitis, cirrhosis, gall bladder disease, cancer, and so on, will have a slower rate of metabolism.

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The Hangover

A hangover describes the sum of unpleasant physiological effects following heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages.  The most commonly reported characteristics of a hangover include headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, thirst, elevated body temperature and heart rate, hypersalivation, sweating, sensitivity to light and noise, difficulty concentrating, and lethargy, typically after the intoxicating effect of the alcohol begins to wear off.

While a hangover can be experienced at any time, generally speaking a hangover is experienced the morning after a night of heavy drinking.  In addition to the physical symptoms, a hangover may also induce psychological symptoms including heightened feelings of anxiety, irritability, dysphoria, and depression.

Many people will also be repulsed by the thought, taste or smell of alcohol during a hangover.  The symptoms vary from person to person, and occasion to occasion, usually beginning several hours after drinking.  It is not clear whether hangovers directly affect cognitive abilities.

Hangover symptoms may persist for several days after alcohol was last consumed.  Approximately 25-30% of drinkers may be resistant to hangover symptoms.  Some aspects of a hangover are viewed as symptoms of acute ethanol withdrawal, similar to the longer-duration effects of withdrawal from alcoholism

Hypoglycemia, dehydration, acetaldehyde intoxication, and glutamine rebound are all theorized causes of hangover symptoms.  Ethanol has a dehydrating effect by causing increased urine production (diuresis), which causes headaches, dry mouth, and lethargy.  Dehydration also causes fluids in the brain to be less plentiful.  This can be mitigated by drinking water before, during and after consumption of alcohol.  Alcohol's effect on the stomach lining can account for nausea.

Another contributing factor is the presence of products from the breakdown of ethanol by liver enzymes.  Ethanol is converted to acetaldehyde by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, and then from acetaldehyde to acetic acid by the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase.  Acetaldehyde (ethanal) is between 10 and 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself.

There is currently no empirically proven mechanism for prevention except reducing the amount of ethanol consumed, or for making oneself sober other than waiting for the body to metabolize ingested alcohol, which occurs via oxidation through the liver before alcohol leaves the body.  However, some studies have found large doses of Vitamin B6 (several hundred times the recommended daily intake) can help to reduce hangovers.  Pedialyte may also be an effective remedy for hangovers due to its replacement of lost electrolytes.

Consumption of foods such as eggs, which contain cysteine, and water may be enough to replenish lost moisture and at least rehydrate the body, making a hangover shorter.  A traditional hangover remedy in India is coconut water, the natural electrolytes of which will assist in rehydration of the body.  A bacon sandwich has also been claimed to effectively relieve hangovers.

The belief that consumption of further alcohol after the onset of a hangover will relieve symptoms, based upon the theory that hangover represents a form of withdrawal and that by satiating the body's need for alcohol the symptoms will be relieved.  Certainly the additional alcohol has a sedating and anaesthetic effect.  While the practice is affirmed by tradition and by many hospitality providers, medical opinion holds that the practice merely postpones the symptoms, and courts addiction.  Favored choices include Fernet Branca and Bloody Mary.

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Health Concerns:

Short-term effects of alcohol consumption include intoxication and dehydrationLong-term effects of alcohol include changes in the metabolism of the liver and brain and alcoholism (addiction to alcohol).

Alcohol intoxication affects the brain, causing slurred speech, clumsiness, and delayed reflexes.  Alcohol stimulates insulin production, which speeds up glucose metabolism and can result in low blood sugar, causing irritability and (for diabetics) possible death.  Severe alcohol poisoning can be fatal.

  1. Alcoholism:  Proclivity to alcoholism may be partially genetic.  Persons who have this proclivity may have an atypical biochemical response to alcohol, although this is disputed.  Alcoholism can lead to malnutrition because it can alter digestion and the metabolism of most nutrients.  Severe thiamine deficiency is common in alcoholism due to deficiency of folate, riboflavin, vitamin B6, and selenium; this can lead to Korsakoff's syndromeAlcoholism is also associated with a type of dementia called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is caused by a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1).  Muscle cramps, nausea, loss of appetite, nerve disorders, and depression are common symptoms of alcoholism.  Osteoporosis and bone fractures may occur due to deficiency of vitamin D.

  2. Heart Disease:  One study found that men who drank moderate amounts of alcohol three or more times a week were up to 35% less likely to have a heart attack than non-drinkers, and men who increased their alcohol consumption by one drink per day over the 12 years of the study had a 22% lower risk of heart attack.  Daily intake of one or two units of alcohol (a half or full standard glass of wine) is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease in men over 40, and in women who have been through menopause.  However, getting drunk one or more times per month put women at a significantly increased risk of heart attack, negating alcohol's potential protective effect.  Increased longevity due to alcohol consumption is almost entirely the result of a reduced rate of coronary heart disease.

  3. Dementia:  Excessive drinking has been linked to dementia; it is estimated that 10% to 24% of dementia cases are caused by alcohol consumption, with women being at greater risk than men.  Alcoholism is associated with a type of dementia called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is caused by a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1).  In people aged 55 or older, daily light-to-moderate drinking (one to three drinks) was associated with a 42% reduction in the probability of developing dementia and a 70% reduction in risk of vascular dementia.  The researchers suggest that this is because alcohol may stimulate the release of acetylcholine in the hippocampus area of the brain.

  4. Cancer:  Alcohol consumption has been linked with seven types of cancer—mouth cancer, pharyngeal cancer, esophageal cancer, laryngeal cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer and liver cancer.  Heavy drinkers are more likely to develop liver cancer due to cirrhosis of the liver.  The risk of developing cancer increases even with consumption of as little as three units of alcohol (one pint of lager or a large glass of wine) a day.  Women who regularly consume low to moderate amounts of alcohol have an increased risk of cancer of the upper digestive tract, rectum, liver, and breast. 

  5. Diabetes:  Daily consumption of a small amount of pure alcohol by older women may slow or prevent the onset of diabetes by lowering the level of blood glucose.  However, the researchers caution that the study used pure alcohol and that alcoholic beverages contain additives, including sugar, which would negate this effect.  People with diabetes should avoid sugary drinks such as dessert wines and liqueurs.

  6. Stroke:  A study found that lifelong abstainers were 2.36 times more likely to suffer a stroke than those who regularly drank a moderate amount of alcohol beverages.  Heavy drinkers were 2.88 times more likely to suffer a stroke than moderate drinkers.

  7. Longevity:  Alcohol consumption by the elderly results in increased longevity, which is almost entirely a result of lowered coronary heart disease.  A British study found that consumption of two units of alcohol (one regular glass of wine) daily by doctors aged 48+ years increased longevity by reducing the risk of death by ischemic heart disease and respiratory disease.  Deaths for which alcohol consumption is known to increase risk accounted for only 5% of the total deaths, but this figure increased among those who drank more than two units of alcohol per day.  In a 2010 long-term study of an older population, the beneficial effects of moderate drinking were confirmed, but abstainers and heavy drinkers showed an increase of about 50% in mortality (even after controlling for confounding factors). 



CHOW Tips:

BEER:  3 ways to chill beer, how to pair beer with food, how to identify off flavors in beer, and more.

WINE:  The best cheap wines, how to properly chill wine, wine tasting, wine paIring, and more.

MEAT & POULTRY:  How to choose fresh meat, how to grill, how to make the perfect hamburger, and more.

SEAFOOD:  22 back-of-the-house secrets from chefs, such as how to buy fresh fish, and how to smoke or grill seafood.

PRODUCE:  Tips that will help you get your daily recommended servings of grains, cereals, fruits, and vegetables.

CHEESE:  How to buy cheese, how to cut and serve cheese, whether or not to freeze cheese, and more.

COFFEE:  Banish bitter coffee from your repertoire. CHOW Tips will help brew a delicious cup every time.

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