Friday, March 25, 2016

Drinking Alcohol 101


I wrote in the introduction to Bourbon, Straight that alcohol is a lot like sex, in that most of what we learn about it growing up comes from informal sources and most of what we think we know is wrong. In both cases the process of separating fact from fiction can be long and arduous.

It is in that spirit that I present the following alcohol basics as a public service.

All alcoholic beverages are either fermented or distilled. Your fermented beverages are beer, wine, and cider. Your distilled beverages are vodka, whiskey, rum, liqueurs, etc.

All alcoholic beverages are a solution of alcohol and water. Distilled beverages are fermented beverages that have been concentrated, they have a higher concentration of alcohol. This is accomplished by separating and removing some of the water from the alcohol and water solution.

The alcohol concentration of any beverage is expressed as the percentage of alcohol by volume (% alc./vol. or ABV). While beers are usually around 5% ABV and wines are about 12%, spirits are mostly around 40%. The exception is liqueurs, which can be as low as 20%. If you want to be the boss of your alcohol consumption (and you should), this is crucial information.

Where does alcohol come from? Yeast! They are living organisms that eat sugar and excrete alcohol. We call that fermentation. Their limitation is that they die if the alcohol concentration gets much above 10 percent. That�s why we need distillation.

Distillation uses heat to separate alcohol from water in the fermented brew. Traditionally, this process was repeated two or three times until the alcohol reached a desirable concentration. Modern stills can do it in one pass.

Beyond that, alcohol is alcohol. The potency of any drink (i. e., its capacity to intoxicate) is just a matter of its alcohol concentration. Intoxication is a matter of how much you drink, how fast you drink it, and the way your particular metabolism processes alcohol. Nothing else matters.

The alcohol concentration is always printed on the label, except on beer in some states.

Obviously, mixing your alcoholic beverage with a non-alcoholic beverage (water, juice, soft drinks, etc.) dilutes it, i.e., it lowers the alcohol concentration of the drink. This is a simple relationship. Add one ounce of water to one ounce of a 50% ABV spirit and the ABV of the drink drops to 25%. Simple!

The type of alcohol in every alcoholic beverage is ethanol. It is all the same, regardless of the type of beverage. Chemically, the alcohol (i.e., ethanol) in tequila is exactly the same as the alcohol in white wine. When people think different types of alcohol affect them differently, that is called 'imagination.'

Among distilled spirits, there are straight spirits and flavored spirits. Among the straight spirits you have two categories: Clear or 'white' (vodka, gin, white rum, white tequila, etc.) and aged or 'brown' (whiskey, brandy, anejo rum, anejo tequila, etc.).

White spirits have little or no flavor on their own and so are usually flavored or mixed with something. The most popular mixers are fruit juices and soft drinks. Some drink recipes call for a mixer, a straight spirit and a liqueur. Others mix several liqueurs together. The combinations are endless. Brown spirits typically have a complex and distinctive flavor of their own and are consumed with nothing added (�neat�), or with only ice (�on the rocks�), water, or the simplest mixers (e.g., club soda).

Neutral spirits are distilled spirits that leave the still at more than 95% ABV. Any fermented beverage can be used to make neutral spirits. �Vodka� is what we call a neutral spirit sold as a beverage. After distillation, filtration (usually through charcoal) is often used to remove any residual taste, color, or aroma. Then the alcohol is diluted with water to 40% ABV. Whether the vodka costs $10 a bottle or $1,000, that's all it is.

Neutral spirits, usually made from grain, are the basis for many other beverages. Gin is a flavored neutral spirit in which juniper berries are the principal flavor. Akavit is a flavored neutral spirit in which caraway seeds are the principal flavor. Both are, essentially, flavored vodkas of which there are many.

Liqueurs (e.g., Kahlua, Baileys, Jagermeister, Cointreau, Gran Marnier, amaretto, schnapps) are like mixed drinks in a bottle. They combine neutral spirits with flavorings and, usually, lots of sugar. They come in a wide variety of flavors and alcohol concentrations.

Some final words about potency: A mixed drink with a little liquor and a lot of mixer will have an alcohol content about the same as a typical drink of beer or wine. However, straight spirits served without mixers have a much higher alcohol concentration and should be savored, i. e., sipped slowly, possibly accompanied by a chaser (i.e., water, sparkling water, beer, or some other no- or low-alcohol beverage).

There is a difference between drinking and dosing.

So what should YOU drink? In bars, especially those frequented by young adults, there usually are all kinds of fad drinks. They come and go. They are fun while they are happening but quickly forgotten. My personal bias is for that pinnacle of the beverage alcohol art, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. If it seems too strong straight, dilute it with water or ice. Adjust to taste. Practice makes perfect. By learning to appreciate bourbon at the beginning of your drinking career you will save time and never feel the shame of catching a glimpse of yourself in a bar mirror with a big, pink drink in your hand.

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