Let's Learn About Liquor!

This guide is to help bartenders and servers better understand the spirits available at the bar of their restaurant. The more knowledgeable one is about the various types of liquor and how they are made, the better they will be able to create cocktails or recommending drinks to guests.

Intro to Liquor

Unlike beer and wine, which only go through the fermentation process, liquor is an alcoholic drink that has been distilled after the fermentation process. It can be enjoyed in many ways: straight or “neat“, over ice or “on the rocks“, or mixed into a cocktail with other ingredients. 

Alcohol is created when yeast eats sugar and excretes ethanol.

Fermentation is the process by which yeast converts sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Distillation is the application of intense heat to separate alcohol from water, creating alcohol vapor, which is then cooled to turn the vapors back into higher-alcohol liquid through condensation.

ABV is an abbreviation for “alcohol by volume.”

Proof is a unit of measure of the content of alcohol in an alcoholic drink. In the United States, the “proof” is the ABV multiplied by 2.  

Example: A vodka that is 80 proof has an ABV of 40%.


Gin is a spirit that is distilled from grain that is flavored with botanicals.  Juniper is where is gets its primary flavor profile from, along with other flavors including coriander, lemon peel, fennel, anise, ginger root, orange peel, and angelica.

  • London dry is a dry, lighter style gin where the juniper and citrus flavors tend to stand out. Can be made anywhere, not just London!
  • Plymouth is a richer, fuller-bodied version of gin compared to London dry. Plymouth gin must be made in Plymouth, England.
  • Old Tom is a style of gin that is sweeter in taste.
  • Genever is a style of gin produced mainly in the Netherlands and Belgium. It has some yellowish color, may be distinctly sweet, in opposition to London Dry, and can be powerful and oily. Because it is mostly made from a malt-based grain, it tends to taste more grainy than herbal or fruity.

Gin-based Classic Cocktails

  • Aviation
  • French 75
  • Gimlet
  • Gin Martini
  • Negroni
  • Tom Collins
  • Vesper


Vodka is an odorless, colorless type of liquor that is distilled from grain like rice or wheat and even sometimes potatoes or fruit. It is also generally tasteless unless it has been flavored.

Vodka-based Classic Cocktails

  • Cosmopolitan
  • Lemon Drop
  • Moscow Mule
  • Vodka Martini


Rum is a spirit made from fermenting and then distilling molasses, sugar cane juice or syrup.

  • White is rum that aged in a neutral oak or stainless steel for a short period of time, resulting in a clear, colorless spirit.
  • Golden is rum that has retained a light golden color due partially from the addition of caramel syrup but also from it being aged in oak casks.
  • Dark is rum that has been aged for a longer period of time and has had more caramel added to the spirit.
  • Spiced or flavored  are rums that have been with spices and flavors including but not limited to coconut, vanilla, banana, and other spices.

Rhum agricole is made from sugar cane juice, not molasses. It is made in the French-speaking Caribbean islands.

Brazilian cachaça is sugarcane spirit distilled from fresh cut cane and bottled without oak aging. 

Rum-based Classic Cocktails

  • Caipirinha 
  • Daiquiri 
  • Dark & Stormy
  • Long Island Iced Tea
  • Mojito

Mezcal & Tequila

Mezcal is a type of liquor made primarily in Oaxaca, Mexico from the agave plant. It has a smoky quality from the slow baking of the agave piña in clay ovens over hot rocks. Tequila is made from the blue agave plant.

The way that it works is: all tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.


  • Blanco or silver is bottled after resting in stainless tanks for up to sixty days.
  • Reposado is rested in any sized wood container for sixty days to a year.
  • Añejo is aged a minimum of one year in oak barrels.
  • Extra Añejo is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.

Tequila-based Classic Cocktails

  • Margarita 
  • Paloma
  • Tequila Sunrise


Whiskey is a liquor that has been distilled from a fermented mash of grains. These grains are generally corn, wheat, malted barely, or rye. The mix of ingredients, aging process, and geographical location determines the type of whiskey, which includes bourbon, rye, and Scotch as well as Canadian, Irish, and Tennessee whiskeys.

  • Bourbon is an American whiskey (it does not have to be made in Kentucky!) made from a mash of at least 51 percent corn and aged for at least two years in new charred oak barrels.
  • Rye is whiskey made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye and aged for two years.
  • Scotch is a Scottish whisky made from a mash of malted barley. It must be distilled below 190 proof and aged for at least three years in oak barrels.
  • Canadian whisky is whisky distilled from a fermented grain mash. It must be made in Canada and aged for at least three years and bottled at 80 proof for higher.
  • Irish whiskey is a whiskey made from a mash made mostly of barley. It must be made in Ireland and aged for at least three years in wooden casks.
  • Tennessee whiskey is a bourbon whiskey made from a mash that of at least 51 percent corn and aged for at least two years in oak barrels. It must be made in the state of Tennessee.

When it is from Canada or the United Kingdom, it is spelled “whisky,” but when it is from Ireland or the United States, it is spelled “whiskey.”

Whiskey-based Classic Cocktails

  • Manhattan 
  • Old Fashioned
  • Rusty Nail
  • Whiskey Sour


Brandy is a distilled spirit made from fermented fruit or fruit juice, oftentimes aged in barrels.

Brandy is not limited to just one type of fruit juice. Cognac and Armagnac are two well known wine-based brandies from France. Another French brandy is Calvados, which is made from apples. Pisco is a wine-based brandy made in Peru and Chile.

Other brandies can be made from fruits like peaches, berries, apricots, and can include more than one type of fruit.

These categories refer to how long the cognac or armagnac has been aged. They include:

  • VS (Very Special): has been aged at least two years in French oak barrels.
  • VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale): has been aged at least four or five years in French oak barrels.
  • XO (Extra Old): has been aged in French oak barrels for at least six years.

Brandy-based Classic Cocktails

  • Sidecar

Liqueurs & Cordials

A liqueur or cordial is sweet alcoholic beverage made from an infusion or flavoring ingredients and a spirit. They typically are lighter in alcoholic content than liquor.

Liqueurs and cordials can encompasses a wide range of characteristics from herbs to fruit to creams to spices and more. They are typically used in cocktails to enhance the flavor of the drink or can be enjoyed even on their own! While there are always new liqueurs and cordial flavors being developed as trends change, this section will include the various types that can be used in a classic cocktail or enjoyed as an apéritif (before dinner beverage) or a digestif (after dinner beverage).


An almond-flavored sweet Italian liqueur.


An Italian herbal liqueur often consumed as an after dinner digestif.


An Italian bitter liqueur made of gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona. Bright orange in color.


Another Italian bitter liqueur infusion with herbs and fruit. Dark red in color. Similar to Aperol but not as sweet.


A French liqueur made from red and black raspberries.


A French herbal liqueur. There is a green version and a milder, sweeter yellow version.


A French orange-flavored triple sec liqueur.

Crème de cassis

A sweet liqueur made from black currants.

Crème de menthe

A sweet, mint-flavored liqueur.

Crème de violette

A violet, floral-flavored liqueur. Is also violet in color.


An Italian bitter liqueur made of plants and herbs, including artichokes.Can be enjoyed as both an apéritif and digestif.


A liqueur made from Scotch whisky, honey, and spices. Golden in color.


An herbal, bitter liqueur made of herbs and spices such as rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and saffron. Can be served as a digestif.


An Italian hazelnut-flavored liqueur. Caramel in color.


A sweet, Italian lemon liqueur. Often served as a digestif.


A coffee liqueur from Mexico made from rum, sugar, and coffee.


A liqueur obtained from the distillation of Marasca cherries.


An Italian anise-flavored liqueur.


An elderflower liqueur.

Triple sec

A strong, sweet orange-flavored liqueur.

Bourbon is a major growth industry in Kentucky, with its own Jim Beam being the top-selling bourbon in the world. Back in 2016 when Jim Beam was building new warehouses to store its barrels to meet this global demand, they were putting the squeeze on production workers to fill them.

Workers were subjected to mandatory overtime with 70-80 hour workweeks and a two-tier pay system that had some workers doing the same job for less money. Just as frustrating, the company did  not want to hire more full-time workers, so there were even more workers doing these jobs for even less pay!

Jim Beam workers went on a weeklong strike. As a result, the company agreed to eliminate the two-tier pay scale, cap temps at 25 percent of the workforce, and hire at least 27 full-time workers.

You can learn more about the Jim Beam Strike here.

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