Premium distilled spirits is a $200 billion industry worldwide. Most people have heard of vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, and tequila, but there are hundreds of different types of liquor - thousands if you include every unique liquor brand and variation. And there is almost an infinite number of concoctions you can make with them.
Understanding how each one was invented and became popular within a society can give you a greater appreciation of it. It also can expand your imagination as to its different uses.
This article covers the most popular and distinct types of hard liquor in different countries. It will help you get a better understanding of the history of these beverages and the roles they play in distinct cultures. Keep reading to learn more.
Australia: Coffee Liqueur
Wine is by far the most popular alcoholic beverage in Australia. They also enjoy whiskey and beer Down Under. But, when it comes to hard liquor, coffee liqueur is at the top of the list.
There are many different liquor brands, but Mr. Black's is one of the most popular. In addition to coffee flavoring, it has hints of caramel and cacao. Aussies drink it straight or mix it into cocktails like the espresso martini.
The Chinese love rice wine and whiskey, but baijiu is China's national drink that outsells everything else. Its popularity is nothing new: they have been making for at least 5,000 years.
Baijiu is an alcohol distilled from grains--mostly rice, wheat, corn, or sorghum. What distinguishes most varieties is not its main ingredient but its aroma.
These include sweeter and lighter rice baijiu, or stronger, more aromatic versions. You can also find baijiu infused with soy sauce, for a more herbal flavor.
Baijiu is normally drunk neat. It is becoming a more prevalent ingredient in cocktails though, since it can add a tropical or floral aroma.
Note that "schnaps" is distinct from "schnapps." The latter is a liquor found in American liquor stores that is fruit-flavored grain alcohol designed for mixing. Schaps (one "p") is one of the most popular liquors in Germany, as well as Austria.
Schnaps is a distilled beverage made from various types of fruit. While you can find more herbal varieties, the most common mash comes from apples, apricots, cherries, pears, and plums.
Quality schnaps will retain a fruity aroma but will be clean and clear, like other liquors. Many come in around 20 percent ABV, while others can be closer to 40 percent ABV.
Rum comes from fermented sugarcane juice, syrup, or molasses. While there is earlier proof of fermenting sugarcane for alcohol (as early as 350 BCE India), modern-day rum was first made in the Caribbean in the 17th century.
Rum has a sordid history, as much of it was produced by slaves and became a central trading commodity in American and European slave markets. (Some histories point to its discovery by slaves as a byproduct of the sugarcane refining processes.)
While rum is available all over the world, it remains one of the most popular liqueurs consumed throughout Caribbean nations, including Cuba. Bacardi, the most popular rum brand in the world, was founded there in 1862. Other great distilleries, including Havana Club, followed, and continue to produce unique rums today.
There are two main types of rum: light and dark. Dark rum comes from molasses and usually has very rich flavors, including caramel. Light rums have a milder flavor and are a popular option for cocktails, including Cuban mojitos.
When people think of France and alcoholic beverages, they most likely think of wine. For Francophiles who want something different, yet distinctly French, consider pastis. More than 130 million liters of this liquor are sold in the country every year, which averages about two liters for every adult citizen.
Pastis is an anise-flavored spirit that originated in Marseille and remains particularly popular in the southern part of the country. It emerged to fill the gap when the French government banned another anise-based liquor, absinthe, in 1915.
Pastis can be drunk neat but, like absinthe, it is often diluted with water--the most common way to serve it. You can also add it to cocktails that benefit from a licorice flavor. Ernest Hemingway enjoyed mixing it with Champagne for a drink he called "Death in the Afternoon."
Ouzo is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in Greece and is the country's national drink. The first known production of ouzo was in the 1300s when monks on Mount Athos made a version of it.
The first official ouzo distillery opened in 1856 and popularity was not widespread in the country until the early 1900s. In 2006, the Greek government declared that liquor with the distinction "ouzo" could only be made in Greece.
Due to its anise flavoring, ouzo is very similar to pastis and absinthe. Like those other hard liquors, it is common to add water to ouzo, which turns it a milky color. Ouzo is most often consumed cold and as an aperitif.
Ireland: Irish Whiskey
Irish whiskey is one of the most popular types of whiskey in the world. It is also one of the earliest distilled alcohols in Europe, the first known production taking place in the 12th century. The word "whiskey" itself comes from "fuisce," the modern Irish word for the Gaelic "uisce beatha," which means "water of life."
Irish whiskey is most often made from unmalted barley, although there are some malted versions. Unlike Scotch, peat is rarely used during the malting process, although there are a few exceptions.
Irish whiskey is usually triple-distilled and blended. Although, there are single-malt Irish whiskies available. According to Irish law, all distillers must age whiskeys at least three years.
Irish whiskey is very smooth. For this reason, it is often consumed neat or on the rocks. There are also myriad Irish cocktails made with whiskey.
Italy: Grappa and Sambuca
Grappa is a fragrant Italian liquor distilled from pomace, or the remnants of grapes after winemaking. These include grape seeds, skins, and stems.
Although the distillation process is generally the same, there are many different types of grappa. These include brands made from grapes used to make red and white wines. Grappa ages for various durations to achieve specific flavors and aromas.
Like ouzo and other some other items on this list, true grappa must be produced in a specific area of Italy, and only from Italian grapes. Grappa is almost always served in small glasses and is traditionally consumed as a digestif. However, it is increasingly used as a cocktail ingredient.
Japan: Whisky and Shochu
During the last few decades, Japanese whisky has taken off worldwide. (Note that, while American and Irish versions are typically spelled "whiskey," Scottish, Japanese, and others do not have the "e".)
The Japanese have been making their own version of whisky since the 19th century. Although, the first official distillery (Suntory) did not open until 1923.
Like Scotch, Japanese whiskey uses malted barley and is mashed and twice distilled. It also is most often aged in oak barrels, or sherry or plum wine casks.
The major Japanese whisky producers have distilleries scattered throughout the country. This allows them to leverage different climates for making distinct whiskies, which is also useful for blending.
Due to its smoothness, Japanese whisky is often consumed neat or over ice, which helps open up the flavors. The whisky highball is a popular order in Japanese bars. Fresh-cut ice melts a bit in the glass, then add the whisky and a splash of club soda or ginger ale.
Besides whisky, another alcoholic beverage claims ubiquitous popularity throughout Japan: shochu. This is a liquor usually distilled from some combination of rice, barley, and sweet potatoes.
Shochu is often compared to vodka, but it has a much lower alcohol content (usually around 25 to 30 percent). Also, sometimes foreigners confuse it with saki, although they are very distinct beverages. (Saki is a rice wine that goes through fermentation but is not distilled.)
You can find shochu everywhere in Japan. This includes supermarkets, convenience stores, and even vending machines. Popular drinking options include by itself over ice or mixed with tea, fruit juices, or beer.
Mexicans have been producing tequila, a liquor distilled from fermented agave juice, since the 17th century. However, there is evidence that the ancient Aztecs were fermenting agave juice as far back as the year 250 CE. The Cuervo family started commercial production of tequila in 1758.
The name "tequila" comes from a town in a region where it was originally distilled. There are only five states in Mexico that are legally permitted to produce tequila today.
There are three main types of tequila. "Blanco" is clear and unaged.
"Reposado," which means "rested" is a light golden color. "Anejo" or "aged" tequila is a more vibrant golden color.
Tequila is great over ice, but it is most commonly consumed at room temperature with lime or other fruit. You can also mix it into cocktails.
The margarita is the most famous one worldwide, but there are other popular varieties in Mexico. One is the "cantarito," which is tequila mixed with orange and grapefruit juice. It is then topped with club soda or another sparkling beverage.
Absinthe is often associated with France, due to its extreme popularity there during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is some dispute about the origins of absinthe, but most historians attribute its invention to a French doctor living in Switzerland in 1792.
The first official distillery opened five years later. It was run by a father, son, and son-in-law, with the last name Pernod.
Switzerland was one of the first countries to ban absinthe in the early twentieth century. This has led to the beverage's heightened mystic and persistent popularity through the present.
There are three primary ingredients in absinthe: anise, fennel, and wormwood. Other herbs, including hyssop, lemon balm, and melissa are common additives. Contrary to popular assumptions, it gets its green color from the botanicals it is infused with, and not the wormwood.
Another myth about absinthe is that it can make you hallucinate (this was the reasoning behind many of its bans throughout history). That rumor comes from the fact that wormwood contains the chemical thujone, which can cause convulsions in very large doses. However, the amount needed would be almost impossible to consume through absinthe alone.
There is a traditional method for preparing absinthe. This includes employing the use of a special fountain to drop cold water over sugar cubes into the liquor. Simple sugar mixed with absinthe and water in a glass can achieve a similar effect.
The United States: Bourbon
It is easy to argue that bourbon is one of the most definitive types of hard liquor made and consumed in the United States. It has been produced since the early 1800s in various states and using a diversity of methods.
There are a few things that make bourbon a distinct whiskey. One is that it comes mostly from corn. Its mash can contain barley and other grains, but at least 51 percent must be maize.
Bourbon's popularity derives from the fact that it is, in general, sweeter than many scotches or other whiskeys. This has much to do with the corn content. Bourbons with 70 to 100 percent corn mash will be sweeter than ones with supplemental mash ingredients.
For instance, some bourbons use rye or wheat in larger percentages. This brings unique flavors and aromas. It also can impact the strength of the bourbon.
Bourbon is popular neat or on the rocks. It is also a staple for myriad cocktails, from old fashions to mint juleps and manhattans.
Learn More About the Types of Hard Liquor From Around the World
We hope you found this guide to the most popular types of hard liquor in different countries helpful. If so, be sure to take a look at some of our other blog posts about various cultural and historical aspects of the beverages we consume.
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