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Beer, Wine and Liquor - What's the Difference?

Beer is made by brewing grain (most often barley, but wheat and rice are also used), into what is known as a wort. Yeast then converts the sugars in the brew to alcohol (fermentation). Some light beers can be as low as 3.2% Alcohol By Volume (ABV), while some strong ale can be as high as 12%.

Wine is also made by fermentation, but of grape juice rather than a grain based wort. Grape juice is higher in sugar than the wort used in beer making. More sugar generally translates into more alcohol. Table wine runs from as low as 6% ABV (usually sweet wines, with some residual sugar) up to as high as 17%. More typically, wine ranges from 11% to 15% ABV. Alcohol levels have been getting higher over recent years, and that has become a source of controversy in the wine business.

The next step is fortified wine, like Port or Sherry. These wines have brandy added to increase the alcohol content. They will run from about 16% up to as high as 24% ABV.

Liquor refers to distilled spirits, and includes things like Brandy (Cognac, for example) as well as Vodka, Gin, Scotch, Bourbon, etc. These spirits can be made into a liqueur which can have as little as 20% ABV (i.e. Frangelico, a blend of hazelnut, vanilla and cocoa extracts, alcohol, sugar, and water comes in at 24%ABV). On the other hand, Everclear, grain alcohol, is 95% ABV, and is illegal in several states, including New York. Most liquor starts out at about 65% alcohol (which decreases as it ages in barrel) and is generally diluted to 40% - 50% ABV before bottling. Proof is a substitute for ABV when discussing the alcohol in liquor. Proof is exactly double the ABV. The Macallan, a very popular Single Malt Scotch, is 86 proof, 43% ABV.

Like beer, liquor starts off as wort (of grain or grape), but it is then distilled to increase the alcohol level. Alcohol evaporates more quickly than water at any given temperature, so by heating the wort, the alcohol can be collected. Some water and other compounds are collected as well - those other compounds include the flavor components many distillers are looking for.

Vodka is supposed to be neutral - no flavor components. Gin is vodka flavored with herbs and other botanicals. Makers of brown spirits like Scotch and Bourbon allow more flavor compounds to collect, though the brown color is usually from the barrels used for aging, not from the distillate.

Differences in flavor among brown spirits are primarily from the grain used. Differences in flavor among Vodkas are generally from the water used, with slight differences caused by the type of grain, even though it isn't supposed to. Every Gin has its own recipe (those secret herbs and spices), and as such has a huge variation from one brand to another. Brandy, like Cognac and Armagnac, is made from grapes (the wort is actually wine.) Eau de Vie is made from other fruit, like raspberry (Framboise) or cherry (Kirsch).

Paul Bressler,
67 Wine

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