You don’t have to be a sommelier to appreciate a good wine. If you are a little adventurous and creative you can try different grapes and vintages until you begin to note the nose and legs. Similarly, though, you don’t have to be an École du Bar de Montréal connoisseur of liquor to appreciate a good cocktail or even just a straightforward spirit. Of course, it helps to know a little about where the more common spirits come from and how they are made. Having intimate knowledge will improve your fondness for the three most common spirits (in North America).
Sweet and smooth, rum is—not surprisingly—distilled from a byproduct of sugarcane or, as is the case with the Brazilian “Cachaca,” directly from sugar cane juice. All alcohol is clear, of course, when first distilled, but rum can be aged in oak barrels, which distinguishes the “white/light” vs “dark/gold” rum characteristics. Light rum, though, has been “purified” to remove impurities. Gold rum is aged only slightly; dark rum is aged longer. However, the darkest rums are sometimes distilled from molasses. Rum was popular during the seafaring trader (and pirate) days of the 19th century, particularly throughout the Caribbean, where sugar grows abundantly.
Distilled from grain mash, whiskey is a bit more varied than rum: it can be made from almost any grain (ie barley, rye, wheat, even corn). This is what gives various whiskeys their distinct characteristics. Whiskey regulations are very specific—and consistent throughout the world—as the end product must have been distilled from fermented grains and then aged in wooden barrel (you will never find a “white/light” whiskey; they are all brown in color, as a result of aging in barrels). Even with this regulation, though, there are several classifications of whiskey, generally categorized according to the region of the world where it is made.
This is the most pure (“clean”) spirit you can imbibe. Vodka is basically ethanol distilled from a neutral grain. Potato is popular as is corn and wheat. Because of its nearly unnoticeable characteristics, vodka is a popular mixing alcohol (as it will blend with the mixer) though it is commonly served chilled. Vodka, as we know it today, has perhaps the oldest ties to early spirits than any other.