Alcohol comes in dozens of different sizes, shapes, and alcohol by volume content, the basic measurement of how much ethanol is in a given volume of the beverage. This last characteristic is what separates wines and beers from the so-called hard liquors of the world: vodka, whiskey, rum, scotch, and many more.
What Is Hard Liquor?
In practical terms, the term hard liquor refers to an alcoholic beverage that is produced through the distillation (careful boiling and condensation) of grains, fruit, or vegetables that have already been fermented (converting sugars like glucose and fructose into cellular energy, which creates ethanol as a byproduct). The distillation process purifies the liquid and removes water, which has the effect of increasing the proportion of alcohol content. Since the new beverages have a significantly higher percentage of alcohol by volume, they are thought of as being “harder” than undistilled beverages. Beer, wine, cider, and sake go through the fermentation process, but they are not distilled, giving them a relatively low alcohol by volume content of 15 percent of less. A drink like brandy, on the other hand, is produced by the distillation of wine, which gives it a 35 percent alcohol content.
In “The History of Distilling,” Vinepair explains that fermentation can (and does) happen by accident. A wild yeast finds some rotting fruit and ferments the sugars into alcohol (the so-called “drunken monkey” hypothesis to explain how our primate ancestors developed an evolutionary taste for alcohol). For hard liquor, however, the “very specific second step after fermentation” of distillation is required.
The chemical experiments that we now recognize as rudimentary distillation began in antiquity, with some of the most influential scientists and chemists of the ancient world using distillation for religious rituals or medicinal purposes. Even when Muslim alchemists started to specifically distill alcohol in the 9th century, the idea of using the distilled beverage for recreational purposes was not considered. It was only in 1618 that an early travel book talked about drinking “aqua vitae” for pleasure, that the idea of consuming distilled alcohol for reasons outside of religion or health became popular.
Exploration, trade, and colonization spread that idea throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and developments in science helped push the practice of distilling forward. By the early 19th century, distilled alcohol for recreational drinking was in high demand, and the Industrial Revolution ushered in an era of round-the-clock distilling (thanks to advancements like the continuous still, which made for almost constant distillation and lower costs). When the 20th century dawned, the world was ready for large-scale commercial distilling.
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Hard Liquor in America
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a national trade association for producers and marketers of distilled spirits sold in America, writes that hard liquor played an integral role in the earliest days of the American colonies and republic; whiskey-making was not only one of the first cottage industries in young America, it helped George Washington corral federal troops in the fight against the British Empire. As settlers moved westward, they took whiskey with them. Whiskey has been a part of some of the most influential moments in American history, according to the council: from funding the Civil War, to ending Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency because of a tax diversion scandal; from spurring the movements that led to Prohibition, to “playing a part in every major war this nation has seen.” Wherever America has gone, says the Distilled Spirits Council, American whiskey has followed.
As the United States moved into the 21st century, whiskey has not been far behind. “Americans really like their whiskey,” according to Bustle; in 2015, the website noted that a survey conducted by Business Insider and a social media app found that the residents of 42 states preferred whiskey to any other kind of hard liquor (the most popular brand is Jack Daniels). A much smaller number of Americans opt for vodka (the preferred liquor in Virginia), rum (the choice in Wisconsin), or tequila over whiskey, and gin failed to make the list at all.
A Spirit of the World
Whiskey is also the national drink of Ireland, but the BBC points out that the liquor is “truly a spirit of the world.” It is served and enjoyed everywhere from Japan to South America, with each country infusing its own variations, culture, heritage, and history on the drink, to the point that most drinkers and even some connoisseurs lose sight of the differences between whiskey and similar drinks, like bourbon and scotch. Whiskey, explains the BBC, is the umbrella category of spirits that also houses scotch and bourbon, both of which get their names from places strongly associated with their origins (Scotland for scotch, Bourbon County in Kentucky for bourbon).
The term whiskey, on the other hand, can be used to refer to Irish whiskey, Japanese whiskey, Canadian whiskey, or American whiskey, of which scotch and bourbon are the main types of the liquor. The word’s origins trace back to the Gaelic language of Ireland, where it was called uisge beatha (meaning “water of life,” so popular and important was it to the monks who distilled it), and eventually simply uisge.
Ireland and Scotland both take credit for originating whiskey, but neither country has offered definitive proof to settle the debate. What is known for sure is that alchemical work done by Arab scientists in 800 AD was translated by doctors and scientists in both Ireland and Scotland, using distillation to create medicines for both anesthesia and antibiotics.
There are many different types of whiskeys, but they all share the same basic formula for production:
- Crushing grains (wheat, corn, barley, rye, etc.) to create the grist
- Adding water for the mash
- Boiling the mixture and letting it cool
- Adding yeast, which jumpstarts the fermentation process (eating the sugars and leaving ethanol as the byproduct)
- Draining the resulting liquid (beer)
- Using a still to distill the beer
- Aging the whiskey in wooden barrels
For scotch, distillers use water and malted barley (barley that has been steeped in water to start germination), distilled to under 94.8 percent alcohol, then aged for at least three years in oak barrels that hold a maximum of 700 liters, and bottled at over 40 percent alcohol. The only additives allowed are water and caramel coloring. If this process is followed to the letter and carried out in Scotland, only then can the final product be called “scotch.”
Single malt scotch comes from malted barley in a single distillery; single grain, on the other hand, is made from malted barley and other grains in one distillery. Blended scotch is, as the name describes, a mix of whiskeys from multiple distilleries.
Across the Irish Sea, the whiskey produced in Ireland has to be distilled to under 94.8 percent alcohol and then aged for at least three years in wooden barrels. Similarly to scotch, this kind of whiskey can only be called Irish whiskey if the process is followed to the letter and carried out in Ireland itself.
When it comes to bourbon, distillers use a mash that is at least 51 percent corn, distilled to 80 percent alcohol, and then combined with water to bring the alcohol content down to 62.5 percent. It is then put into an unused charred oak barrel, aged in that barrel, and bottled at nothing under 40 percent alcohol. The United States lays claim to this method as being the only lawful way to produce bourbon. In 1964, an Act of Congress recognized bourbon as “a distinctive product of the USA.”
Tennessee whiskey is a bourbon that comes from Tennessee, filtered through sugar-maple charcoal. It is an example of other styles of American whiskey, which use rye, corn, barley, and various grains.
The National Drink of the Russian Empire
While whiskey and bourbon have a decidedly American stamp on them, vodka is proudly Eastern European. Russia and Poland both lay claim to coming up with the drink, where voda and woda in their respective languages both mean “water,” referring to the iniquitousness of the liquor. The comparison also extends to what LEAFtv calls “vodka’s barely-there” flavor, which has helped make it the most consumed liquor in the world. The lack of flavor makes it so that vodka can be mixed in almost any cocktail, and many distillers have been inspired to develop flavored varieties of vodka, such as vanilla, pepper, and most kinds of fruits.
As with other national drinks, the origins of vodka have become an issue of pride and contention between Poland and Russia, especially considering the sometimes hostile relations between two countries. Some historians say that the first distillation of vodka took place in 9th century Russia while others point to 8th century Poland.
The Odyssey explains that as with most kinds of distilled alcohol, vodka was originally used for its medicinal purposes, and people across Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus still occasionally use it to treat cold sores, sore throats, and even toothaches.
Historically, vodka proved so popular that some of the most influential leaders in Russian history started taxing the production and sale of the drink as long ago as the 15th century. It was not until the 18th century that Catherine the Great ended the state monopoly on vodka, making it available to peasants and nobility alike. Part of this campaign entailed promoting vodka as Russia’s national drink, leading to vodka becoming almost synonymous with everything Russian ever since.
The Coloradoan explains that vodka is distilled from fermented potatoes or grains like rye or wheat. Fermented grapes are sometimes used; the variety makes vodka “a deceptively simple spirit.” Vodka distilled from grains is technically whiskey – under-aged and heavily filtered whiskey, but it fits the chemical definition of how to make whiskey. But while whiskey is usually filtered through wood, vodka is filtered through charcoal.
Vodka has changed a lot over the years, and for much of its history, the liquor was mostly unknown in the United States. Modern vodka started in the mid-19th century, with Pyotr Smirnov, a Moscow-based vodka distiller. Smirnov became one of the wealthiest men in Russia; his vodka was the official vodka of the Tsar of Russia, Alexander II. But after Smirnov’s death, the Tsar’s assassination and the rise of the Bolsheviks, one of his sons escaped to France and changed the family and business name to Smirnoff. The brand name was bought by an American businessman in 1934 who began distilling vodka in America. The company was sold in 1939 to Heublein Co., but sales lagged to the point where Heublein considered dropping the product entirely. In a last-ditch effort, the company went on a national marketing campaign, capitalizing on the feelings of goodwill at the end of the Second World War as well as the newfound solidarity with the Soviet Union. The product was called “Moscow Mule,” which was vodka and Cock ‘n Bull ginger beer.
Hostility with the Soviet Union could have ended vodka in America overnight, but Smirnoff rebranded the campaign to present the liquor as using only American grain and got an array of American celebrities to keep vodka viable. This not only reestablished vodka in the American consciousness, it propelled the Smirnoff brand into popular culture itself. When Sean Connery (as James Bond) asked for a Smirnoff vodka martini in 1962’s Dr. No, vodka joined whiskey, gin, and brandy as one of the major spirit and liquor categories.
From the 1960s to the 1970s, Smirnoff and vodka were widely placed in movies and marketing, to a point in the late 1970s where Smirnoff became the biggest brand for spirits in the United States. Today, Smirnoff is owned by Diageo, which also owns Guinness, Bailey’s, and Johnnie Walker.
In Russia, of course, vodka’s popularity was never a problem, so much so that Smirnoff struggled to maintain its monopoly over the liquor. Some of the entries into the market were driven by descendants of the original Pyotr Smirnov, claiming that their vodkas are more authentic than the one that escaped to France and then America. After a legal battle that lasted for almost 15 years, the Russian patent agency decided that both the Smirnoff and Smirnov brands of vodka could be legally sold in Russia, a decision that has not sat well with some distillers in Russia, further deepening the debate as to who produces the “original” Russian vodka.
Vodka is a firm part of Eastern Europe’s past, but a younger generation may threaten its place in the future. A trend has risen among contemporary users to reject vodka because of its associations with imperialist or Soviet Russia, especially in countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc. More and more people are choosing to drink brown spirits, to the point where whiskey and gin manufacturers are eyeing expansions into territories once considered vodka monopolies.
Rum’s Colorful History
For all the history of vodka, it is rum that holds the distinction of being one of the oldest distilled spirits still available today and the one with “the most colorful [history] of any alcoholic beverage,” according to The Spruce. It dates back to Christopher Columbus landing in the West Indies in 1493 when the explorer introduced sugarcane to the Caribbean islands. Two centuries later, continues Mental Floss, the sugar farmers in Jamaica and Barbados struggled to deal with “a serious industrial waste problem.” The planters created sugar by crushing sugarcane, boiling the juices, and letting the boiling syrup cure in clay pots. Unfortunately, the refined sugarcane left behind molasses (black treacle), which today has a number of applications but was useless to 17th century sugarcane planters. They resorted to simply dumping the viscous liquid in the ocean but soon realized that by mixing the molasses with the liquid taken off the top of the cane juice during the initial boiling and then fermenting it, they stumbled upon the distillation process for rum.
The rum we know today is still a hard liquor distilled from sugar, either pure cane sugar, a syrup, or even molasses. Regardless of the base element, rum is known for its sweet, toasted flavor. Like whiskey, there are many different styles of rum. Light, gold, dark, flavored, and spice are only some of the most popular, while more specific and less known varieties like cachaca and rhum agricole (the French term for cane juice rum, which was originally distilled in the French Caribbean islands using freshly squeezed sugarcane juice) are available to more discerning connoisseurs.
When it comes to the production of rum, the use of sugarcane separates rum from all other kinds of hard liquors. The idea of using just molasses came from the Colonial Americas, which produces a milder flavor than the rum of today. Regardless of the base, the molasses or sugarcane juice is skimmed, then fermented and distilled. Traditional rum distilleries might still use pot stills, which operate by batch, but most now use continuous stills.
The rum is aged in casks, and the type of cask is a key factor in how the final product is colored. Climate also plays an important part in deciding how long any distilled spirit is aged; for rum, which tends to be produced in tropical climates, the casks can be aged for just three to five years while other styles of rum that are aged in cooler climates can be aged for as much as 10 years. Since old bourbon barrels cannot be reused after aging whiskey, some rum distillers might use them for aging their rum.
Most rum is bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume, which equates to 80 proof, although overproof rums (containing a greater proportion of alcohol than proof spirit) can be as high as 151 proof, or 75 percent ABV. Without adequate dilution, these rums can be quite dangerous, both inside the body and out; they are highly flammable.
Different styles of rum include light rum (aged in stainless steel tanks for a year and then filtered, giving it a light, subtle flavor), gold rum (which has a smooth and rich body, derived from aging the rum in oak casks and the addition of organic compounds or caramel during the distilling process), and dark rum, with their heavy bodies known for having the richest flavors after being aged in charred oak casks. Subcategories of dark rums yield black straps, using the darkest molasses to produce a dark, rich, and thick drink.
Hard Truths about Hard Liquor
When it comes to hard liquors, there is much to enjoy; each spirit is its own world of taste, history, culture, science, and personal experience. But for a lot of people, the line between elegant enjoyment and a crippling drinking problem is very thin; and what can be an enlightening, rewarding hobby quickly becomes a corrupting dependence on alcohol and being drunk, even as health, finances and relationships fall by the wayside.
Treatment and rehabilitation centers have the staff and resources to address every kind and severity of drinking problem. Those with chronic alcoholism can receive inpatient treatment; those who get help early might qualify for outpatient services; and there are combinations of both, specifically designed to address the behavioral and psychological causes and effects of the drinking problem. Clients might receive medication to lower their physical dependence on alcohol and deal with the side effects of weaning off alcohol, as well as counseling and therapy to address the mental health fallout of the addiction.
Once formal treatment has completed, aftercare support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and other sober programs can show clients how they can apply the fundamentals of treatment in everyday, real-life living. This might mean that sampling hard liquor is no longer an option, and other significant readjustments will have to be made, but there are many different ways to enjoy the finer things in life without a glass in hand. Treatment and rehabilitation help individuals find a healthier and productive path to claim as their own.
 “How the Drunken Monkey Hypothesis Explains Our Taste for Liquor.” (December 2016). The Atlantic. Accessed December 28, 2017.
 “The Horrific Spike in Whiskey Prices during the Civil War, in One Chart.” (August 2015). Vox. Accessed December 29, 2017.
 “The Most Popular Hard Liquor in Each State Shows That Americans Really Like Their Whiskey.” (July 2015). Bustle. Accessed December 29, 2017.
 “Vodka Is ‘The Drink of the Past’ in Eastern Europe.” (July 2014). The Spirits Business. Accessed January 4, 2018.