A saucy guide to the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems
The Switzerland of spirits, vodka is a neutral alcohol, meaning its relative lack of flavour allows it to be easily masked in cocktails. At the risk of reinforcing gender norms, “girly” drinks are usually made with vodka for this reason. Add a little cranberry or barlime to it, and you likely won’t even taste the hooch.
Of course, in the countries where vodka originated, like Russia and Poland, they drink the stuff chilled and neat. The unforgiving climate in such places has made the people tougher than us pampered Westerners, for sure. That same climate also helped produce the spirit, by process of elimination—grapes are nigh-impossible to grow in much of the so-called “vodka belt,” so wine is out. Same with sugar cane and agave, so rum and tequila aren’t happening. In fact, grain is practically the only thing that Russians can easily grow, so it’s what they make their booze with.
The fact that we have more native options isn’t stopping us from drinking vodka by the gallon. Around 35 years ago, the spirit surpassed bourbon as the most-consumed liquor in the United States, and never looked back. Besides its unobtrusive nature in cocktails, it probably owes much of its success to the folksy wisdom that it’s easier on you the next morning. Both my admittedly anecdotal experience and clinical studies reinforce this barroom secret: researchers from Brown University recently discovered that vodka has fewer molecules known as “cogeners” than whisky, and that “the volunteers who drank whisky reported far more hangover symptoms... compared with those who drank vodka,” as the BBC wrote.
All that being said, vodka is also the most boring liquor. The high-end stuff is usually just more tasteless, so you will never impress a connoisseur by ordering Grey Goose. You can’t order a more sensible cocktail than the vodka soda, but it’s the Capricorn of drinks: prudent and mundane. And who wants a Friday night like that? Other kinds of booze have more interesting flavours and histories, as you’ll soon see. Go ahead, write off tomorrow morning already.
"Now that I got me some Seagram’s gin / Everybody got they cups, but they ain’t chipped in / Now this type of shit, happens all the time / You got to get yours but fool I gotta get mine"
Most gin is essentially vodka with a crucial final step added in the production process. Neutral spirit is re-distilled through a variety of organic “botanicals,” which can vary significantly between brands but nearly always include a healthy amount of juniper. Bombay Sapphire, named after Britain’s colonial adventures in India, is flavoured with “cassia bark from Indo-China” and “cubeb berries from Java,” among many other foreign and exotic ingredients, as the bottle proudly proclaims. You can really taste the imperialism! Conversely, Hendrick’s Gin is dolled up with a heady dose of rose petals and cucumbers, giving it a floral sweetness. It’s like the sonnet of gins.
But not all gins are as refined and delicate as those two. Prohibition paved the way for the infamous “bathtub gin,” which simultaneously helped get America to break its allegiance to whisky and spurred incredible innovation in cocktails.
When the Eighteenth Amendment outlawed selling and producing alcohol in 1920—quelle surprise!—the country didn’t stop drinking. Instead, people set about making booze at home. Traditional whisky production required lengthy aging in barrels, which took too long and was difficult to hide from the narcs. So entrepreneurs flavoured low-grade grain alcohol with whatever was handy, and juniper juice became a common choice. The resulting homemade hooch could blind or kill you if made incorrectly, but even if it didn’t it still tasted like death. Bartenders had to come up with creative concoctions just so speakeasy patrons could choke the noxious liquids down, and a cocktail culture was born.
Today, with the notable exception of teenagers sippin’ on Snoop Dogg’s famous “gin and juice,” the most popular gin drink in the world has to be the gin and tonic. That humble beverage has interesting roots as well, besides “angelica root from Saxony.” British troops in India drank quinine-loaded tonic water to fend off malaria, but in the 18th century tonic apparently tasted horrible. In a complete reversal from the Prohibition experience, they added gin to the drink so they could stomach it. To this day, Westerners love their G&Ts, and also very rarely get malaria. Coincidence? It’s not a risk this reporter is willing to take.
"And there they lay, all good dead men / Like break o’ day in a boozing den / Yo-ho-ho and bottle of rum!"
Although a primitive version of the liquor has been produced since at least the Middle Ages, when Persians would produce alcohol from sugarcane, rum has fairly earned its piratey connotations. Thirsty buccaneers traded the commodity, and the Royal Navy switched the daily stipend of liquor issued to sailors from brandy to rum after Jamaica was captured in 1655.
The term “proof,” by which alcohol’s potency is measured, even derives from this period. To keep sailors sober and the ship afloat, rum would be cut with water before distribution to the boats. But just how watered down was it? It was an important question when you were using it as money. As the story goes, a little unproven rum would be mixed with gun power, and then the tester would attempt to light it with a magnifying glass. If it exploded, it was overproof, and if it failed to light, it was weak sauce, or underproof. If it stayed lit, it was just right. This modern age has standardized things with a two-to-one ratio—40% alcohol content rum is 80 proof, Bacardi 151 (proof) is a blinding 75.5% ABV, and so on.
Just what constitutes “rum” is not so standardized, however. Most everyone agrees it should be a strong sugarcane spirit, but strength, aging requirements, and even ingredients vary between regions. French rums are usually 100% sugarcane juice, while the anglophone islands produce darker rums with sugarcane molasses. In my completely objective opinion, the latter style is far more delicious.
A rum expert once told me that you can substitute the spirit in any cocktail calling for vodka. This has proven true in most of my experimentation, excluding the vodka soda, but your mileage may vary. For a summer drink, shake it with fresh fruit juices, and you can’t go wrong. If you’re more the sipping-while-you-smoke type, try an aged rum like the El Dorado 12 Year (only $34.65 a bottle at the LCBO, and worth every penny).
One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor!
Tequila’s history shares a parallel colonial history with rum. The Aztecs first produced alcohol from agave, asucculent plant pollinated by bats (!) that grows in high altitudes. The Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1521, and when they ran out of brandy they began to distill their own agave liquor.
Nearly five hundred years later, use of the term “tequila” is jealously guarded by Mexico. There, only the state of Jalisco (where the town Santiago de Tequila is located) and selected other regions are allowed by law to produce a spirit with that name.
There are four main subcategories of tequila. They are, in ascending order of quality and price, blanco, a clear spirit usually bottled immediately after distillation; gold, which is a mixture of higher and lower qualities; reposado, which has been aged in oak for at least two months; and añejo, which has seen at least one year inside an oak barrel. Additionally, tequila is either 100% agave, or it’s cut with up to 49% of some other kind of sugar, making it a low-quality “mixto” unworthy of your margarita.
Let’s conclude this segment by clearing up a few misconceptions. When Cypress Hill said “eat the worm, motherfucker!” on their classic “Tequila Sunrise,” they were leading you astray. The “agave worm” is the larval form of a moth that prays on agaves, and in the ‘50s, a savvy producer started including one in the bottle as a marketing gimmick. Not convinced? Thestraightdope. com said it boils down to “let’s see if we can get the gringos to eat worms.” Even more bush league is the shot/salt/lime trio—if the tequila’s any good, it’s the equivalent to pouring ginger ale in your single malt scotch (also like scotch, you shouldn’t be slamming it at all unless it’s rotgut). A Mexican once told me you know you’re in “real Mexico” if they serve your tequila with a sidecar of OJ, tomato juice, grenadine, and hot peppers or Tabasco. Otherwise, you’re in “tourist Mexico.” I thought he was kidding until I looked it up.
Where to begin? “Whisky” is almost too vague a term to be a single category, but we’ll do our best. Unlike most other liquors, whisky is produced the world over, and in substantially different ways. The only constants are using grain and aging the liquor in wooden barrels after distillation, but certain styles of whisky break even those simple rules.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the variations in whisky is that each kind can show off the peculiarities of a country or region. Scotch whisky is a great example of this—most scotches taste of peat because that’s what was historically used to heat the pot stills, after the destruction of Scotland’s old-growth forests made wood fuel prohibitively expensive. Single malt scotches are so valued because unlike blends, they come from a single production run at a single distillery, and connoisseurs can taste regional differences from a scotch made in, say, Islay instead of the Highlands. Whisky from the Scotland’s Lowlands, however, usually don’t have a peat-y component—industrialization shifted them over to coke for fuel way back when, and now whisky from there is primarily used in blended scotches. To make matters worse, Robbie Burns slammed Lowland scotch, deriding it as a “most rascally liquor; and by consequence, only drunk by the most rascally part of the inhabitants.”
A few other regions with interesting whisky idiosyncrasies include the US, where bourbon is made from at least 51% corn mash and must be aged in new barrels, perhaps because America is #1. Irish whiskey (note the “e”) drinkers famously argue about “Catholic” Jameson versus “Protestant” Bushmills, but can all agree both are better than enduring scotch. And in Canada, our “rye whisky” need not actually contain any rye, though the Food and Drugs Act does stipulate our hooch must “possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.” In other words, it must like the cold, the Queen, and hating on Toronto.
Simply put, drink whisky and tour the world from the comfort of a bar stool. They used to call it a “poor man’s vacation,” you know. While you pack your bags, I’ll leave you with my favourite recipe for a whisky sour: 1 ½ oz. of whisky (I prefer the bourbon Wild Turkey, AKA “the dirty bird,” but most any will do) to 1 oz. of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Add ½ oz. of simple syrup or agave nectar if you want to really up the ante, and shake with lots of ice. Drink, repeat, and make bad decisions. Stick to beer next time.
Joe Howell is the senior bartender at The Spoke Club.