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Spirits & Cocktails Glossary

Spirits & Cocktails Glossary

Learn the lingo of spirits and cocktails.

ABV: Alcohol by Volume – measure of how much alcohol is in an alcoholic beverage.

Angel's share: The name given to the alcohol that evaporates from a cask as the whisky is maturing in a warehouse.

Aperitif: A drink (usually dry rather than sweet) served before a meal intended to stimulate the appetite.

Back: A non-alcoholic drink (commonly a soft drink or water), drunk alongside neat spirits or a shot.

Barrel or Cask-Ageing: Ageing the product of distillation in a wooden (often oak) barrel or cask that may or may not have been previously used to age another spirit and may or may not have been charred to blacken the inside. Ageing mellows some of the harshness of the spirit while also infusing it with both colour and character from the wood itself.

Barrel Proof/Cask Strength: Terms found on the label of a whiskey bottle that indicate the spirit was not diluted once it was removed from the barrel or cask, meaning it is much higher proof than the spirit traditionally.

Blended whisky: Whisky made by blending together any number of single malt whiskies and grain whiskies to create the required flavour and characteristics. These whiskies can be from different distilleries and be of different ages.

Cask: The wooden barrel used to mature the spirit. These are traditionally made from oak. The most used types of oak are American, European or Japanese.

Cask strength/Barrel Proof: Terms found on the label of a whiskey bottle that indicate the spirit was not diluted once it was removed from the barrel or cask, meaning it is much higher proof than the spirit traditionally.

Charring: The process of burning the inside of a cask. This blackens the inside of the cask, accelerating the natural compounds in the wood to come out once the cask is filled with spirit. The level of charring can be controlled so as to control the amount of flavour compounds that pass from the wood to the whisky during maturation.

Chaser: A drink that is used to help wash down the shot. It is usually a beer or a non-alcoholic drink.

Chill filtration: The process by which natural substances that make whisky go cloudy when cold or diluted with water are removed before bottling. The whisky is chilled, the natural substances coagulate and are then removed by being passed through a series of metal meshes.

Column Distilling: Distilling using a column-based system into which the wash is continuously pumped into the column, where rising steam strips away the ethanol. Results in a purer, less flavoured, higher ABV spirit.

Column still: A large industrial still that allows for continuous, mechanised distillation. Column stills are mostly used in the production of grain whisky. Also called a Coffey still, a continuous still or a patent still.

Condensation: The process whereby the alcohol vapours turn into the liquid spirit, with the help of cooling apparatus that form part of the still.

Congeners: More or less desirable flavouring compounds that evaporate with the ethanol as part of the distilling process. Found in greater quantity in darker spirits.

Cooper: A highly skilled person who makes the casks for whisky maturation by perfectly locking staves of wood together to make a watertight container.

Dirty: A drink prepared with the addition of some olive brine that “dirties” the clear spirit, lending a bit of salt and acidic tang to the finished product. The term is mostly used with reference to martinis, but any clear spirit (vodka, gin, white rum or tequila) can be ordered dirty.

Digestif (or digestive): A drink consumed after a meal to aid digestion. Classic digestifs include brandies, whiskies, fortified wines and liqueurs.

Distillation: The process of separating the elements of a liquid (for example ethanol from water) using evaporation and condensation.

Dram: The traditional Scottish name for a glass of whisky.

Drum malting: This modern method is used to produce malted barley in most malting facilities. The barley is put in to a large drum and soaked with water. It is then turned consistently for a number of days until the barley starts to germinate and becomes 'malt'.

Dry: The absence of sugar or sweetness in a beverage. Often used in connection with the Martini, in which case it means less Vermouth is added so that the final drink is less sweet. Can also be used as a way to order a drink with less of any sugary additive.

Fermentation: The process of turning sugar into alcohol.

Finger: A term not often used these days, it just means the amount of liquid to pour up to the level of fingers when they’re laced around a glass, for example one finger, two fingers, a fist.

Finish: The aftertaste that lingers after an alcohol beverage is swallowed.

Free Pour: Adding alcohol to a drink without measuring.

Grist: Malted barley that has been ground up into a powder, so that it can be added to water to become mash and the natural sugars present will dissolve.

Infusion: The process of infusing a finished spirit with an added flavour, usually by putting the desired ingredient (fruit, vegetable, spice) directly into the spirit and letting it steep for a specific period of time.

Kiln: The large room where malted barley is heated to stop the germination process and to remove moisture so that the barley is ready for milling. Traditionally, these were fired by peat but now most are powered by coal or oil. A number of the island distilleries still use peat to give their traditional smoky flavour characteristics.

Lyne arm: The part of the still where the spirit vapours are transported to be condensed back in to a liquid. This arm is normally horizontal or close to horizontal, although some distilleries have odd shapes or steeper angles for the arm and this allows some liquid spirit to travel back down into the still to be redistilled.

Mashing: The procedure where grist is added to warm water and the natural sugars are dissolved to form a sugary solution. This takes place in a large tank called a mash tun. The solution is then called wort and is passed to a washback tank for fermentation to take place.

Mash tun: A large tank or vessel that is made from cast iron, stainless steel or wood, where the mashing process takes place. The mash tun is filled with a mixture of grist and warm water and the soluble sugars in the grist dissolve to form a sugary solution. This is then passed through the perforated floor of the mash tun to go to the washback tank to undergo fermentation.

Master blender: The person working for a company or distillery who selects and then mixes whiskies of different ages or origins together to form the required final flavour profile of the whisky.

Maturation: The time taken for the spirit to gain the optimum amount of character from the wooden cask in which it is being stored. The spirit draws natural oils and substances from the wood over time and, as wood is a porous material, the cask also pulls in air from the surrounding environment.

Milling: The process where the dried malted grains are ground down into grist.

Mixers: Juices, soft drinks and other non-alcoholic liquids mixed with spirits.

Neat: The way to order a spirit “as is”, that is with no ice, no mixers, no chilling – a simple pour of the spirit into the glass.

On the rocks: The way to order a spirit poured over ice cubes.

Pot Distilling: Using a pot still to distil the wash one batch at a time, with the alcohol evaporated into a lyne arm and condensed back into liquid.

Pot still: The apparatus used to distil spirits. Traditionally made of copper they consist of a pot (where the wash is heated), a swan neck (where the vapours rise and reflux), a lyne arm (that transfers the vapour to the condenser) and a condenser (that cools the vapour to yield distillate).

PPM: Parts Per Million – the scientific measurement for showing the amount of phenols present in a whisky, that have been absorbed from the burning of peat.

Proof: A measure of how much alcohol (ethanol) is contained in an alcoholic beverage. Alcoholic proof is defined as being twice the ABV percentage, eg a 40% ABV whiskey would be 80 proof.

Purifier: A device connected to the lyne arm that condenses heavier alcohol vapours that are not useful in the whisky making process. It leads the liquids back down to the base, where they undergo further distillation.

Quaich: A traditional Scottish whisky drinking cup that consists of a bowl with a short vertical handle on either side. They are associated with friendship and ancient Celtic stories say that if you share a drink from a quaich with someone, then you will be friends for ever.

Reflux: The name given to the re-condensing of alcohol that then runs back into the still and gets re-distilled. The amount of reflux is determined by the shape and size of the still and the angle at which the lyne arm is set.

Shaken v Stirred: Shaken drinks are shaken with ice, resulting in some added aeration and dilution (good for citrusy drinks) while stirred drinks are stirred with ice, with a resulting smoother mouthfeel (good for dark or strong drinks).

Shooter: A mixed drink, spirit plus any other flavourings, served in a shot glass.

Shot: A small pour of a straight spirit.

Single malt: Whisky that is made of 100% malted barley and is from just one single distillery location. They generally contain slightly different ages of whisky from numerous different casks within the distillery’s warehouse. These are then married together in a larger container to establish the required consistent flavour profile. The age stated on the bottle is the youngest age of any whisky included.

Spirit: A distilled alcohol.

Straight Up/Up: A spirit or mixed drink that’s been chilled but served without ice (not to be confused with “neat”).

Twist: Ordering something “with a twist” means a twist of citrus peel will be applied to the drink.

Vatted malt: A whisky that consists two or more single malts that are blended together. Unlike a blended whisky, vatted malts contain no grain whisky and only single malts. These can be from the same or different distilleries and be of differing ages.

Wort: A warm and sugary solution that contains the soluble sugars from the malted barley dissolved in warm water. Wort is the liquid that goes forward to the fermentation process, where the sugars are changed to alcohol.

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