Let’s talk in detail about drinks that can get us ethanol. Ultimately, they rely on conversion of sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide by yeast. The differences are in the source of sugar, type of yeast, the process, and what’s added.
Images of our collections from our NE trip.
Grapes serve as the source of sugar in wines, although you may see strawberry wine, peach wine, and similar fruits which can also provide the sugars. The yeast is usually killed and then the wine filtered so that the product is stable over time. The different types of wines (merlot, chardonnay, etc.), called varietals, are determined by the variety of grape used in their production. Table wine is used to refer to wine that is blended and not necessarily from a single varietal. Vermouth is a wine fortified with a spirit (like brandy) with various spices and botanicals added. A wine maker is a vintner and a place that makes wine is a winery.
Grains such as barley (typically), wheat, and rye serve as the source of sugars. The carbohydrates in these grains are too complex for the yeast to break down directly, so the grain must first be malted and mashed to produce fermentable sugars. Not all of the sugar is metabolized, leaving the beer sweet. Hops are added as a bittering agent to balance the beer. Beer is either an ale or a lager, depending on the species of yeast used to metabolize the sugar and the temperature at which fermentation occurs. The different types of beer (india pale ale, stout, Oktoberfest, etc.) are produced primarily by altering the type and amount of grain and type and amount of hops. A beer maker is a brewer and a place that makes beer is a brewery. A brewpub is a restaurant which makes their own beer. A beer bar is a bar which focuses on having a large selection of craft beer on draft.
Apples provide the sugar for ciders. It is handled similarly to wine. Most ciders are blended from different types of apples. Cider apples are often ones that cannot be sold directly to the public due to bruising, size, or other defect. A cider maker is a cider maker and a place that makes cider is a cidery.
Honey provides the sugar for mead. Honey wine is sometimes used to describe mead. Many meads have fruit or spices added to them, as the taste of simply fermented honey (called a show mead) is not to the liking of most Americans. Meads that have fruit added are called melomels, meads with spice are called methegline, mead with a grain (like beer) are braggots, mead with cider are cysers, and mead with wine are pyments. A mead maker is a maizer and a place that makes mead is a meadery.
Alcohol drinks containing over ~18% ABV are difficult to attain by simple fermentation. There’s only so many sugars the yeast can metabolize and only so much alcohol they can live in before they shut down. For commercial spirits, the path to a higher ABV is distillation. In distillation, the base alcohol source is heated, vaporizing the alcohol, which is then condensed and collected. This minimizes the contribution of flavour from the base alcohol source. Corn, grains, potatoes, rice, and many other sources of sugars have been used. Ultimately, how the spirit is handled after distillation contributes the majority of flavor. Covering all spirits is beyond the scope of this article, but generally vodka, gin, whiskey, brandy, and rum are the most commonly encountered craft spirits. A spirit maker is a distiller and a place that makes spirits is a distillery.
All of these locations provide opportunities to explore your palate and create new experiences. Different laws throughout the US and the world affect which of these you will encounter on an alcohol tour. Knowing your options will expand your opportunities and improve your enjoyment!