by Monica Fortunaso
Christmas is fast approaching and with this comes the awkward end-of-year work functions, the beloved-yet-dreaded family gatherings and . . . well, you name it, the excuses to be merry can go on. Now, the one thing these ‘dos’ have in common is alcohol. This golden ‘moonshine’ has been a part of human’s lives for centuries. However, while we may have the drinking part mastered, there may be many of you out there – such as myself – who have no idea what we’re actually pouring down our thirsty hatch!
Now, if you payed attention in middle school science you would be aware that alcohol is formed by the simple process of ‘fermentation’: the conversion of sugars (carbs) to ethanol and carbon dioxide via a catalyst (yeast). Therefore, all alcoholic beverages- port, whisky, rum, wine, beer… should be the same right? That could not be a more incorrect statement; in fact, there are so many different types of alcohol and processes of production that I’d have to write a thesis to jot them all down! But I can at least enlighten you on some of the basic profiles so you know a little about what it is you are drinking at your upcoming Christmas festivities.
You’ll find that wines are generally classed by colour: red, white, or for the slightly learned out there, Rosѐ. Well done, you are successfully on the road to being fluent in wine-talk! You see, if the skins remain with the juices during fermentation then a red wine will be produced (due to pigment released by the skin). But it is also possible to make a white wine out of red grapes, as long as the skins are removed.
Traditionally, wines were classified by their origin, and this is still the case in Europe. For example, Chianti and Bordeaux reflect regions in Italy and France respectively. In countries outside Europe, wines are more likely to be classified by varietals: that is, the main grape used to make the wine, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz or Merlot. To add to the confusion, if the main grape accounts for less than 80% of the wine, it becomes a blended wine, for example, Chardonnay-Viognier.
Sparkling wines are those that contain carbon dioxide (CO2) that is naturally occurring due to the fermentation process (these are the expensive ones) or has been force-injected later on (such as the well-acquainted Passion Pop).
You may also have heard and perhaps used the terms ‘Dry’ and ‘Sweet’. These describe wine based on the amount of residual sugar present in the wine after fermentation. This is relative to the acidity of the wine which is dependent (mostly) upon the type of grape used. Thus, only certain white grape varieties are usually used to make dessert wines, as they contain a lot more sugar and lower levels of acidity.
Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Vermouth and Muscat are what’s known as ‘fortified wines’. These have a higher sugar and alcohol content via the addition of a spirit such as brandy during fermentation.
This popular little drop is brewed mainly from a mixture of malted barley (‘malted’ meaning to soften the grain and to allow it to germinate, making the grain sugars and enzymes available for brewing), hops, yeast and water. Other sources of fermentable carbs (e.g. maize, wheat and rice) and other natural ingredients can be added to give other flavours and styles.
Although it may seem simple, don’t let it fool you: beer can be just as complex as wine! It is initially classified under two types, depending on the yeast used during the brewing process; ale, which requires warm temperatures and quickly ferments, and larger, which is fermented for longer utilising cold conditions. Brown ales and stout are examples of ales, whereas pilsners and bock are lagers.
The fermentation of apple juice.
The fermentation of pear juice.
Also known as ‘honey wine’. The fermentation of honey and water combined with a grain mash. After the initial fermentation, the mash is strained and flavouring is often added (spices, fruit or hops, the latter giving a bitter, beer-type flavour).
Rice-based fermented drink (but the word ‘sake’ in Japanese actually refers to alcoholic drinks in general - we have simply adapted the word to refer to this particular drink).
A distilled alcohol that has been flavoured with fruit, cream, herbs, spices, flowers or nuts and bottled with added sugar. It is thus sweet and not aged for long (Kahlua, Tia Maria, Crème de Cacao, Jagermeister, etc).
Whisky Distilled from fermented grain mash. Different grains account for the different varieties of whisky (barley, malted barley, rye, wheat, etc). It is typically aged in wooden casks made of charred white oak.
Brandy The distillation of wine. They range from 35-60% alcohol content & are typically taken as an after dinner drink. Expensive brandy is aged in wooden casks whereas the cheap stuff achieves the same brownish hue with caramel colouring. There are 3 main types: 1. Grape brandy (cognac, aramgnac) 2. Fruit brandy, & 3. Pomace brandy, which is the fermentation and distillation of grape skins, seeds and stems (French marc, Italian grappa).
*Editor's note: Nucleus apologises for a printing error in the December issue that led to the description for whisky also being given for brandy. The correct brandy description appears is as above.
Rum The distillation of sugarcane juice or by-products such as molasses which is then aged in oak barrels.
Gin This spirit began in the middle ages as a herbal medicine, and its distinct flavour is derived
Vodka The distillation of anything fermented (sugar, fruit, potatoes). To earn their name, they traditionally should have an alcohol content of at least 40% (but we Aussies are apparently too irresponsible to be trusted with such high alcohol contents!).predominantly from juniper berries.
Tequila Distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant (found in the surrounding areas of the Mexican town of Tequila).