Full bar service covers beer, wine, and liquor, and expert knowledge of all three makes you a better bartender. But there's only one type of alcohol bartenders mix together like mad scientists. That's hard liquor. The base liquors, specifically. That’s why an intimate familiarity with the different types of liquor is at the heart of learning how to become a bartender.
So let’s learn what base liquors are and a little about the six primary types of alcohol bartenders need to know and love.
Types of Liquor: Different Types of Spirits
What Is a Base Liquor?
A base liquor is one of the six primary types of hard liquor. They’re called base liquors because they’re often used as the base for cocktails—or they’re enjoyed straight up. Unlike bitters, for example, which is simply a flavoring agent. Either way, they form the ingredient base for most of modern mixology. They are brandy, rum, gin, whiskey, vodka, and tequila.
The word brandy comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, which translates to “burnt wine.” And that’s basically what brandy is: distilled wine. Brandy can also be made from the mash of any other fruit, and both apple and plum are popular choices. That type of brandy typically has the fruit called out on the label: “apple brandy,” “plum brandy,” etc.
- Flavor profile: fruit, primarily grape, but also apple, plum, pear, nuts, oak
- Aging: oak barrels, 3-20 years
- Styles: Cognac, grappa, American brandy, Spanish brandy, Armagnac, fruit brandy
- Famous distillers: Martell, Courvoisier, Remy Martin
- Alcohol content: typically 40%, can go up to 60%
- Glassware: snifter
- In cocktails: sidecar, brandy old fashioned, Brandy Alexander, Corpse Reviver
Legend has it that rum got its name from a Latin word for sugar, saccharum. That also provides a hint about how it’s made. Rum is made by fermenting and distilling sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice. It became popular in the 18th century as colonialism landed on tropical shores with an abundance of sugarcane. Hence its association with pirates. Rum is known to add a cozy spice to winter cocktails.
- Flavor profile: sweet, toasty, sometimes spicy
- Aging: oak barrels, up to 10 years (the longer its aged, the darker it is)
- Styles: British rum, Spanish rum, English rum
- Famous distillers: Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Havana Club
- Alcohol content: Typically 40%, can go up to 75%
- Glassware: rocks glass, grappa glass, snifter
- In cocktails: rum and coke, daiquiri, Mai Tai, piña colada
Gin is made by first creating a neutral spirit then redistilling it with the addition of a combination of botanicals. That means seeds, berries, spices, roots, and herbs. Juniper berries (an antioxidant used is some aphrodisiac drinks) were the earliest and most popular botanical used to create gin. The English word gin comes from the French word for juniper, genévrier.
- Flavor profile: depends entirely on the botanicals, common flavors include juniper, anise, coriander, fennel, and citrus peel
- Aging: Sometimes oak barrels, up to six months
- Styles: London dry, Genever, New American
- Famous distillers: Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire
- Alcohol content: At least 40%
- Glassware: martini glass, rocks glass, inward-curving stemmed glass
- In cocktails: gin and tonic, Negroni, gimlet, martini, Tom Collins
Whiskey is made from fermented (and sometimes malted) grain mash, typically using barley, corn, rye, or wheat.
The first evidence of whiskey comes down to us from 15th-century Scotland, 1494 to be exact. And our word for whiskey comes from the Scottish Gaelic phrase uisge beatha, or “water of life.”
To this day, Scotland remains one of the epicenters of whiskey heritage in the world, along with Ireland and the United States. Whiskey excels in fall cocktails.
- Flavor profile: Roast, malt, grains, oak
- Aging: typically charred white oak, typically 3-20 years, though some Scotches are aged up to 50 years
- Styles: malt, grain, Scotch, rye, bourbon, Irish
- Famous distillers: Jameson, Maker’s Mark, Johnnie Walker, Macallan
- Alcohol content: typically 40%, up to 68%
- Glassware: rocks glass, Glencairn glass, assorted whiskey tumblers
- In cocktails: whiskey sour, Rob Roy, Manhattan, Sazerac, Jack and Coke
Like gin, vodka is created from a neutral spirit. But that’s where the similarities end. Vodka, unlike other spirits, is designed to be flavorless. The best vodkas are held up as pure, odorless, and with only a slight hint of clean grain. And some of the best spring cocktails rely on vodka to make them that way.
Because we must continue with etymology, the word vodka is a version of the Russian word for water, voda. The added “k” turns it into a diminutive: “little water” or “cute water.”
Since 1970, vodka has become the most-consumed liquor type by volume in the U.S. Better get to know it.
- Flavor profile: very subtle clean, bright grains
- Aging: typically none
- Styles: potato, wheat, rye
- Famous distillers: Smirnoff, Grey Goose, Belvedere, Ketel One
- Alcohol content: typically 40%, up to 95% (be careful)
- Glassware: martini glass, shot glass
- In cocktails: vodka martini, Bloody Mary, screw driver, cosmopolitan, kamikaze
Tequila is a type of mezcal, which is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of the succulent agave. Specifically, tequila is made from the blue agave plant primarily in the region surrounding the Mexican city of Tequila.
Drinking tequila is typically associated with tequila cruda, or taking a shot of tequila with salt and lime. In recent years, there’s been a bit of a tequila renaissance in the U.S. that takes tequila appreciation far beyond shots. Mezcal and tequila bars are popping up left and right. Drinkers and professionals learning how to run a bar alike are paying attention to the subtle differences in processes and terroirs that contribute to tequilas’ diverse flavor profiles. Tequila is especially bewitching when the Paloma, one of the best summer cocktails.
One word of warning, beware the “mixto,” made with only 51% agave and the rest neutral sugarcane spirit. Focus on 100% agave tequilas, and you’re good to go.
- Flavor profile: bright green fruit, earthy tones, oak, spice
- Aging: oak barrels, 2 months to 3+ years
- Styles: blanco, joven, reposado, añejo, extra añejo
- Famous distillers: Patrón, Jose Cuervo, Don Julio, El Jimador
- Alcohol content: typically 40%, up to 55%
- Glassware: shot glass, rocks glass, snifter, Riedel Ouverture tequila glass
- In cocktails: margarita, Tequila Sunrise, paloma
It should be noted that all of these types of hard liquor have about the same shelf life. Learn when liquors go bad and see for yourself.
The Different Types of Spirits & Liquor: Demystified
You now have a better-than-average knowledge of the six different types of liquor that make up the base liquors. They’re all types of distilled spirits and they’re included in all the drinks every bartender should know.
See, that’s why knowledge of the different types of hard liquor is good. It unlocks mixology. So after you get all the most popular cocktails under your belt, check out our cocktail guide or check out some of the best bartending books for more inspiration.