Top 6 Core Spirits in Cocktails & How They Change the Flavor

The biggest challenge to mixing spirits is balancing sweet, sour, bitter, salty, savory, texture, and presentation. By understanding the distillation process of spirits, we can learn a better way to balance the flavor. Surprisingly the top six are the only six! This is because there are only six core spirits, also known as hard liquor.

Alcohol and Spirits, is there a Difference?

In a word, yes! Spirits have a higher alcohol content and are made via distillation. Distillation involves boiling and condensing the fermented liquid to increase the alcohol content. Okay, we are oversimplifying this, the process is more complicated, but you get the idea. Alcohols have different processes, but our purpose today is to explore core spirits in cocktails and how they change the flavor.

What Are The 6 Core Spirits?

Each core spirit has a distinct taste. Let’s talk about how they differ and what mixes best with these hard liquors.

1. Vodka

Distilled primarily from high-starch plants, vodka typically could be more flavorful. Potatoes are the most common base, although people use rye, corn, grains, grapes, or beets as well. There is no aging process for vodka. Instead, many focus on the texture.

Vodka’s mild flavor makes it the most flexible spirit for any cocktail and mixer. It can be sweet, savory, fruity, spicy, and bubbly. Favorite drink combos include Cosmopolitans, Moscow mules, and Bloody Marys; martinis, shooters, and flavored vodkas, like Deep Eddy, Flavored Cîroc, flavored Svedka, and the list goes on.

2. Tequila

Tequila is made from blue agave, cooked or steamed, and then fermented and distilled. This core spirit tastes sweet and earthy. Some tequilas are aged in barrels/casks, while others are blended. There are five main types. Tequila is a robust spirit with fewer calories, zero sugar, and zero carbohydrates.

Unless you are enjoying premium tequila or taking shots, this is not the spirit to drink straight. The top mixers are lemon or lime seltzers, pineapple juice, orange juice, ginger beer, and bone-dry or semi-sweet white vermouth. Mixers that tend to be tangy or spicy in nature blend with the earthy sweetness of tequila. Pro Tip: If you like a little kick to your Bloody Mary, ditch the vodka and add a jalapeno-infused tequila!

3. Gin

Created from distilled grain and flavored with botanicals, some argue that gin needs to be aged. The botanicals during the distillation process set gin apart from the other spirits. Unflavored gin typically has a dry flavor with hints of juniper (pine), citrus, or even malt wine.

Many gins may taste slightly sweet and can be flavored with various spices or fruits. Great mixers include Sprite, 7-Up, ginger beer, grapefruit, orange juice, and tonic, with the spicy and sometimes subtly citric flavor profiles of many bottles of gin. Classic cocktail favorites include a gin and tonic, a dry martini, and many more.

4. Rum

Rum is distilled from sugar, either molasses or sugar cane. So it comes as no surprise this core spirit is sweeter than the other hard liquors. Generally, you use light rums in cocktails, while golden or dark rums are consumed straight or neat, on the rocks, or for cooking. Rum flavors can be sweet, earthy/oaky, or spiced.

Mixers include ginger ale, ginger beers, pineapple juice, tonics, and colas, which tend to increase the sugary taste, cut the sugary taste, and bring out the other rum flavors.

Many fabulous rums come from the Caribbean and typically are in mixed cocktails like Daiquiris, Dark’ n’ Stormy, and mojitos, to name a few. Great rum recipes will make you feel like you’re at the beach or cruising the Caribbean.

5. Whiskey

Whiskey has many classes and types, brewed by distilling fermented grain mash and/or malted grain such as rye, corn, wheat, or barley and aged in oak barrels. The brewing process and location impact each class with a distinctive flavor. The best-known include:

  • Scotch: rich, smoky flavor, often with hints of peat.
  • Rye: spicy and dry, with notes of citrus.
  • Bourbon: sweeter, with notes of vanilla, caramel, or fruit.

Older whiskeys are extremely expensive. However, some think that the difference in flavor between aged and unaged whiskey is indistinguishable after a certain threshold.

Whiskeys are always a favorite neat, perhaps with infused ice, especially the older whiskeys, but they do have some fan-favorite cocktails for the seasons:

Mixers include colas, sodas, apple cider/juice, or coffee to complement whiskeys’ smoke, spice, or sweetness.

6. Brandy

Brandy is distilled from fermented fruit juice. Often made from wine, it tends to have a fruity taste and may also taste smoky or burnt and, if aged, will have hints of an oak flavor. Common types of brandy include Cognac (Hennessey), Grapa, and Pisco.

Typically, one would drink brandy neat to experience the fruity, smokey flavors. Sweet citrus or sweet mixers tend to make the best mixers (ex: Lemonade, cranberry, cola) and complement the fruitiness and smokiness in brandy bottles. Classic brandy recipes like the Metropolitan, Sidecar, or Between The Sheets are grand.

Pick Up Your Preferred Spirit Today

Whether you’re having a fantastic event, a quiet evening at home, or want to stock your bar. Come and visit Festival Wine & Spirits today to cruise our extensive wine, beer, and spirits selection. Pick up your favorite classic, and try something new. We have a variety of options when it comes to the six core spirits!