TL;DR The basics of booze, explained.

The great Amy Stewart says in her book The Drunken Botanist:”Every great drink starts with a plant.” As a self-professed botanist myself, I completely agree. Plants serve as one of the two major components needed to create alcohol. And what might those be? Keep reading to find out.

What is alcohol? 

In chemistry, combinations of the letters C, H, and OH create different types of alcohol, ranging from Butyl to Methanol. But there is only one type of alcohol fit for human consumption – ethanol. Or, C2H5OH.

Ethanol is made through fermentation. Simply put, sugar + enzymes = ethanol and carbon dioxide. The sugar comes from plant sources such as corn, barley, wheat, apples, grapes, rice, agave…the list goes on. Yeast or other enzyme are then added. The mixture is placed at the appropriate temperature, wait some time…and BOOM, alcohol.

Major Types of Alcohol:

Wine –

  • Sugar Source: Grapes (Vitis Vinifera to be specific)
  • Taste: fruits, earth, dessert
  • Red wine and white wine can be made from the same grapes.
    • In white wine, grapes are pressed, then the juice fermented. The grape skins has minimal contact with the juice.
    • In red wine, grapes are crushed, fermented, then pressed, allowing for color and tannins to transfer from the skins to the juice/wine.
  • The wine universe is divided two: The Old World (mainly Europe) and The New World (US, South America, Australia, New Zealand, etc)
    • The Old World is known for earthier, low alcohol wines. (Read: Smells like soil and mushrooms)
    • The New World is known for fruit-driven, high alcohol wines. (Read: Smells like in-your-face fruit)
  • Popular Varieties: Red – Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot; White: Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Riesling
  • Generally, red wines pair well with dark meats and heavier dishes, and white wines pair well with lighter dishes.
  • Pairing of the day: California Chardonnay and lobster – the creamy Chardonnay complements the buttery lobster.

Beer –

  • Sugar Source: Barley
  • Tastes: bitter, bread, toasty
  • Barley+Yeast+Hops+Water = Beer
  • Hops, the green female flowers of the hop plant, provide the necessary bitterness to balance out the sugar from the barley
  • 2 Types of beers: Ales and Lagers.
    • Ales are made from top-brewing yeast, and are generally more fruity, flavorful, and robust
    • Lagers are made from bottom-brewing yeast, and are generally crisp, clean, and light.
    • I like both.
  • Pairing of the day: Heineken (pale lager) with spicy Szechuan food – Dan Dan noodles, anyone?

Sake –

  • Sugar Source: Sake Rice
  • Taste: smooth, rice-y, nourishing, soft, fragrant
  • Sake Rice + Koji mold + Water = Sake
  • In the olden days before the discovery of enzymes in Japan, sake was made by having young female virgins chew the rice in order for the amylase in saliva convert starch into fermentable sugar.
    • This type of sake is called kuchikami no sake – which literally means “chewing-in-the-mouth” sake
  • The best grade of sake is called junmai daiginjo – made from 50% milled down sake rice without any extra addition of alcohol into the original fermented rice beverage.
  • Pairing of the day: Light, dry sake with salted grilled fish.

Hard Alcohol:

A quick discourse: The fermentation process only gets us to ~15-20% maximum alcohol content before yeasts or enzymes are killed. To produce hard liquor, we have to thank the distillation process. Since ethanol has a lower boiling point than water, it can be evaporated, collected, and cooled to produce a more concentrated liquor.

  • As this diagram of a Pot Still (still in use today) illustrates, the liquor is placed in the boiler, which is kept at a boiling point higher than that of ethanol (78°C), yet lower than water (100°C).
  • The ethanol travels up the Swan’s neck, and is collected on the right side by the Condenser.

Vodka –

  • Sugar Source: Grains, potato
  • Tastes: Ideally flavorless
  • Due to its flavorless nature, vodka is a popular base liquor for making cocktails
  • Pairing of the day: Vodka and grapefruit juice (Greyhouse) and a savory ham omelette

Gin –


  • Sugar Source: Grains
  • Tastes: Botanicals, Juniper berries
  • Gin is similar to vodka, but is flavored with juniper and botanicals such as coriander, orange peel, lemon peel, cinnamon, and nutmeg
  • The popular drink Gin and Tonic was invented by British soldiers as a more palatable way to consume quinine as part of anti-malaria treatment
  • Pairing of the day: Gin and Tonic and being malaria-free

Tequila –

  • Sugar Source: Agave
  • Tastes: Sweet, fragrant, citrusy
  • Tequila can only be lawfully produces in designated states in Mexico
  • Pairing of the day: Tequila on the rocks with a juicy steak

Whiskey –

  • Sugar Source: Grains
  • Taste: Caramel, smoke, vanilla
  • Example: Seagram’s
  • In Gaelic, the word whiskey actually comes from the phrase “water of life”

Scotch –

  • Scotch = Whiskey + Scotland + peat + minimum 3 years aging
    • Peat is a fossilized organic matter specially found in Scotland that adds a smoky flavor when used as fuel to make whiskey
  • Example: Macallan

Bourbon –

  • Bourbon = Whiskey + United States + >51% corn base
  • Example: Jim Beam
  • Pairing of the day: I could pair all these whiskey drinks on the rocks with a dark chocolate cake. Yum!