Warning: This is meant for educational purposes only. Do not attempt to make alcohol yourself without supervision, and be aware of the laws in your area regarding alcohol creation and consumption.
Plenty of people have heard the joke that, if your drink isn't from the Champagne region of France, it's just sparkling wine. As it turns out, these kinds of distinctions are everywhere when looking at what each kind of alcohol is made from, and what doesn't technically fit the category.
While there are three types of alcohol chemically, only one is (somewhat) safe for human consumption: ethanol. All types of drinkable alcohol are made by creating and strengthening the amount of ethanol in a given solution.
Beverages like beer, wine, and sake are brewed, using yeast to change the natural sugars in their ingredients into ethanol. Distilled alcohol (which includes brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and whiskey) is made by separating ethanol from water and other ingredients to increase its concentration.
While all alcoholic beverages are relatively similar when it comes to the process used to make them, the ingredients can vary drastically. Here is everything you need to know about what ingredients each type of alcohol is made of, and how strong they are.
How high is the alcohol content in each type of alcohol?
The alcohol content in a beverage is quantified by defining each beverage's alcohol by volume (ABV). This measures what percentage of the beverage's total volume is made up of ethanol. According to the Alcohol Rehab Guide, the primary types of alcohol range from approximately 4% ABV to 40%. This does not include highly-concentrated forms of alcohol, like Absinthe or Everclear, which could be almost entirely made up of ethanol.
The following chart breaks down the standard alcohol content of each major type of alcohol:
Typical Alcohol Content (ABV)
Less than 14% ABV
Note: There will always be outliers to this chart. Make sure to check the specific ABV for any beverage you consume.
What is each type of alcohol made of?
According to Nawon Food and Beverage, beer is the world's most-consumed form of alcohol, as well as being the fifth most-consumed drink of any kind. This isn't hard to believe, as beer is relatively cheap to make and buy, as well as having a low enough alcohol content to be consumed on a regular basis.
Beer is typically made using cereal grains, with barley as the most common base. Other grains can be introduced for taste and texture, but barley serves as the predominant ingredient in most beers. That barley will then be fermented using yeast, which determines what kind of beer will be made and how.
Lagers are created by using Saccharomyces pastorianus yeast. Ales, including stouts, porters, and more, use Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast. While fermenting, ales will need to be kept at a higher temperature, and the yeast will rise to the top of the solution. Lager yeast will fall to the bottom. This process helps brewers control the complexity of their product.
The name "Brandy" actually provides clues about how it is made, as it comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, which means "burnt wine." However, that is slightly misleading, as the beverage is not necessarily burnt—just heated.
Traditionally, brandy is created by heating wine, which helps to seperate the water and alcohol. However, the process can technically be done with any fruit or fruit juice product. Once separated, the distiller can determine how strong the drink should be, based on how concentrated the ethanol is.
In the broadest sense, cider is technically produced anytime a beverage is made by crushing fruits, though apple cider is the most common version. Unlike juice, which is filtered and pasteurized, cider often contains more of the original fruit.
To make alcoholic cider, simply add yeast to the crushed pulp, which will convert the fruit's sugars into alcohol. By this standard, cider is very similar to wine, though it generally has a lower alcohol content.
However, the ingredients of hard cider are critical. Per a 2017 law in the United States, hard cider must be made from apples or pears. The United Kingdom mandates that cider must contain 35% apple juice, and France requires at least 50%.
The long and short of it is: cider is made using apples. If you see a 'cider' that is entirely based on another fruit, then it is a fruit wine, not a cider.
Gin is an interesting subsect of alcohol, because while it is primarily made with wheat or barley, it must taste mostly like juniper berries. According to US law 27 CFR § 5.144, gin must be "made by original distillation from mash, or by redistillation of distilled spirits, or by mixing neutral spirits, with or over juniper berries."
Following this law, and similar ones in other countries, gin is literally any distilled alcohol that tastes like juniper berries. This makes it easy to make home version, with BBC Good Food recommending simply adding the berries, along with a handful of other ingredients, to pre-made vodka.
Mead functions similarly to wine and cider, producing alcohol using yeast. However, in this case the sugar in mead comes from honey. This makes it an ideal form of alcohol for those with a healthy population of bees.
Legally speaking, the United States defines mead as a type of wine, with the stipulations that it "is derived solely from honey and water, which contains no fruit product or fruit flavoring." However, some meaderies blend this base with wine-making techniques to make hybrid beverages.
Technically speaking, tequila is actually a mezcal, which is any type of distilled alcohol made from agave. In particular, tequila is made using blue agave, which can be found naturally in Mexico. The core, or pina, is removed and crushed, and the resulting mixture is fermented to make tequila.
The type of tequila is then determined by how it is distilled and aged. Those that are immediately distilled and bottled are called blanco, while those that are aged are called reposado (60+ days) or Anejo (a year or more).
Rum is mainly produced through the use of sugarcane, though different companies may use different sugarcane byproducts. The most common ingredients are sugar and molasses, though sugarcane juice may also be present. The sugar will then be fermented with yeast and water and distilled.
The color is generally determined by how long the mixture was left to age. Per Captain Morgan, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands tended toward long-aged dark rums, while islands like Cuba and Puerto Rico prefered short aging periods, producing white rum.
According to the National Research Institute of Brewing, sake production may go back as far as 300 BC, when its core ingredient, rice, was introduced to Japan. Like wine and beer, sake is made through fermentation. However, the actual process sake uses isn't as simple as just mashing the key ingredient. Though it uses similar methods overall, sake is to wine what sourdough bread is to a simple yeast roll.
Sake rice must be polished down, soaked, and steamed before use. Then, a small portion of the rice is used to produce koji mold, which helps break down the starch so it can ferment when yeast is introduced. From start to finish, sake production is hard labor, with a very specific result—and many opportunities to go wrong.
The word "vodka" comes from the Russian voda, meaning "water. " This is likely due to its similarity to water in taste, color, and scent. In fact, its legal definition in the United States is any “neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.”
However, that leaves a wide range of options for production. While many people think of vodka as potato alcohol (and it certainly can be), it can also be made using wheat, rye, or corn. The fermentation and distillation will often create far too potent of a beverage, which then has to be diluted using its namesake: water.
As Luke Bryan fans know, "Rain makes corn. Corn makes whiskey." However, US law doesn't require whiskey to be made using corn. In fact, the biggest designation, besides alcohol content, is simply that the beverage have "the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky."
As a whole, the process is quite similar to other distilled alcohols. While some whiskey designations (like Tennessee Whiskey) require corn to be a major part of the base, rye and barley are also common ingredients. The core grains are ground and mixed with water to make a mash. This is then fermented and distilled, before being aged in an oak barrel for the signature color and taste.
Wine is made through crushing fruits, fermenting them, and leaving them to age. Technically speaking, any fruit could work, though grapes are the most common ingredient because they have an ideal sugar content, which is easier to convert to alcohol.
Many vineyards make their wines from specific types of grapes, but that isn't what determines whether a wine is white or red (or rose). Instead, that comes down to the crushing process: white wine is made almost entirely from juice, while red wine uses grape seeds and skins as well.
Fortified wines then combine the traditional fermented grape juice with a distilled alcohol, often brandy.
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