Ask the Bartender: How Do These Brown Liquids Differ?

Differentiating brandy, whiskey, and the rest.

I feel stupid asking, but can you give me a simple answer to what the differences are between various brown liquors? For instance, how is brandy different from whiskey, and what are cognac and eau de vie? I started getting into Scotch recently, and I notice the word whiskey on the label too. Does Scotch mean that it just has to be from Scotland?—Doug

I'm sure some nerd will pick this apart, but this is what I would tell you over a Macallan or a Dickel if you were sitting at my bar. (In fact, I wouldn't even tell you this much before I shut up and let you drink.) Brown liquors are all the same in the same way that wood is wood. However, it's a far cry between bourbon and Scotch, just as it is between pine and rosewood. So I'll generalize for brevity's sake, and first separate the brandies from the whiskeys.To make a whiskey, you start with grain. To make a brandy, you start with wine, and sometimes other fruit. Bourbon, rye, and Scotch are all whiskey (or whisky, depending on place of origin), while grappa, marc, Armagnac, and cognac are brandies one and all, with a few distinctions.Eau de vie is a catch-all for clear spirits distilled from fruit. Brandy is an eau de vie, but it's generally accepted that brandy comes from grapes and is a subset of eau de vie. Italian grappa and French marc are clear spirits distilled from wine that fit in the category of brandy and see no barrel aging, which is why they are clear. Brandy—and all brown spirits—get their brown coloring from spending time in wood (except cheap brandy, which uses coloring agents). Armagnac and cognac are the two most popular brandies, so named for places in France that are considered some of the finest areas for brandy, just as the Champagne region is considered the best for bubbly.Whiskey comes from the old Gaelic term uisge beatha, meaning "water of life." Different styles of whiskey used to be more pronounced. Bourbon whiskey, for example, distinctly requires the usage of a grain mixture that is mostly corn, and also has traditionally meant a whiskey aged in charred oak barrels to achieve a particular caramel-and-vanilla edge.Nowadays, some distillers flirt with a taste that's on the drier side of what many may think of when they order bourbon. Each distiller develops a house style for a flagship product, like Jack Daniels' black label (which is a whiskey but not a bourbon), and may experiment with greater aging or oak treatment for other labels.Scotch whisky does indeed come from Scotland, but it has its own hallmark flavors (and again, this is all generalizing). The process of malting barley takes place over fires fueled by peat moss, which is why levels of smokiness and peat are often used to categorize different brands of Scotch. Scotch often has a dry, savory flavor profile, but not always. The other characteristic of many Scotches comes from their proximity to the sea; many can take on a mineral or salty character from spending years in barrels close to the water, with salt air leaching into and out of the wood.Got a question for the bartender? Send your boozy plea to

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