Spirits 101

All alcoholic beverages are made by fermenting some form of sugary brew into ethanol and CO2. Because yeast can only ferment so much before alcohol levels become toxic to them, we have to distill (or physically separate out the water) to get higher alcohol concentrations. And that’s why “spirits” are differentiated in two ways: they’re distilled, and they have higher average ABVs, from around 20% to as high as 80 or 90% ABV (most spirits fall somewhere much closer to the middle).

All spirits bottles have to be labeled with some pretty specific information: the brand name; the kind of spirit in the bottle (vodka, gin, tequila, rum and whisky); any further required details regarding the spirit, for instance the age of the whiskey if it’s under four years; the alcohol by volume (or ABV), which must be written as a percentage but will often also be labelled as “Proof”; the country of origin as well as address and name of the importer or bottler; and, last but not least, a big fat government warning about the dangers of alcohol.


Essentially, spirits and liquor are the same thing: the hardest alcohol product made possible by distillation, around the 40% ABV mark.

Liqueur is made from liquor; it’s sweetened, often flavored (think almond-y Amaretto or chocolaty Crème de Cacao), and generally lower proof.

Spirits terminology can get confusing, but there’s a common ingredient running throughout (liquor, the base of all of it) and a few fairly simple relationships at play.