What Is the Definition of Liquor?

Essential in the Bar, Liquor Is Our Primary Cocktail Ingredient

Copper pot stills at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky Distillery
The copper pot stills at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery are the second distilling vessel for the bourbon. Photo: Shannon Graham

Liquors, distilled spirits and booze all mean the same thing: an alcoholic beverage that has been distilled rather than fermented like beer and wine. Distilled spirits include most of the bottles found behind the bar, including whiskey, vodka, gin and the entire list of liqueurs.

While liquor's definition differentiates it as "distilled rather than fermented," they do begin with the fermentation of a base ingredient.

Typically made from grains and fruits, any organic substance that ferments can be used as the primary ingredient.

Once fermented, the liquid is distilled through either a column or pot still to concentrate the alcohol, creating a higher proof (alcohol by volume) beverage. From there the distilled spirit is filtered, aged or flavored (or a combination of any or all three) and diluted to bottling strength.

Liquors are our primary ingredients when it comes to cocktails and the majority of drink recipes require at least one liquor.

The 6 Base Liquors

Of all the liquors available today, there are six styles that form the base for almost every drink we mix. These are commonly referred to as base liquors and it is essential to know the unique characteristics of each.

The base liquors are brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey. Within each of these categories are a number of styles with whiskey being the most complicated because of differentiations like bourbon, Irish whiskey, rye whiskey, Scotch, etc.

Keep Learning: Liquor 101: A Quick Reference for Distilled Spirits

And Then There Are Liqueurs

Liqueurs are sweetened distilled spirits that are typically made from one of the six base liquors mentioned above and tend to be lower-proof (though that's not always the case).

This is where flavors really come into play and the list of liqueurs is even more complex.

Keep Learning: Learn Your Liqueurs

More Distilled Spirits

Distilled spirits can be a bit more complicated because there are distilled spirits that fit in neither of the two categories mentioned above.

Example of these would be VeeV Acai Spirit and Square One Botanical Spirit. Although they may have characteristics of one of the base spirits, they are also flavored like liqueurs; however, they are not sweetened. All of these factors combined cause the brand to specify them as a 'spirit' specifically because there is no other label that completely defines these.

Other exceptions include the long list of aperitifs and digestifs. Some of these are fortified wines and some include distilled spirits. Others could be classified as liqueurs, while still others only fit under the labels aperitif or digestif because they are unique unto themselves.

What About Vermouth?

Vermouth is a fortified wine and not a liquor. Though some fortified wines are blended with brandy or another distilled spirit, we do not consider them to be liquors under the definitions above.

Keep Learning: What is Fortified Wine?

When classifying any alcoholic beverage, it is best to take each case individually. When in doubt, read the label.