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SF Bay Area
East Bay 510-317-5980
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Liquor Basics
Bartending is a hands on profession and must be taught by hands on instruction behind a real bar. Bartending College Bartending Schools will teach you everything you need to become a professional bartender in two weeks or less. Even though Bartending is one of the oldest known profession, the skills and knowledge required changes constantly. At the Bartending College we are constantly updating our materials so you only learn relevant, up to date information that will allow you to excel as a professional bartender. Below is just a fraction of some of the information our extensive Bartending course will cover.

Liquor Basics - Excerpt from the Bartending College Bartender's Training Manual



Whiskey is a spirit, aged in wood, obtained from the distillation of a fermented mash of grain.

It can be produced from any grain, but corn, wheat, rye and barley are the principle ones used. American whiskey includes American blended whiskey, bourbon, rye, straight, corn, sour mash and Tennessee whiskey. The laws regarding the production, sale and transportation of alcohol in this country are enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. (BATF)

Whiskey is produced in a number of countries around the world, but only four are considered as major producers. These are Scotland, Canada, Ireland and the US. The Whiskies produced in Scotland, Ireland and Canada normally take on the name of their country of origin. For example, whiskey produced in Scotland is called Scotch whiskey; in Ireland, it is called Irish whiskey, and in Canada, Canadian whiskey. The whiskies produced in the US. take their names from either the type of grain used or the process used to make the whiskey.

Before reading about how whiskey is produced and the differences among whiskies, there are some terms that need to be defined. A more detailed description of these terms appears later in this section:

Proof: A number, stated in degrees, between 0 and 200 that indicates the alcoholic content of a liquid. In this country, proof is double the alcohol percentage (i.e., a liquid of 100 proof degrees contains 50% alcohol by volume). Proof is not a measure of quality.

Mashing - The first step in the production of whiskey. Mashing is the process of cleaning, grinding and cooking grain (usually corn, wheat, barley or rye) to release starch. Then, dried barley malt is added to convert the starch into maltose (grain sugar).

Fermentation - The second step in the production of whiskey. Fermentation is the process of adding yeast to the mash produced in the first step, which converts the maltose into alcohol. The end result is called “distiller’s beer.”

Distillation - The third step in the production of whiskey. Distilling is the process of boiling the “distiller’s beer” produced in the second step, which releases alcohol vapors. These vapors are then condensed and become whiskey. Whiskey in this country is distilled at 160 proof or less, some as low as 125 proof. Anything higher than 180 would cause the whiskey to lose its characteristic taste and aroma.

Aging - The last step in the production of whiskey. The whiskey produced during distillation is diluted with pure water, then placed in charred oak barrels. Aging takes place in the barrels. During the aging process, the “char” inside the oak barrels absorb the impurities in the whiskey, the oak gives the whiskey its characteristic color and time mellows the harshness of the whiskey.

Neutral Grain Spirits - A whiskey that is distilled at 190 proof or above. As its name implies, neutral grain spirits have no taste.

Leaching - The process of filtering whiskey through charcoal to remove impurities before aging.

New Whiskey - The whiskey that flows directly from the distillation process.

Straight Whiskey - A whiskey that is unblended (i.e., not combined) with other whiskies.

Blended Whiskey - A whiskey that is blended with other whiskies.

Congeners - The acids, solids and other impurities in “new whiskey” that give it its harsh aroma and taste.

It has been said that “time” is Whiskey’s most precious ingredient. Aging imparts its own mystery to whiskey laid away in barrels. It is time which mellows whiskey.

Just how long a whiskey should remain in a barrel before reaching maturity depends on the character of the whiskey. Heavy-bodied whiskies age longer than light-bodied whiskies. Light bodied whiskies age around four years. Heavy whiskies age much longer. With poor whiskies, no amount of aging will make them good whiskies. Whiskies kept in a barrel too long can absorb undesirable woody flavors.


There are four major steps in producing whiskey. In order, the steps are mashing, fermentation, distilling and aging.

Since alcohol is derived from sugar, the natural starch content of the grain must first be converted to grain sugar. To accomplish this, the grain is ground, cooked and mixed with barley malt. Barley malt is merely barley that has been allowed to sprout. It is then dried, ground into a meal, and mixed with the cooked mash of corn and rye. At this point, the enzymes of the malt take over and convert the grain starches to maltose or grain sugars.

Fermentation takes place in a huge tank known as a fermenter. The fermenter is filled with converted mash and yeast is added. Yeast, which is a living organism, feeds on the grain sugars and produces an alcoholic whiskey known to the trade as “distiller’s beer.” The fermentation process takes from two to four days, depending on the method employed.

Distilling is based on the fact that virtually all liquids, if heated, will boil at slightly different temperatures. The distillation process uses a device called a still. The still produces the whiskey. There are two types of stills used in the distillation process, the pot still and the continuous still, also known as the column still.

The pot still is a relatively simple device like a huge kettle, the top of which tapers off into a spiraling pipe, sometimes called the worm condenser. Heat beneath the pot vaporizes the liquid and, as vapors rise through the cooling spiral, they are condensed and run off as “new whiskey.” The pot still cannot produce a high proof whiskey, but it is used for certain whiskies in this country and is universally used in the making of Scotch Malt whiskies.

The continuous still is virtually standard equipment of all US. distillers. It lends itself more readily to modern American controls and can be regulated to deliver new whiskey at nearly any proof desired by the distiller. The continuous still looks like a tall cylinder and usually rises through two or three stories of the distillery. The inside of the still is filled with numerous baffle plates.

Distilling is accomplished by pumping the preheated liquid mash down through the baffle plates. At the same time, steam that enters at the bottom of the still is rising through the baffle plates. In constant contact with the mash, the steam distills and redistills the liquids as it rises and finally passes on through the top of the still where it is cooled and condensed as new whiskey. The spent liquids, at the same time, drop to the bottom of the still and are drawn off.

The first mention of distillation is traced back to an Arabic alchemist who lived in the 10th century. The apparatus used for distilling most spirits is still much the same in principle as that used by distillers many centuries ago. It consists of a still and a worm condenser.

New whiskey that flows from a still is colorless and harsh. Only time can change its nature to the mellow, amber beverage that is eventually bottled as straight whiskey or used as a base for blended whiskies. Prior to barreling and aging, a few distillers follow the old-time practice of leaching their whiskies.

Leaching is accomplished by passing the whiskies through charcoal after which the whiskies are barreled and laid away. In the course of aging, no one knows exactly what happens inside the barrel, but whiskey makers have never found any substitute for time. Within the barrel, and the years, it is known that oak gives the whiskey its color; the charcoal absorbs impurities; and time alone mellows the congeners that give whiskey its flavor and bouquet.


The following are the types of whiskies produced in the US. There are more detailed descriptions of these whiskies later in this section:

SOUR MASH: The difference between Sour Mash and other whiskies is in the fermenting process. A lactic culture is added to the mash. This culture causes the mash to become “sour” during fermentation, similar to the process used to make sourdough bread.

BOURBON: Bourbon whiskey is made from at least 51% corn mash. It is then put into new charred oak barrels for aging.

TENNESSEE: Although Tennessee whiskey is not Bourbon, the two are similar. The main difference is that Tennessee whiskey is filtered through charcoal before being put into charred oak casks for aging.

RYE: Rye whiskey is made from at least 51% rye grain mash. It is then put into new charred oak barrels for aging.

CORN: Like Bourbon, corn whiskey is made from corn. However, corn whiskey must contain at least 80% corn mash and may be aged in used uncharred barrels.

STRAIGHT: Straight whiskey is called “straight” because it is not a blend of whiskies. It can be made from corn, wheat, rye and/or barley. It is distilled at no more than 160 proof and aged at least two years in new charred oak barrels.

BOTTLED-IN-BOND: This is a type of Bourbon, but is also a “straight” whiskey. It must be at least four years old and bottled at 100 proof.

BLENDED: A blended whiskey contains many varieties of straight and neutral grain spirits. It must contain at least 20% straight whiskey.


The important factor that distinguishes one type of whiskey from another is the grain used. In the case of Bourbon, the grain is corn. At least 51 percent of the grain used in distilling Bourbon is corn. But there are other essentials of Bourbon. It must be distilled at a proof not exceeding 160 and must be aged in new charred white oak barrels for at least two years. Practically all bourbon is aged four years or more.

The Federal definition for rye whiskey, Bourbon whiskey and wheat whiskey is: “,,,Whiskey which has been distilled at not exceeding 150 proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent rye grain, corn grain, wheat grain respectively, and stored in Charred new oak containers...” If distilled at above 160 proof, the whiskey’s identification as rye, Bourbon or wheat would be lost, thus accounting for the 160 proof limitation. Missing from the definition is any time limit on the storage period.


Bourbon is produced via the four standard steps of whiskey making -- mashing, fermentation, distilling and aging. True Bourbon is whiskey made in the US. under Federal laws. And, in 1964, a Congressional resolution recognized it as a “distinctive product of the US.”

Bourbon’s character or taste will largely be determined by the grain proportion used in the formula; the mashing techniques; the fermentation environment; the strain of yeast that is used; the type of distillation equipment and the manner in which it is operated. Finally, the maturation process that takes place in warehouses specially designed for the storage of whiskey.

Government regulations stipulate that in order to be called Bourbon, a whiskey must conform to the following: (1) the mashing formula (grain proportions) must have at least 51% corn grain; (2) it must be distilled at a proof no higher than 160 or no lower than 80; (3) to be further identified as a straight Bourbon whiskey, a distillate must be stored in new charred oak barrels between 80 and 125 proof for at least two years. Most Bourbon whiskies on today’s market are at least four years of age.

Sour mash whiskey is made from a yeast mash soured with lactic culture for a minimum of six hours; the fermenter mash must contain at least 25% of the screened residue from the base of the whiskey still and the fermenting must be at least 72 hours.


A spirit distilled from grain at not exceeding 160 proof and aged in new charred oak barrels for not less that 24 months can be labeled “Straight Whiskey.” To qualify as “Straight Bourbon Whiskey,” it must be produced from not less than 51 percent corn. It follows that “Straight Rye Whiskey” is distilled from not less than 51 percent rye grain.

Both corn whiskey and Bourbon are based on the same grain -- corn. The difference is that corn whiskey requires at least 80 percent corn before it can be so termed. Another important difference is that corn whiskey is aged in uncharred barrels or re-used charred barrels.


Blended whiskey is made in the United States, Canada and Scotland under government supervision in accordance with the regulations covering the manufacture of whiskey and spirits in each country.

In the United States, government regulations specify that blends must contain at least 20 percent straight whiskey. The other whiskies that go into blends can be other straight whiskies and neutral grain spirits. Like all American-type whiskies, it must be bottled at 80 proof or more. Blended whiskies are masterfully blended.

The straight whiskies that go into them are distilled and aged to take a planned part in the blend, as are the grain neutral spirits.

Blended whiskies were developed to meet the demand for a lighter taste and lower proof preference of a large segment of customers.



Scotch whiskies are a distinctive product of Scotland manufactured in Scotland in compliance with the laws of Great Britain regulating the manufacture of Scotch whiskey. As in Canada, there are no government limitations placed on production and maturation techniques.

Although unblended Scotches are on the market, the overwhelming majority of Scotches are blends of malt whisky and grain whisky. Among malt whiskies, there are four distinct types, from different parts of Scotland. In the North are the famous Scotch Highlands and the home of highland malts. To the South, we find the Lowland malt distilleries. Malts also come from the island of Islay and from Campbeltown, in the Firth of Clyde.

Grain whiskies are distilled in patent stills and in much the same way as American grain neutral spirits. Corn and barley are the grains used. The Scotch grain whisky, however, is a flavored spirit and reaches maturation after four or five years.


Production of malt whisky in Scotland starts with the selection of barley. After the barley is cleaned, it is seeped in warm water for about 60 hours. The soaked barley is then spread out on the malting floor and, after 10 to 12 days, it begins to sprout.

When sprouting starts, the malt barley is removed to the drying kiln and spread out on huge screens below which peat fires are lighted. The heat and smoke from the burning peat pass through the screen and dry the malt amidst the aroma of the peat. The aroma is imparted to the barley during this drying stage, and it is here that Scotch whisky acquires its characteristic smoky flavor.

After the malt is dried, it is stored in hoppers for several weeks. The malt is next cleaned, weighed and put through a grinding mill where heavy rollers reduce it to a meal.

The ground malt now goes to a mash tun where water, heated to 146 degrees Fahrenheit, is added. Rotating arms keep the mixture swirling. When the mixing action is complete, the grain sugar has been dissolved into a liquid called wort. The next step involves cooling of the mass, after which it is pumped into large wooden tuns or “fermenting backs.” Now, yeast is added and actual fermentation takes place.

On completion of this phase, the resulting liquid takes on the name of “wash” beer.

There is a distinct difference in the Scotch distilling process compared to accepted American methods. In this country, the continuous still is in common use, whereas Scotch malt distillers use the ancient pot still -- a huge copper pot with a closed top shaped like an inverted funnel. Its spout is bent into a right angle and tapers off in a cooling coil.

Skilled blenders will combine together as many as 30 different malt whiskies with grain whiskies to produce the product that is widely popular throughout the entire world.


Single Malt Scotch (also known simply as “malt whisky”) is distilled only in pot stills from malted barley. This type of whisky is considered to be the “father” and the “heart” of all scotches. Malt whiskies were what the Scotch market was all about until the late 19th century. At that point, single malt whisky was blended with grain whisky for the export market.

The market for Single Malt scotches is on the rise in this country, although it is unlikely that they ever replace the blended scotches



Canadian whiskies are whisky blends, a distinctive product of Canada made under Canadian government supervision in accordance with the regulations governing the manufacture of whisky in Canada. The Canadian government sets no limitations as to grain formulas, distilling proofs or special types of cooperage for the maturation of whisky.


Although thought of primarily as a rye whisky, Canadian is generally made from corn and lesser amounts of rye, wheat and barley malt. The proportions of each in the grain formulas are trade secrets of various distillers.

Enthusiasts for Canadian whisky have long believed that the product was distilled from a mash of wheat and rye grain. If this was ever true, it is no longer true today.

Canadian rye, barley and a small amount of wheat are also used by the industry. Since these are grains that have been developed to withstand the rigors of the Canadian climate, they are slightly different and may contribute a certain degree of distinction to Canadian whiskies.

Aging is done typically by putting the whisky into wood casks or barrels that may be charred on the inside. Certain wood sugars and tannin are extracted from the wood, and it is these extracts that give the whisky its golden coloring.

They are generally bottled at six years of age or more. If the Canadian is less than four years old, its age must be listed on the label.

The proportion of each grain in the mashing formula remains the distiller’s trade secret; otherwise, the process is substantially the same as is found in the major distilleries in the United States.

Since they are blended, they are not designated as straight whiskies. Canadian whiskies are light bodied and, though delicate in flavor, they nevertheless retain a distinctive, positive flavor. It is the skill of the master blender that makes possible the final achievement -- a uniform, pleasant product with a unique taste and aroma.



For all practical purposes, rum types are not determined by definition, but by geography. Puerto Rican rums must come from Puerto Rico. Virgin Island rum from the Virgin Islands. Jamaican rums from Jamaica, etc. In general, rums from Spanish-speaking areas are light rums; those from English-speaking areas, dark rums; although Jamaica, to take one example, can and does produce light rums.


Rum is produced in any area where sugar cane can grow. The area best known for its rum is, of course, the Caribbean. The Spanish-speaking countries in the area produce lighter rums, generally speaking, than the English-speaking countries. Thus, such countries as Puerto Rico and, before Castro, Cuba were known for their light, dry rums.

Jamaica and the British colonial areas were known for their dark, pungent rums. The Virgin Islands are also known for their light, dry rums. Recently, a Hawaiian rum, light and dry, has been introduced into the US.

In short, rum is a distillate of the by-products of sugar cane. The key requirement for rum is that it must not be distilled at less than 80 proof and that it must be distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane products and must possess the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to rum. Thus, rum comes from those areas of the world in which sugar cane can grow.



Vodka, like whiskey, is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain. Whiskey, however, is distilled at low proof to retain flavor congeners. Vodka is distilled at high proof and then processed still further to extract all congeners.


Vodka is a distilled spirit produced without distinctive character, aroma or taste and produced by methods approved by the federal government.

On the surface, it appears that making vodka is a relatively simple problem. The only requirement is to treat neutral spirits in such a manner as to render it completely free from any trace of “distinctive character, aroma or taste.” It must be remembered, neutral spirits is a high proof alcoholic distillate that presumably lacks character, aroma or taste. The product, through high proof distillation, has been purified to a high degree and contains only minute traces of congeners (solids, acids, esters, aldehydes and fusel oil). The fact that these substances are not completely screened out by distillation is what requires the vodka maker to devise other means of removing them.

Naturally, any substance not screened out by distilling, and as elusive as an odor, is hard to separate. However, vodka makers are now doing just this and, by a number of highly successful processes, some of them secret, some of them patented.



Gin consists of neutral spirits distilled or redistilled with juniper berries and other aromatics. Although it sounds like a simple liquor, gin is a product of precise quality control and secret, complex recipes. Today, the center of the modern gin distillery or rectifier is the lab where the herbs, seeds, berries and roots for every botanical charge are measured for flavor strength. This alone makes gin highly dependent for its flavor on the skills of the distiller.

An official definition for gin might be this: “Gin is a product obtained by original distillation from mash, or by redistillation of distilled spirits, or by mixing neutral spirits with or over juniper berries and other aromatics, or with or over extracts derived from infusions, percolation or maceration of such materials.”

Gin produced by distillation may be further designated as “distilled” of which “London Dry Gin” is by far the leading type of the market.

Federal definitions acknowledge the existence of a number of gins, but define only two types - “distilled gin” and “compound gin.”

The distillation of juniper berries with spirits had its beginning in Holland. The drink was called Genevre, a French word meaning juniper. The English merely shortened the name Genevre to gin. Holland gin, or Generve gin as it is sometimes called, has a low proof malt spirit base and, as a result, is much more heavy bodied than the more popular dry gins.


There are two processes for making gin - distilling and compounding. Practically all leading brands are distilled gin. Compound gin is a simple process that mixes neutral spirits with juniper. There are two methods for producing distilled gin. Direct distillation and redistillation.

In direct distillation, a fermented grain mash is pumped into a still. Heat is applied and the spirit vapors rise though the still and through a “gin head” at the top of the still.

Prior to the start of the distilling process, this gin head is packed with juniper berries and herbs and, as the spirit vapors pass through these flavoring materials, it extracts the flavoring from them. This delicately flavored vapor is then condensed and the resulting liquid is finished gin.

The above covers what the government calls “original distillation,” but the alternative method - “redistillation” - is virtually the same. The only difference lies in the fact that in redistillation, the fermented mash is first distilled into a flavorless neutral spirit. This neutral spirit in turn is placed in a second still containing a gin head packed with the flavoring materials. The spirit is redistilled or vaporized with the vapors passing through the gin head and absorbing the flavors.


WHAT TEQUILA IS Tequila is a distillation of the fermented juice or sap of the mescal plant. The fermented juice of the mescal plant is known as “pulque,” and was a highly prized drink of the Aztecs. After distillation, Tequila is drawn off and bottled or shipped to the US. in bulk. Gold Tequila is aged in vats for at least four years.

All Tequila sold in the US. is produced in the area around the city of Tequila, state of Jalisco. When produced elsewhere, the drink is called mezcal.


The mescal plant is the only source for Tequila. The beverage is distilled from the juice or sap of the mescal, which is a type of agave plant that resembles the cactus. In this country, it is known as the century plant or American aloe. The mescal plant is native to the desert areas of Mexico and the southwestern US., where it has grown wild for thousands of years and was prized for its sweet abundant juice that fermented rapidly. The development of Tequila stemmed from the discovery that a distillate of pulque produced an excellent brandy-like liquor.

Tequila, as consumed in Mexico, is unaged and usually bottled at 80-86 proof. However, some producers do age Tequila in seasoned, 50-gallon white oak casks imported from the United States. In aging, Tequila becomes golden in color and acquires a pleasant mellowness without altering its inherent taste characteristics. Tequila aged one year is identified as “Anejo.” If it is aged as much as 2-4 years, it can acquire a further identification as “Muy Anejo.”

Unlike a grain or grape distillate, the distillate of mescal (from which Tequila is made) is virtually free of congeners, so aging is not important. White Tequila is drawn into vats after distilling and bottled on demand. Golden Tequila is usually aged in used whiskey barrels, long enough to impart color, after which it is ready for bottling.



Brandy is a distillate or a mixture of distillates obtained solely from the fermented juice, mash or wine of fruit, or from the residue thereof, distilled at less than 190 proof in such a manner as to possess the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to the product.


Brandies are produced in many countries, including, of course, the US. But many countries have made a specialty of certain brandy types.

Calvados, the traditional apple brandy of Normandy, and armagnac, made in the South of France, are two popular brandies. Spanish brandy has become increasingly popular. Spanish brandies are developed and aged by the same solera system used for Sherry. Italy and Greece also produce brandies that have won consumer acceptance.

In Europe, more kinds of fruit are made into brandy. “Kirsch” or “kirschwasser” is cherry brandy and generally has the distinct flavor of the cherry. Plum brandy is called “Mirabelle” in France; “Quetsch” in Alsace and Germany and “Slivovitz” in central Europe. Fruit-flavored brandies generally are fairly distinct in flavor since the fruit flavor has been obtained by adding an extract or concentrate of the fruit, such as peaches, apricots, blackberries, etc., along with some sweetening substances. The alcohol contained is provided by the brandy base which almost always is produced from grapes.

Brandy can be distilled from any kind of wine. However, white wine, made from white grapes, produces a more pleasing product and is almost universally used for brandy. The wine is better for brandy if it has just finished its fermentation with the yeast cells still suspended. An old aged wine, even if of very high quality as a wine, yields poor brandy.

In this country, Brandy has been produced in the continuous column still since the turn of the century. A small amount of brandy is also made in pot stills and is blended by a few producers into the lighter-bodied brandy from the continuous column stills.

Brandy must be aged for at least two years otherwise the term “immature” must be included in the designation of the brandy. While the age is not carried on the label, brandies are normally aged from three to eight years.

The brandy distillate is reduced to about 102 proof with soft water and placed in 5-gallon white oak barrels for aging. A small amount of caramel, the only additive allowed, may be added for coloring at the time of “barreling down.”



Cordials are obtained by making or redistilling neutral spirits, brandy, gin or other distilled spirits with, or over fruit, flowers, plants (or pure juices from these ingredients), other natural flavoring materials or with extract derived from such materials.

According to the Federal code, the words “cordial” and “liqueur” are synonymous. But, no matter which name is used, cordials must contain a minimum of 2-1/2% sugar by weight of the finished product - most cordials contain more, up to 40%.

Cordials have their beginning in the Middle Ages, when monks of various religious denominations were searching for the “elixir of life.,” This activity brought about the commercial production of cordials, which, in turn, has developed many of the well-known products enjoyed today.

Many cordials have romantic tales attached to them. The work “cordial” is related to “cardiac,” the Latin word for “heart,” source of romance and love in medieval days.


Cordials are produced today whenever distilled spirits are produced. The countries that produced the best known, most sought after cordials are France and Italy. These two countries produce such highly regarded (and secret) preparations as Chartreuse, Benedictine, Galliano, Strega and Grand Marnier.

Other countries producing well-known cordials include Mexico (Kahlua), Scotland (Drambuie), Ireland (Irish Mist), Germany (Kirschwasser) and the US. The US. produces a great variety of cordials under the brand names of several companies.

The three basic methods of production are percolation, maceration and distillation. One or more of these processes may be used to produce a cordial.

Percolation is a similar to the method used to prepare coffee. In this case, the percolator is a large tank. Spirits are placed at the bottom and fruit put in a basket-like container at the top of the tank or suspended in cloth bags. The spirits at the bottom are then pumped to the top where they are sprayed over the fruit and drip back to the bottom. This process is repeated until all the flavor has been extracted from the fruit.

Maceration is like the brewing of tea. By this method, the fruit or other flavoring is placed directly into the spirits and allowed to steep until all the flavor has been extracted from the fruit.

One of these steps is usually the beginning for most cordials. After the flavors have been extracted by these methods, the heavily flavored spirits are redistilled, resulting in the delicacy of flavor desired by the maker.

Then, there is the distillation method. For some products, this method is used alone. The leaves, peels, etc., are placed in the still, covered with an alcoholic spirit and distilled. The distillate carries the flavor of the various ingredients. When finished, it is quite high in proof. This is then reduced with the addition of syrup and adjusted to bottling proof.

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