With whisky prices continually rising and many premium bottles entering the “unaffordable” category for whisky lovers without a fat wallet, many are looking into malternatives as Serge Valentin likes to call them. Here is an quick overview of the most important categories.
Whisky and rum share some of their basic characteristics since both are distilled from non-fruit plants and are commonly aged in casks. Both also have a large variety of styles from light to heavy. Most rum is made from molasses, but there is also the Rhum Agricole style prevalent in the French colonies which is made from sugar cane juice. And in Brazil there is Cachaça which is also made from cane juice but has quite a different character.
Another thing whisky and rum have in common is the bandwith of quality ranging from cheap mixing spirits to expensive luxury drinks. But fortunately the premiumization of rum so far has not advanced quite as much as that of whisky. So it is still possible to find very decently priced high quality rums. There are many very good bottles in the €20 to €40 range that give similarly priced whiskies a run for their money.
Some independent whisky bottlers also offer rums. Cadenhead’s for example has a long rum tradition.
Tequila without a doubt is the best known agave spirit, but technicfally it is just a subtype of mezcal. It must be made in the Tequila region in Mexico from blue agave. Just like whisky and rum the quality of tequila can range from mass produced rotgut to superb elixir.Tequila can be enjoyed clear (plata) or aged in casks (reposado, anejo or extra anejo).
Cheap tequila usually is of the “mixto” type which means that only 51% of the alcohol needs to be blue agave based. Big producers often use diffusers to extract the starch from the agave plants which is more efficient but results in a much less flavourful spirit than traditionally produced tequila.
There are a lot of overpriced fancy bottles of tequila but it is possible to find very good deals nevertheless.
Less common than tequila is mezcal in general. This is a bit of a shame because the variety of mezcal is tremendous. There are dozens of different agave species used for mezcal that all have their own character. Also there is a strong terroir effect because the plants react very differently to different soil and climate conditions.
Traditionally distilled agave spirit is enormously complex right from the still. Agaves are very hardy plants that have developed biochemical strategies to survive droughts by storing water and fend off pests by producing natural insect repellents. Furthermore they need to grow for several years (up to 30) until they can be harvested for distillation, so the plants are enriched with a plethora of chemical compunds that all contribute to the flavour of the spirit.
The best mezcal is made by small local producers in Mexico. Traditionally the agave plants are roasted in pits which imparts an additional level of complexity by introducing smoky aromas.
Because of the small scale production good mezcal has its price, even if it is not aged. Prepare to pay €50 and more for the best. But the quality you get for this is astonishing.
Gin isn’t usually drunk neat, so you can not really call it an alternative to whisky. But why not have an occasional martini, negroni or G&T instead of a dram of whisky?
In the last couple of years there has been an enormous boom on the gin markets with new distilleries being opened on a perceived daily basis. The selection is immense, and you could spend a lifteime to try all varieties.
A gin is not defined by the source of the alcohol like other spirits but by the botanicals that are used to flavour it. There are two basic production methods for gin: Compound gin is simply an extraction of the botanicals in neutral spirit. For distilled gin the botanicals are macerated in alcohol which is then redistilled. But no matter what botanicals are used, juniper must remain the main flavouring agent.
The predecessor of gin is the Dutch genever which uses less botanicals and a malt based spirit. In Germany there is a similar juniper spirit called Steinhäger.
Another major type of spirits is the one of distilled wine which is usually aged in oak casks. Brandy is used as an umbrella term but in Spain it is the name of the product itself.
Most brandy is made in France and Spain but it is also produced in other countries where wine is made. A bit off the radar for example are the brandies from Armenia and Georgia that have a very long tradition.
The two classic French types are cognac and armagnac, both made in the southwest of France. There are a lot of sublte differences in grapes and production but they mainly differ by the distillation methods. Cognac is double distilled in copper pot stills while armagnac is distilled only once, usually in a column still. This results in markedly different products. Cognac tends to have lighter fruity and floral aromas while armagnac is more robust and “darker” in character.
Cognac has seen quite a hype some years ago with rappers endorsing it and many “bling” bottles on the market, but it has become calmer again. Armagnac still is a bit of a hidden gem, but it has been advoacated as alternative so often now that the quiet times might be over soon.
What makes cognac and armagnac so special is the continued availability of very old vintages. Some producers still have stock from ther pre-phylloxera era in the 19th century. Compared to whisky older vintages are noticeably less expensive.
Spanish brandy plays second fiddle to the two French giants internationally but this does not mean it is not good. The most important is Brandy de Jerez but there are also other regions where good brandy is made. Spanish brandies are often bottled at an ABV below 40% which might contribute to its lack of popularity.
A bit of a special case is pisco, the national drink of Peru. It is made from grapes but must not be aged in wood. Production is highly regulated. It uses wild fermentation and it is distilled only once to proof. No water may be added after distillation. Pisco has a surprising complexity for an unaged spirit and it is a pity that outside Peru it is only known in pisco sours.
Italy as one of the classic wine countries surprisingly has hardly and brandy distilleries. There is Vecchia Romagna of course, but apart from that there is not much else. Italians prefer to distill their grapes a different way. Which brings us to
Grappa is made from the leftovers of winemaking, the pomace. Italy has lot of grappa producers ranging from farmhouse distilleries to large scale operations. What makes grappa special is that no water may be added to the pomace for distillation. This means that all grappa is gently steam-distilled in bain-marie stills.
Grappa is an acquired taste and a lot of people dislike it. But the variety is immense because it is often distilled from single grape varieties. Most grappa is enjoyed unaged but there are also aged versions.
The French have their own version of pomace brandy which they call marc. Oak ageing is more common and generally French marcs are milder than Italian grappas. Marc de Provence however is a beast.
Other winemaking countries know similar spirits, in Germany for example it is called Tresterbrand.
Fruit Eau de Vie
Distilling fruit other than grapes is surprisingly uncommon worldwide. But there is a strong tradition of fruit based eau de vie in Central Europe, especially in regions with Germanic influence. Southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Alsace and South Tyrol are strongholds, and then there is the Slavic slivovitz and the Hungarian pálinka.
Classic fruits used for eau de vie are pears, raspberries, cherries, plums, mirabelles and other stone fruit. Sometimes local or wild varieties are distilled as well. You can also find eau de vie from quince or rowan and other unlikely sources.
Usually the spirit is aged in glass or ceramic vessels for several months (and sometimes for many years). Oak ageing is uncommon because distillers don’t want the fruity aromas to be mixed with wood flavours. Aged plum eau de vie is an exception in certain regions.
There are a few large producers who also export worldwide, but there are countless small distilleries who produce an enormous variety of spirits. This category is still almost untouched by the premiumisation virus, so it is still possible to find exceptional deals in the €15 to €30 bracket.
Apples are not the best fruit for making eau de vie. Standard table apples don’t lend much flavour to the spirit. But the apples (and also pears) used for cidre in Normandy make an excellent base spirit that shines after several years of oak maturation.
Calvados ages just as well as cognac or armagnac, so you can also find old vintages for a significantly lower price than whisky.
Absinthe is similar to gin in production but not in its ingredients. The primary botanical is wormwood to which others like anise of fennel seeds are added.
A lot has been written about the Green Fairy. The drink has a legendary status that has only strengthened during the near-century long ban. Needless to say that the alleged toxicity which lead to the ban is a myth. It’s mainly the high alcoholic strength that was responsible for the adverse effects.
Absinthe is usually consumed with water that is slowly added to the spirit. The high concentration of essential oils leads to the so-called louche effect which turns the liquid cloudy. If you use an absitnhe spoon to drizzle the water over a sugar cube or not is entirely up to your taste.
But drinking absinthe doesn’t really save you a lot of money compared to whisky. The good stuff costs upward of €50, and the cheaper brands are often artificially coloured.
A malternative for the more adventurous is the large world of Chinese white spirits, called baijiu. These are generally made from sorghum, somtimes with other types of grain added. Two of the more common types are moutai and kaoliang.
Don’t make the mistake and believe these are just some kind of vodka because they are clear grain spirits. They often thaste quite strong and also very odd for western palates. The secret lies in the fermentation process that includes mould cultures that break down the starches to form aromatic compounds.
Baijiu can be rather inexpensive, but there are also luxury bottlings. It’s an extremely popular drink in China and producers have tapped the newly rich as milking cows, very much like in the whisky business. But after the crackdown of the Chinese government on luxury spending, things should ease up again.
As you can see there are plenty of malternatives for the discerning palate, many of which will give you a better bang for your buck than whisky at current prices.
One final observation, though: For many whisky geeks the “purity” of their favourite tipple is very important. Caramel colouring or chill-filtration are pet peeves. It should be noted that many of the other spirits are far less regulated than whisky. Take cognac and armagnac for example. They can be coloured or flavoured with sugar syrup or wood extract without declaration on the label. Another example are labelling rules for rum. A number on the label does not necessarily mean the minimum age of the rum, it can mean anything from the “average age” (whatver this might be) the the shoe size of the the stillman. And the vast majority of consumers don’t care at all.