Hard liquors are the heart and soul of the wide variety of spirits available today. Recipes created centuries ago are still in use in modern times. Here’s a primer to distinguish between the types.

Vodka

Vodka was initially developed in northern Europe—the name comes from the Russian word for water, voda, which tells you something about how much they love this drink up there. Compared to other liquors, vodka has a barely-there flavor, which is why it’s so popular worldwide—and perfect for mixing in almost any cocktail. Traditionally a grain-based liquor, vodka can also be distilled from potatoes and fruit. Many distillers have even been inspired to develop flavored varieties ranging from vanilla to pepper to almost any kind of fruit.

Rum

Rum is popularly associated with the Caribbean, where it played a major role in trading and migration between American colonies, Britain, Africa, and the Caribbean—but it actually originated in China and India. Today, rum comes in white (clear), dark (brown), spiced (with cloves and cinnamon), and a number of flavors like coconut or citrus. Its sweetness makes it popular for beach-inspired cocktails, but it’s also great straight over ice. Fermented and distilled sugar cane or molasses is the base, making most varieties gluten-free.

Whiskey

Whiskey has the largest number of variations for good reason; it was the first distilled alcohol in the world, created over a millennium ago by an Arab scholar. In modern times, Scotland and Ireland compete for the title of whiskey’s founder, and the United States and Canada are also big producers of the liquor. Varieties include:

  • Rye
  • Bourbon
  • Single malt Scotch
  • Blended Scotch

Given its lengthy history, it’s no surprise that countries from every continent have their own whiskey (sometimes spelled whisky). They’re all made from a base of fermented grain mash—which gives an earthy quality that’s often also sweet—and each area’s local grain lends unique flavor. Many whiskey drinkers prefer it straight or on ice, but it’s also widely used in cocktails like the classic Manhattan or whiskey sour.

Gin

Gin is known for its floral and juniper qualities and high-class reputation, although the latter was not always the case. Invented in Holland as medicine, it soon became known as “Dutch Courage” for British soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War, and as the drink of the poor around Europe. The reactionary Gin Act of 1736 in Britain raised the price too high for most, thus creating the exclusive and luxurious reputation known today.


Gin’s potent flavor is often the star of cocktails. The martini is made with gin in its truest form, and the basic gin and tonic (affectionately nicknamed G&T) is popular worldwide.