On store shelves and in bar rails, hard liquor comes in many styles, with the common denominator being the use of a distillation process to produce it.

Traditionally a grain-based liquor, vodka can also be distilled from potatoes and fruit. Initially developed in northern Europe, the name comes from the Russian word for water, voda, due to its frequent consumption in the area. The name also fits vodka’s barely-there flavor, an attribute that propelled it to the status of world’s most consumed liquor. Its lack of flavor makes it perfect for mixing in almost any cocktail and inspired many distillers to develop flavored varieties ranging from vanilla to pepper to almost any kind of fruit.

Fermented and distilled sugar cane or molasses is the base for rum, making most varieties gluten-free. 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 originated in China and India.

Today, rum comes in white (clear), dark (brown), spiced (with cloves and cinnamon) and a number of flavors such as coconut or citrus. Its sweetness makes it popular for beach-inspired cocktails, however, it is also frequently enjoyed straight over ice.

This liquor 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) and label it accordingly. What they all have in common is the base of fermented grain mash, with each area’s local grain giving their whiskey unique flavor. The mash gives an earthy quality that is often also sweet. Many whiskey drinkers prefer it straight or on ice, but it is also widely used in cocktails, like the classic Manhattan or whiskey sour.

This liquor 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 to a level unattainable to most, thus creating the exclusive and luxurious reputation known today.

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