Glossary: A

Ancestral

Ancestral is a term used in the context of Mezcal production. To understand what it means, you must first gain some broader context on how the spirit is regulated. Certified Mezcal is defined and classified by a Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM). All certified mezcal is 100% agave and no other sugar source may be added during fermentation. 

The NOM establishes three categories of mezcal, (which are then broken down further into six classes). One of these is Ancestral, with the other being just Mezcal, and Artisanal Mezcal. In our opinion, as the word ‘Ancestral’ implies, it is the most old-school and most hardcore sub-category of them all.

To be certified as an Ancestral Mezcal, the agave must be pit-cooked and mallet-crushed or stone-milled. Distillation must occur using clay pots, with the still head made from either clay or wood - with stainless steel strictly prohibited. If you want the intense Mezcal flavours, look for the term on the label as it’s most likely to meet your criteria.

Alembique / Alembic

An alembic is the oldest kind of still used for spirits. In simple terms, it’s a rudimentary Pot still. 

It is made up of 3 parts: the pot, the alembic lid and the condensing unit. During distillation, the liquid in the pot is gently heated, the vapours rise (ethanol first as it has a lower boiling point) and pass through the narrow neck at the top of the lid and towards the collection. As the vapour moves further from the heat, it recondenses into liquid but to ensure this happens, the neck is connected to a serpentine coil that is surrounded by cold-water, which helps ensure the vapour is returned into a liquid state before it reaches the spout. Simple distillation, simple tools but very effective.

Alembic stills are operated on a batch distillation basis (as opposed to column stills which can operate on a continuous basis). Due to their bulbous shape, the more complex forms are almost always constructed from copper and beaten by hand into the desired shape. It’s not uncommon to see stainless steel pot stills, and irrespective of the material, they can range in size depending on the quantity and style of spirit desired. Some are no more than 2.5L hobby sized offerings, while the largest pot still ever used was once located in the Old Midleton Distillery, County Cork, Ireland and could distil over 140,000 litres at a time.

Aqua Vitae

Aqua vitae translates as ‘the water of life’ – one of the original names given to distilled spirits. While not used much anymore (understandably, Latin died out hundreds of years ago), some of the terms now used for spirits stem from it or are direct translations, for example, the way the French use the term ‘Eau De Vie’ for Fruit Brandies as well as the distillates that are blended to create Cognac.

Amontillado

Named after the Montilla region of Spain, where the style originated in the 18th century,

Amontillado Sherry is unique due to its dual aging process where biological ageing occurs first under the veil of flor (also typical of Fino and Manzanilla), followed by a period where the wine is exposed to oxidation. 

While there is a wide range of Amontillados, the result of this dual process tends to make sherries that are darker than a Fino but lighter than an Oloroso.

Angel’s Share

The Angel's Share is the amount of distilled spirits lost to evaporation from the barrel or cask into the air as the spirit ages.

Climate, cask and storage conditions all impact how much spirit is lost, but on average around two percent of the total liquid in the cask is lost for Scotch producers each year, while for Bourbon producers it’s not uncommon for up to 10% oof the volume of the barrel to evaporate in the first year, reducing to between 3-5% each year thereafter.

The angel’s share doesn’t just impact the volume of liquid in a cask, it also affects the ABV. In low humidity climates like Kentucky more water will evaporate than alcohol, increasing the overall ABV, while for Scotch producers, around 0.5% ABV is lost to the angels each year it is in left to mature in a cask.

Aguardiente

Aquardiente is a spirit fermented and distilled from fruit or sugar cane. The name can be loosely translated as “fire water”, which is often an apt flavour descriptor too... They are more often found in South America and the term is a bit of a catch all term for distilled spirits that don’t quite conform to a specific category. 

Typically, Aquardiente spirits are not aged, and often due to their simple distillation process, they retain full-bodied flavours of the base material they are derived from.

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Aperitifs

Apéritifs are drinks which are normally served before a meal. The term is derived from the Latin verb aperire, which means to open and the intention of the drinks were to do exactly that – to “open” the appetite. 

Apéritifs were widespread in the 19th century in Italy and France (they still are today), and many of the typical ingredients, be they served neat or used in iconic Aperitivo cocktails like the Negroni, tend to be traditional fortified wines and bitters from those regions (e.g. Campari, Aperol, Sweet Vermouth, Dubonnet, Pastis).

Abocado

Abocado is a term used for flavoured or infused mezcal. The NOM specifically permits “worms,” damiana, fruits like citrus (most commonly lime or orange), mango and additions like honey. Other herbs, and caramel (colourant) are also common additions.

Añejo

Añejo translates as aged or old.

For Tequila, it is a protected and regulated term. When you see it, you can be sure that the contents inside have been aged between twelve months and three years, in containers that hold no more than 600L. This is the same for Mezcal, although they are allowed to be aged in containers up to 1000L. Typically, this is done in oak barrels, although it doesn’t have to be, and producers are starting to experiment with different wood types.

Terms like Añejo are also used in rum, and largely understood to indicate an aged rum. However, there is no real clear consensus as to how long constitutes old, legal definitions for producers to abide by and so, the term has less meaning for the category.

Autoclave

Autoclaves are big drum-like pressure cookers used in Tequila production (to cook the piñas before being mashed and fermented). By using steam and high pressure, the agaves can be cooked quicker and in larger batches than typical brick ovens or pit fires. There are also significantly easier to clean too, meaning they are more efficient not just when switched on, but to turnover repeat batches as well. Autoclaves can cook a batch of agave in around 10-12 hours – which is typically less than half the time it would take a traditional brick oven. 

 

The combination of the above benefits makes a significant difference to the cost of production. The shortened cook time can create some issues unless it is carefully monitored and expertly done however, as it’s all too easy to burn the agave sugars, which produces a bitter finish which becomes apparent in the end spirit. 

ABV

ABV is an abbreviation of Alcohol by Volume - the standard measure of how much alcohol is contained in a given volume of an alcoholic beverage. It’s always expressed as a volume percent.

It is calculated by the number of millilitres of pure ethanol present in 100 mL of solution when at 20 °C. It is impossible to calculate the ABV without knowing both the density of the liquid and its temperature. All distilleries face severe fines if they calculate it incorrectly, with tax authorities concerned about anything being bottled over the stated amount, and trading standards when bottled below, with only a small margin or error is permitted (0.2% in the UK)

The term “Proof” refers to the same idea – how strong the spirit is – but is largely reserved to the USA (the European Union prescribed a standardisation in 1980 and so anything sold or made here must have the strength stated in ABV).  In the United States, alcohol ‘proof’ is defined as twice the percentage of ABV. 

Many spirit categories will have a minimum and maximum ABV they are allowed to be bottled at, and many will also define requited parameters in the production process too.