We all love the occasional tipple in our lives, but alcohol, as the world's most widespread and highly-consumed drug, is a bit of a social minefield. Here's a quick primer for those of you who've lived life so far on a diet of Tennet's Super and Frosty Jack.
The UK's most popular alcoholic drink, maker of many a night out and ruiner of even more, beer needs no virtually no introduction. Beer's made from four different ingredients: water, malted grain (the source of the sugar), yeast (which fermets the sugar to make alcohol), and hops, which is both a flavouring agent and a preservative. Normally, beer is around 4-5 per cent alcohol.
Within beer, there are two main different types that you'll commonly come across: ale and lager. The difference between the two is mostly in the fermentation: they both use a different type of yeast, and ale is fermented warm, whereas lager is fermented cold (and often takes a month to ferment, versus around a week for ales). In terms of taste, that means that ales tend to be fruitier and stronger, whereas lagers are smoother and more crisp.
Cider is essentially just alcoholic fizzy apple juice. Most often made in in the West Country of Britain, or some of the more northerly bits of France, it can be anything from 2-7 per cent alcohol. Excellent beer alternative for those of us who haven't yet grown out of childhood.
Wine is, sadly, something that's quite difficult to bluff your way through. Within the three main types of wine (please, please tell me you know what they are), there are litereally hundreds of different vintages. Here's a good diagram to get you started:
Click to embiggen
However, wine is a lot more than just knowing the label on the bottle. You're going to look a right tit if you serve up room-temperature white in pint glasses, so here's a few golden rules of wine-drinking to get you started.
Temperature: Different types of wine should be served at different temperatures. If you want to be crass about it, serve your red at room temperature, white from the fridge, and rose a little bit warmer than white. To be more specific, red should actually be around 16-18 degrees, which is a couple degrees warmer than room temperature. Sticking it in the fridge for an hour or two, and then letting it sit at room temperature for half and hour normally does the trick. White can be served pretty much straight from the fridge, as your target temperature is 7-10 degrees.
Matching with food: this one is easy. Chicken, fish, creamy pastas and lighter salads should get a white. A juicy, dripping steak, pizza, or tomato-based pasta deserves a red. (Cheeses are a whole 'nother ball game.)
Decanting: Chances are, if you're decanting wine, you probably know what you're doing already. However, on the off-chance that you claim wine expertise at a dinner party to impress the girls, then get stuck with decanting duty, there's a handy rule of thumb to help: you only decant red wines that are older than five or ten years. This is because decanting just separates the sediment from the wine proper, by allowing the bits to settle on the bottom of the decanter.
To actually do the decanting, you'll want a decanter and a spare half-hour. Simply, open the bottle, and pour it slowly into the decanter. Be especially slow when you get to the second half of the bottle.
Drinking: Of course, to keep up the act of making it look like you know what you're doing, you'll want to drink your wine like a pro. There are a few key tips to observe: hold the glass always by the stem, not the bulb -- you wouldn't want the warmth of your hand affecting that precise temperature, after all. Then, once the wine is poured, you want to swirl the glass gently, with the glass on the table and your hand slowly pushing the base to get the liquid moving. Once you've had a good swirl (bonus points for not spilling red wine all down your shirt), look for the 'legs'. That's basically how long it takes for the wine residue to run back down the sides of the glass. The longer this takes the better, for some reason. (Depressingly, there's a whole university paper written by the fine scholars at Cornell for some reason.)
Finally, take a good sniff (nose stuck into glass for best effect), followed by a small sip of wine. Maximum wine-douche points are scored by slurping like a three-year old and smacking your lips.
Jargon: Of course, once you've tasted the wine, you'll need to render an opinion. There's only one word you really need to know -- corked. This is what happens when the cork reacts with the wine, spoiling the bottle completely. (This is why waiters will offer up a taste of wine to one person before pouring out the entire bottle in a restaurant.) In basic terms, corked wine tastes like shite. More accurately, it tastes like wet alcoholic cardboard. (Pro tip: take a quick glance at the cork before declaring wine 'corked'. Chances are, if it's one of those newfangled synthetic corks that are getting increasingly common, your wine's not corked, you're just being a tit.)
Beyond corking, pretty much any semi-pretentious bullshit will go for describing wine. Generic adjectives like 'bold', 'hard', 'volatile' and 'blowsy' are pretty safe territory; 'fruity' is pretty good bet if the wine is from a New World country like the States or Australia. But, if you're looking to score points, professional wine tasters have been known to describe bottles as 'melted licorice' or 'slightly carpety', so any combination of a random adjective with a slightly lesser-known fruit will normally do.
Fortified wine generally comes in two flavours: those that had alcohol added during fermentation, and those which had the extra ethanol bunged in afterwards. The former will generally be sweeter -- the most well-known example is port. The latter is dry, or unsweetened -- sherry is the classic. Other famous fortified wines include vermouth (the most famous brand of which is Martini, star of James Bond's favourite cocktail), which is made with an elegant mixture of herbs; and Madeira, a famous Portugese fortified wine. Generally, fortified wine is around the high teens or low twenties in terms of alcohol content -- so a few glasses will normally set you up for an 'interesting' night out.
'Liqueur' covers all manner of sins, but basically, a liqueur is a spirit that's been watered down with some kind of flavouring, normally a fruit, herb or cream. You can often tell them apart from hard spirits because they're slightly syrupy and sticky, and don't quite make you gag when a shot of them gets forced down your throat.
There are a few basic liqueurs you should be aware of:
- Orange liqueur: often found under the brand name Cointreau (fancy stuff), Grand Marnier, Curacao, or the cheapo stuff, often just referred to as Triple Sec. Famously features in such cocktail classics as the Cosmopolitan or Margarita.
- Almond liqueur: Normally sold as Disaronno. Crucial ingredient in the excellent (but deadly) Alabama Slammer.
- Creme de Menthe: Basically just particularly alcoholic mouthwash.
- Raspberry liqueur: standard brand on sale is Chambourd, which is famous for having arguably the most elaborate bottle lid of any alcohol after champagne.
- Coffee liqueur: Kahula or Tia Maria. Yes, it does taste like coffee, and yes, it's horrible. The two worst cocktails I've ever drank both featured coffee, were seemingly named after Mafia bosses (Black Russian and The Widowmaker), and required much willpower and strained facial expressions to keep down.
- Baileys: A liqueur based on cream and whiskey, it's the perfect accompaniment to deep-fried haggis on the heart-attack stakes. Cornerstone in the impressive-looking but bastard-to-make B-52 layered shot.
The manly-man's drink, spirits are generally the highest-strength drinks you can buy if you don't have a taste for methylated spirits. Generally best not drunk neat unless you're that Man vs Booze guy from up North.
Vodka: Needs no explanation. Made from fermenting potatoes or grain. Official fuel of the USSR, apparently.
Gin: Invented by the Dutch and brought to Britain by William of Orange, gin is basically just a neutral spirit with juniper berries added. I hear it's great with tonic water or something.
Whiskey: Bourbon, rye, Scotch, Irish whiskey and Canadian whiskey are all slightly different animals -- all made by some permutation of distilling grain, but with vastly different results. Still, it's all strong, and generally pretty decent served over ice.
Rum: A favourite of the Caribbean and the Royal Navy (up 'till the 1970s, that is), rum is made by distilling sugarcane. It normally comes in two varieties: light rum, more commonly used in cocktails, and dark or golden rums, more likely to be drunk neat.
Tequila: Produced uniquely in Mexico, tequila is a clear spirit that looks like vodka but is allegedly better for doing shots. The correct tequila shot procedure, for the record, goes like:
- Lick the side of your hand, then sprinkle some salt on the licked area.
- Line up your shot, and a slice of lemon or lime.
- Then, in quick succession, lick the salt, down the shot, and suck on the slice.
However, despite its popularity among the semi-professional drinkers otherwise known as students, tequila's also a pretty good base for cocktails. Well known ones include Hairy Sunrise, Long Island Iced Tea, and Margaritas.
Southern Comfort: Produced in the US from a neutral spirit flavoured with fruit and whiskey, it tastes faintly like jelly beans and goes well with lemonade.
Sambuca: Possibly the weirdest hard spirit, sambuca is an Italian creation made from aniseed. Basically, alcoholic gobstoppers.
Absinthe: No round-up of alcohol would be complete without a nod to Europe's most notorious spirit. invented in Switzerland a couple hundred years ago, it's made from a dangerous mix of herbs, and somewhere around 75 per cent alcohol -- a potent combination that saw it banned from sale for most of the 20th century. However, it's actually pretty good when drunk properly -- that is, sweetened with sugar and watered down significantly.