Don't know your bitters from your jigger? Here are some commonly used spirits and ingredients that will help demystify your next classic cocktail experience.
Bitters: Highly concentrated flavoring agent made from roots, bark, herbs and/or berries. There are a number of different types of bitters -- Angostura, Abbot's, orange and Peychaud's are some of the more commonly known ones -- and they are primarily used very sparingly to lend finesse to stronger liquors such as whiskey.
Bourbon: American whiskey distilled from a fermented mash of grain that is at least 51 percent corn. Traditionally, bourbon is aged for at least two years in charred oak barrels.
Cointreau: Colorless, orange-flavored liqueur made from the dried skins of Curacao oranges.
Gin: Grain alcohol, generally made from corn, with malted barley and other grains added. The mixture is often redistilled with/through everything from juniper berries and fennel seeds to cinnamon bark and licorice to impart a specific flavor or essence.
Vermouth: Very sophisticated product of several botanical flavorings such as cloves, nutmeg and more than a hundred others. The French style is made by combining botanicals, then pouring a mixture of mistelles (fortified wine) over them. The brew steeps for a few weeks; the wine is then drawn off and the process repeated until all the flavor has been extracted from the botanicals. A selection of these flavored wines is then blended together and mixed with unflavored wines. Brandy is added to raise the alcohol level, and the vermouth is chilled almost to the freezing point to eliminate any sediment.
Whiskey: Made from one type of grain, such as corn, wheat or rye. Straight whiskeys are bottled from the casks in which they are aged, with water added to reduce their proof.
Liqueur: Alcoholic beverage manufactured by adding flavorings such as strawberry or orange to a distilled spirit. Flavorings can be added one of three ways: steeping, percolating/filtering and redistilling.
Simple syrup: Made by stirring granulated sugar into hot water in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves and then cooling the solution. Often used as a sweetener.