Liquor Laboratory

The Best Liquor Buying Guide For Beginners in 2023

Best Liquor Buying Guide For Beginners

Last Updated on March 27, 2024 by Lydia Martin

Our enthusiastic greetings to all the supporters of Firefly Wines and Ales! We are excited to have you check out our shared passion for wines and other alcoholic beverages. We are a team of hardworking bartenders and mixologists dedicated to providing essential liquor information. 

Firefly Wines and Ales takes a special and unique approach to your favorite ales and wines. There’s no country or grape category. Instead, we focus on flavor, taste, and aroma. No need to be an expert when choosing which wine or ale is crisp or sweet! Our straightforward guide will show you the perfect pair for any occasion.

Aside from wine, you most likely pick up the mundane bottle of Smirnoff, Bacardi, or Jack Daniel’s on every trip to the liquor store. 

If you’re new at liquor shopping, consider this your ultimate guide on all things alcohol, so you know exactly what to do and which to get the next time you’re in the midst of the aisles in the liquor store. 

Let’s begin! 

Comprehensive Guide To Different Alcoholic Drinks


Traditionally, alcohol was made from fermenting just fruits, vegetables, and grains. Today, however, modern technology has paved the way for making many different alcoholic drinks from unconventional ingredients, including bacon and yogurt. [1

The type of alcohol present in alcoholic drinks is called ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, which forms when yeast ferments the natural sugars within the base ingredients.

Some alcoholic drinks (vodka, bourbon, and brandy) have more alcohol content than others (beer, wine, and cider). 

The thing is: alcohol is extremely nuanced, and no two bottles under the same spirit class will taste the same. This is due to the different production methods and ingredients used in making the alcohol.

Read: Who Invented Alcohol?

How is Alcohol Made 

There are mainly two ways to make alcohol: fermentation and distillation. 

Fermentation Process

Wine Fermentation Process

Fermentation happens when the natural sugars of your base ingredients turn into alcohol. 

Perhaps the best example of a fermented alcoholic drink is wine; wherein yeast is added to the grape sugars to release them as ethanol and carbon dioxide. Winemakers will often add their own twist to this process to make their batch stand out from the crowd. 

Distillation Process

Distillation goes hand-in-hand with fermentation, and it is what happens when the water from the fermented product is removed to create a more concentrated final spirit. 

A distilled spirit is the step beyond fermentation. It is what is commonly known as “hard liquor.” 

This process occurs through evaporation and condensation. Massive stills do the job by boiling the brew to separate the alcohol — after all, alcohol does boil quicker than water — and collecting it elsewhere. This is done multiple times, as very rarely does alcohol separate itself from the brew in just one go. 

Since we’re on the topic of wine, distilled wine turns into brandy. Distilled beer turns into whiskey. You get the picture. 

Types of Alcohol 

Types of Alcohol 


As mentioned above, distilled alcoholic drinks have taken the next step beyond fermentation. Water is eliminated from the brew to create a more concentrated final spirit. 

This process is done by dumping the initial fermented brew into massive pot stills and boiling them to induce evaporation and condensation. 

As a result, distilled alcoholic drinks have a harsher alcoholic bite on both the nose and the palate. Their ABV can range anywhere from 20 percent (for liqueurs) to a whopping 60 to 70 percent (for cask-strength whiskeys). On average, though, you’ll probably find most distilled spirits at 40 percent ABV. 

Fine spirits, like whiskey and brandy, are often served neat. On the other hand, you’ll likely find gin, vodka, and rum served in cocktails and mixed with fruit juices and soda. 

The two main categories of distilled alcoholic drinks are spirits or liquors, and liqueurs. 

Spirits or Liquors 

Ballantine's Scotch Whisky

You’re probably wondering what’s the difference between a “spirit” and a “liquor.” We’re sure you’ve heard both terms before. 

Spirits are liquors, and liquors are spirits. Both terms can be used interchangeably.

Here are some types of spirits/liquors. 


Whiskey laws are some of the strictest in the entire alcohol industry. There is serious importance in where the spirit is made. Their mash bill must also meet certain requirements and criteria before being legally labeled as “whiskey.” 

Whiskey, like beer, is made from fermented grain juice. The most common grain used in whiskey-making is corn, rye, barley, or wheat. It must be aged for a minimum of two years before being bottled. 

Some popular whiskey brands include Jack Daniel’s (Tennessee whiskey), Jim Beam (American bourbon), Johnnie Walker (Scotch whisky), and Jameson (Irish whiskey). Find out what a whiskey sommelier does here


Plantation Rum

Rum is a distilled spirit made from sweet molasses or sugar cane and aged in oak barrels. As a result, rum is typically sweet, with strong notes of brown sugar, chewy caramel, and creamy vanilla. 

Most rums are primarily made in the Caribbean. Popular brands include Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Havana Club, and Malibu

Read: Rum vs Whiskey


Most people don’t know how to tell gin and vodka apart. The key difference between the two spirits is that gin is a vodka that has gone through a juniper berry flavoring process. This extra step gives gin an herbal flavor profile not present in vodka. 

Aside from juniper berries, most gin is also flavored with other botanicals and spices, with coriander, anise, rose, lemon, and grapefruit being the most popular. 

Popular brands of gin out in the market include Bombay, Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Hendrick’s


Spanish Brandy

Brandy is to wine what beer is to whiskey. Simply put, brandy is distilled wine. 

Most brandy is made from distilling fermented grape juice, although other fruits can also be used to make this liquor. Like wine, it has a fruity profile, with fresh and dried fruit flavors. 

It is one of the most expensive liquors on the market. Cognac, Armagnac, and Brandy de Jerez are some of the most popular brandy types. 


Tequila is made from distilling blue agave plants native to Mexico. It is slightly different from Mezcal, which uses any type of agave plant (not necessarily blue). The blue agave plant lends a distinct earthy tone to any bottle of tequila

There are three main types of tequila: 

  • Blanco (unaged)
  • Reposado (a short aging period of 2 to 12 months after distillation)
  • Anejo (aged anywhere from 1 to 3 years in oak barrels) 

Read: Tequila Anejo vs Reposado



Vodka is referred to by many as “boozy” water. 

Well, they’re not wrong. 

Vodka is made from fermented grains, with rye being the most common, and is distilled several times to produce a crystal-clear final spirit. This distilled spirit is virtually tasteless and odorless, with a clear, transparent look. 

Grey Goose, Belvedere, Smirnoff, and Absolut are the most popular vodka brands. They are usually mixed in cocktails or drunk in shots. 

Read: Vodka vs Whiskey


It is easy to assume that liqueurs and liquors are the same. 

Technically, liqueurs are made from a liquor base, like rum, whiskey, and brandy and sweetened with sugar. Other essences like oils and extracts are also added to contribute to the liqueur’s overall final flavor. 

Liqueurs have a wide range of flavors, from cream to coffee and orange to almond, and are added to cocktail drinks to add that “special something.”

Most Popular Liqueurs 

Absinthe Cocktail

Absinthe is characterized by its anise flavor and emerald green color. It adds an herbal, licorice finish to any cocktail drink. 


Limoncello is a lemon-flavored liqueur mainly produced in Southern Italy. If you think your cocktail drink is missing that zesty tang, maybe a Limoncello dash is all it needs! 



You’ll probably find Bailey’s Irish cream in any hot coffee or chocolate cocktail drink. It is milky and creamy, with a hint of fruitiness from its Irish whiskey base. 


Fireball uses a base of Canadian whisky, flavored with cinnamon and sweetened. Many would liken it to liquid Fireball candies. 



Jagermeister, hailing from Germany, shares an emerald-green hue with Absinthe. It uses 56 secret herbs and spices for that sweet and spicy flavor profile. But is Jagermeister whiskey or liqueur?


Midori is a honeydew melon-flavored Japanese liqueur. Its candy-like taste makes it the perfect combination to lemon-lime soda, ginger ale, or orange juice! 



Amaretto is one of the most popular liqueurs and is a classic bar staple. It has a potent almond and vanilla flavor with a slightly bitter finish. This liqueur goes extremely well with vodka or whiskey. 


More than a hundred herbs and spices make up the unique Chartreuse liqueur. Carthusian monks have been making it in France since 1737. Tasting notes of Chartreuse include mint, apple, sage, and gentian. 



Kahlua hails from Mexico and is made with a rum base. It is made with 100 percent Arabica coffee beans and is the perfect addition to an Espresso Martini! 


Fermented alcoholic drinks are those that have gone through just the fermentation process. Beer and wine are two of the most popular examples. 

They are lower in alcohol content and much more beginner-friendly. Typically, fermented alcoholic drinks have about 15 percent ABV (unless modified). 



Wine is made from fermented grapes. Nowadays, it is synonymous with sophisticated dinner dates. 

A bottle of wine has about 12 percent ABV on average. 

Red Wine 

Red wine is fermented from red-skinned grape varieties. 

Read: Do Americans Drink More Wine or Beer?

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s most recognized red wine grape varieties. They produce a distinct, full-bodied wine with high tannins and acidity. [2

Its extreme adaptability allows it to grow in various climates, including British Columbia, Australia, and Canada. 

Pinot Noir

Pinot noir is a black wine grape of the Vitis vinifera species. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, which is full-bodied and rich, Pinot Noir is dry and light, with bright acidity and silky tannins. 

It can be difficult to cultivate and make wine out of this grape species, so Pinot Noir is one of the world’s most expensive wines. 



Shiraz, also popularly known as Syrah, is a popular grape variety that grows dark red wine. Shiraz wine is typically full-bodied, with firm tannins and higher alcohol levels at 13 to 14.5 percent. 

It is the perfect combination of savory and sweet, with potent notes of bacon and beef jerky laced with blue- and blackberries. 


Merlot is second to Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of worldwide appeal. The Merlot red grape variety grows in various climates and can taste very differently depending on the climate it was cultivated in. 

Merlot can take on different profiles — from velvety and plummy to oaky and rich. It has a deep, ruby-red color. 



There’s not a lot of love for Grenache, but we seriously think that needs to change! This medium-bodied red wine is rife with juicy red fruits and laced with spicy cinnamon notes. It has a wondrous floral bouquet. 

The Grenache red wine grape variety typically needs a warmer climate due to its long growing season. It was originally a Spanish wine, but other regions like Southern France and South Australia have been growing them. 

Rose Wine

Many think of rose wine as the love child between white and red wines. The truth is, rose wine is a lot closer to red wine — they are produced similarly, but the grape skins fermentation is a lot shorter (resulting in its signature pink color). 

White Wine

White wine is made from fermented green grapes. 


Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white wine. It is potent with tropical fruit flavors, like pineapple, mango, and papaya, with moderate tannins and acidity. 

It is made from a green-skinned grape variety first grown in Chardonnay, a small village in the Burgundy region of France. It can be found in various regions worldwide due to its simple cultivation. Find out who makes Kirkland Chardonnay here



There’s definitely a lot of love for Moscato in recent years. This sweet, fruity Italian white wine is the perfect drink for brunch, as it doesn’t have a high alcohol content (only about 5 to 7 percent ABV)! 

It’s an unintimidating option for wine beginners yet enjoyable enough for seasoned drinkers. Moscato is made from the Muscat grape wine variety. 

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is another popular white wine. Its grape variety originated from the same region Cabernet Sauvignon first came about — the Bordeaux region of France. 

The French first used it as a blend but eventually planted and cultivated it to make a wine in which it would be the only ingredient. 



Unlike other wines originating in France, Riesling hails from Germany. The Rhine region in the country cultivates white wine grape varieties that produce a white wine with a fruity flavor profile, including apricot, apple, pear, and nectarine. 

Riesling wine has high acidity, similar to that of lemonade. 

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris is a white wine grape variety belonging to the Pinot Noir family. It is fresh and spicy, with a full and rich flavor profile and citrus and tropical fruit notes. 

Sparkling Wine 

Sparkling Wine

Sparkling wine is saturated with carbon dioxide, making this drink a lot fizzier and bubblier than white or red wines. The fizz comes from a second fermentation done either in a tank or inside the bottle. 


Prosecco hails from the Valdobbiadene region in Veneto, Italy. It is made from Prosecco grapes, which give it tasting notes of lemongrass and citrus, with green apple, white peach, and honeydew flavors. You can get it in brut or extra brut (dryness levels). 

It is thought of by many as “cheap” Champagne, but allow us to tell you that some premium Prosecco bottles are more expensive than Champagne! 



Champagne originates from, well, the Champagne region of France. Typically, it is made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. 

It has a fruity flavor profile like other sparkling wines, with peach, cherry, and citrus taking center stage. It has creamy afternotes and a hint of toast. 

Fortified Wine

Fortified wine uses the addition of a distilled spirit, usually brandy, to create a stronger, more “fortified” alcoholic drink. 



Sherry wine is one of the most popular fortified wines. It is made from white grape varieties, usually Palomino grapes, that undergo fermentation to create the base white wine. It is further fortified with brandy. 

Traditionally, Sherry was made dry. Nowadays, it’s more considered a dessert wine due to its sweeter nature. 


Vermouth comes in two varieties: typically sweet or red and dry. It gets its flavor from various botanicals, including roots, barks, seeds, flowers, herbs, and spices. It is either consumed as an apéritif (drink before meal) or as a key ingredient in cocktails, like the martini, Manhattan, and Negroni. 



Port wine hails from Portugal, but other countries like Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, and India produce their port-style wines (they just can’t be legally called “port”). Typically, it is a sweet red wine, but it can also come in dry, semi-dry, or white variants. 

It is characterized by its bittersweet profile, with dark flavors like cocoa and toffee. 


Of course, who can’t forget about the world’s best-selling alcoholic drink, beer? It is known by many to be the gateway to alcoholic drinks! 

It is made from grains, with wheat and barley being the most popular and cost-effective; yeast to kickstart the fermentation; and hops for additional flavor. Most beers are bottled at 3 to 8 percent ABV. 

There are two types of beers: ales and lagers. The two major beer classifications are differentiated by their fermentation process. [3]


Ales are fermented with top-fermenting yeast at warm temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Pale Ale

Pale ale is a popular ale that’s light yet flavorful, with obvious hops and bitterness. It is made from brewing ale yeast and pale malt. 

Amber Ale

Amber Ale

Amber ales are a lot darker in color compared to pale ales. They are also maltier and tend to be richer on the mouthfeel, with notes of toffee and caramel. Its brew uses a portion of amber malt. 

Wheat Beers

Wheat beers use a lot more wheat in their brew (about 50 percent) compared to the amount of malted barley. They are light and citrusy, with a fuller mouthfeel. Its two main varieties include German Weizenbier and Belgian witbier. 

English Bitter Ale

English Bitter Ale

English bitters are also known as British-style pale ales. It has a relatively stronger flavor yet remains mildly bitter. You’ll most likely find this type of beer served in local UK pubs. 

Stouts & Porters

Stouts and porters are dark-colored ales. They are typically made from unmalted roasted barley, which contributes to its dark hue and roasted coffee flavor. The most popular type of stout is Guinness. 


Lagers are the opposite of ales — they are made from bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures of 35 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Pale Lager

Most of the beers out in the market are probably pale lagers (popular brands include Heineken, Stellar, and Budweiser). They have a mild flavor and light texture, with bitterness from the hops. 

Dark Lager

Dark Lager

Just like stouts, dark lagers use dark roasted malts. They are characterized by chocolate and licorice notes, with the signature crisp, round flavors typical of lagers. 


Cider is often considered a classification of wine, but we’re going to put it in its own category here. 

Here’s how you can easily differentiate wine from cider: wine is to grapes, while cider is to fruit. The most common ciders are made from fermented apples and pears, but you’ll also see some brands using oranges, strawberries, and other fruits. 

They are typically low in ABV (about 4 to 6 percent) with a sweet, fruity flavor profile. 

It’s also considered a great alternative if you’re allergic to gluten and can’t drink beer or are bored of the quintessential wine. 


Alcopops on table

Alcopops, or coolers, are flavored alcoholic beverages that resemble soda or fruit juices. They are heavily flavored and sweetened, making them palatable even to alcoholic drinks newbies. They come in either a bottle or can and usually have a low ABV of only 4 to 7 percent. 

The most popular alcopops out in the market include Bacardi Breezer, Jack Daniel’s Whiskey and Coke, and UDL. 

Cocktail Bitters 

The cocktail bitters that bartenders use to flavor your cocktails also have alcohol. They are made from high-proof spirits and infused with flavorings like herbs, roots, fruits, and spices. They are also not necessarily “bitter.” 

The two most popular brands of cocktail bitters are Angostura and Peychaud’s. Cocktail drinks traditionally made with bitters are the classic Manhattan, Martini, Old Fashioned, and Negroni. 

How To Drink Alcohol 

How To Drink Alcohol 


To drink alcohol neat simply means drinking it without mixers, flavorings, or ice. To put it simply, it is the straight pour of the alcoholic drink from the bottle to your glass. 

Premium alcoholic drinks, like brandy and whiskey, are best consumed neat, as this is the best way to appreciate all their subtleties and nuances in flavor fully. 

Read: Brandy vs Bourbon vs Scotch vs Whiskey

On the Rocks

On the rocks simply means to have your alcoholic drink with a bit of ice. Some spirits with exceptionally high ABVs will benefit from being served on the rocks, as doing so will cut back the harsh alcoholic bite. 

We recommend using one large ice cube instead of several small ice cubes if you like your drink on the rocks. The latter will most likely melt faster and dilute the spirit inside the glass, making for a weaker drink. 

Straight Up

To order a drink “straight up” means you’d like it chilled. This is different from “on the rocks” because the spirit itself is cold, and you won’t be having it with ice. 

Common Terminology 

Common Terminology 

Liquor vs Spirit

Liquor and spirit are the same. Both of these terms can be used interchangeably. 

Whiskey vs Whisky

The main difference between whiskey and whisky (and no, it’s not a typo) is the area where the spirit is made. It is spelled whisky without the E in Scotland and Canada. It is spelled whiskey with an E in the United States, Ireland, and other countries. 

Proof vs ABV

Proof and ABV, or alcohol by volume, pertain to the alcohol content within the spirit. The liquor’s proof is twice its ABV, so, as an example, a Jack Daniel’s No. 7 with an 80 proof has a 40 percent ABV. 

Shaken vs Stirred

You’ll probably hear people ordering their cocktail drinks “shaken or stirred.” This simply means how the drink was prepared. 

Shaken means putting the ingredients into a cocktail shaker and giving it a good shake. Cocktails that contain dairy, eggs, cream liqueur, or fruit juice can benefit from a good shaking. Classic Margaritas and Cosmopolitans are often shaken. 

On the other hand, stirring is preferable for more delicate cocktails. Those that are built inside the serving glass are also better stirred. This method allows the ingredients to be more concentrated and cuts back the dilution of ice water. 

The best cocktails for stirring are the Manhattan and Negroni. 

Shot vs Shooter

A shot means drinking alcohol inside a shot glass in one gulp. “Take a shot!” is probably a phrase you’re familiar with!  

Conversely, a shooter is a type of shot glass. It is characterized by a narrow and tall profile, unlike regular shot glasses, which are short and stout. Aside from alcohol, shooters are also commonly used to hold food items, like hors d’oeuvres and desserts. 

Read: What’s the Most Popular Alcoholic Drink?

Our Favorite Cocktail Recipes 

Our Favorite Cocktail Recipes 

Old Fashioned 

The Old Fashioned has been around since the 19th century and is one of the six basic cocktail drinks. It uses a whiskey base, added with a bit of sugar and a dash of bitters (we highly recommend Angostura). It is typically served on the rocks inside an Old Fashioned glass. 



The original Manhattan was made with rye whiskey, but other whiskeys also make great alternatives. Aside from whiskey, this recipe uses sweet vermouth and bitters, shaken and strained into a chilled cocktail glass. 


The Margarita is a classic bar staple that uses only three basic ingredients: tequila, orange liqueur, and lime juice. It is typically served shaken and strained into a salt-rimmed margarita glass. 

Mocktail & Non-Alcoholic Alternatives 

Non-Alcoholic Drink

The term “mocktail” is a portmanteau for “mock cocktail.” Also known as zero-proof drinks or virgin cocktails, these are party drinks, much like cocktails, without alcohol. 

People are known to use fruit juices, flavored extracts, or extra-spicy ginger soda to mimic the distinctive taste of alcohol. 

How Many Shots Will Get You Drunk? 

Assuming you’re drinking a high-proof spirit, such as vodka, gin, or whiskey, you probably will start to feel drunk after 5 shots at 1.5 ounces each. Anything beyond that will get you severely drunk, and you will probably wake up with a hangover the next day. 

Of course, the amount of alcohol it takes to get you drunk depends on many different factors: weight, age, and gender. Women get drunk quicker than men, and those with a lower body mass will get drunk faster than someone heavier.

Lastly, if you’re older, you may have a more difficult time holding down your liquor than someone ten years your junior. 

Common Mistakes When Buying Liquor 

Common Mistakes When Buying Liquor 

Sticking to Bottles You Already Know 

Bacardi Rum is a surefire hit among you and your friends, which is why it’s definitely making an appearance at your next house party. While that’s all fine and dandy, switching things up a bit won’t hurt. The next time you visit the liquor store, chat up the employee and ask what he would recommend in place of Bacardi. What he suggests may just be a pleasant surprise! 

Ignoring the Bottom Shelf 

There is a notion that the bottom shelf liquors are plain awful and cheap, and the good stuff is right on top. While that is true, it’s not the absolute law. You can get bottles of great quality vodka and gin without burning a hole through your wallet. 

On the other hand, we will never recommend getting cheap whiskey, brandy, or tequila, as their prices have everything to do with quality. Stick to top shelves for those liquors. Here’s how you can order whiskey at a bar?

Forgoing Research 

Like with any purchase, it’s important to do some research before spending your hard-earned money on a liquor bottle. Take the time to look up the base ingredients in that whiskey bottle you’re eyeing to decide whether or not it suits your palate. The worst thing that could happen is ending up with an expensive bottle you absolutely do not enjoy. 

How Not To Get Too Drunk 

How Not To Get Too Drunk 

Avoid Drinking Too Quickly 

When you know there will be a lot of alcohol in the venue, space out your drinks to avoid getting too drunk. Have a bottle of beer or a 1.5-ounce shot every hour. You can swap the alcoholic drink with soda or fruit juices once in a while. 

Drink a Lot of Water in Between Shots 

Drinking a glass of water in between shots will stimulate your bladder to move and pee away what you’d just drunk, which will slow down the effects of alcohol. 

If You Don’t Want To, You Don’t Have To 

You don’t have to drink if you absolutely know that the next one will get you drunk. You can simply say, “No, thanks,” when someone offers to buy you another. It’s more important to listen to what your body is telling you than to keep up with other people. 

Liquor Buying Guide FAQs 

What are the best alcohol combinations?

The best alcohol combinations are whiskey and coke (Whiskey and Coke), vodka and tonic (Vodka Tonic), gin and lime juice (Gimlet), and, of course, whiskey and ginger beer (Mule). Of course, feel free to experiment with other alcohol combinations other than the ones we’ve just listed! 

What’s the #1 alcoholic drink?

The number one alcoholic drink worldwide is beer. Beer is the most widely consumed drink next to water, tea, and coffee. 

Final Thoughts 

And there you have it… your Ultimate Guide to all things alcohol! We hope you’ve learned a thing or two about the various types of spirits available out there, the difference between liqueur and liquor, and why whiskey is sometimes spelled without an E, amongst many other topics! 

The world of spirits is massive, so the next time you go liquor shopping, whip out this article as your personal guide. As always, thanks for reading! 


  1. Waffle House Is Releasing Its First Official Beer And It Smells Just Like Bacon

  2. What are Tannins, Really?

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