Although there are several kinds of alcoholic beverages, ethyl alcohol for consumption is made through fermentation and distillation. There are three major types of alcoholic beverages: fermented, distilled and fortified.
Fermentation occurs when the sugars in fruits and grains combine with yeast to yield ethanol. Beer and wine are the most common fermented alcoholic beverages. When alcoholic beverages are made through fermentation, the maximum ethanol content that can be reached is approximately 15%. In the United States, the ethanol content of beer is generally about 4-5%, and the ethanol content of wine usually about 10-13%.
Distillation involves fermenting raw materials such as grains, molasses, potatoes, etc., and taking the fermented alcohol mixture, heating it until the ethanol boils off and then capturing and condensing the alcohol vapors. Rum, whiskey, gin, vodka, etc. are made through the process of distillation, and thus are called distilled spirits. The ethanol content of distilled spirits is often in the 35-40% range, but can be as high as 95%, and is generally expressed in terms of proof – a number corresponding to double the ethanol content. For example, an 80 proof alcoholic beverage has an ethanol content of 40%.
Fortified wine is made by distilling wine and then mixing the distilled alcohol with the fruit juice. The distillation allows for higher alcohol contents than fermentation, and fortified wines are generally 18-20% alcohol. Sherry and port are common fortified wines.