20 Things You Might Not Know About Your Favorite Liquors

Jack Sparrow has his rum, Ron Burgundy has his scotch, and you probably have your own favorite liquor, too. But how much do you know about your beverage of choice from that magical shelf behind the bar?

You spend more time with your booze than you do with most of our friends; isn't about time you got to know it a little better? Mental Floss takes a look at the surprising histories, quirks, and uses of eight alcohol favorites.

Whether you're a whiskey connoisseur or just a gin enthusiast, it's always good to keep a few little-known facts under your belt, because you never know when the right piece of trivia will come in handy. After all, if you can't do a magic trick, you might as well dazzle your drinking partners with your knowledge of good spirits.

With that in mind, here are 20 things you might not know about the most popular types of liquor.

BOURBON

1. In 1964, the U.S. Congress recognized bourbon as a "distinctive product of the United States." The American whiskey gets its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Ironically, despite Kentucky producing 95 percent of the world's bourbon, none of it is currently made in Bourbon County.

BRANDY

2. The word brandy is derived from the Dutch word brandewijn, which translates to “burnt wine.” This popular digestif is created by distilling wine.

3. Some of the earliest thermometers—used in the 1600s—contained brandy instead of mercury. The liquor was eventually replaced with mercury due to the latter material's wider range of liquid-state temperature.

GIN

4. Even though gin has been produced in the U.S. since colonial times, it wasn't a very popular liquor until the Prohibition era. The ease with which it could be made and the relatively low cost involved in producing it made gin an abundant favorite at illegal bars.

5. The name gin is derived from various languages' names for the juniper berry—where gin gets much of its flavor. In French, it's genièvre, while in Dutch it's jenever, and in Italian it's ginepro.

6. Gin became extremely popular in the British colonies due to its use as an additive in concoctions intended to prevent malaria. Colonists in tropical areas would use gin to mask the bitter flavor of quinine, an anti-malarial drug, by dissolving it in carbonated water—forming tonic water—and then adding a splash of gin. This gin-and-tonic drink later made its way back to the rest of the world, and the rest is history.

RUM

7. Stylists in the 1800s believed that rum held the secret to clean and healthy hair, and often advised their clients to wash and soak their hair in the tropical liquor. (Brandy was considered a slightly less effective alternative.)

8. July 31 is “Black Tot Day” in the U.K., commemorating the 1970 rule that abolished the British Navy's daily ration of rum for sailors. The ration was referred to as a “daily tot” and dwindled from half a pint twice a day when it was originally introduced in 1655 to 70 milliliters once per day at the time it was abolished.

9. In order to determine whether their rum had been watered down more than it should be, sailors would occasionally mix gunpowder with their liquor and attempt to light it on fire. If the mix refused to flame up, they knew it had been watered down too much. A desirable proportion of water-to-rum, when mixed with gunpowder, would catch fire—thereby giving sailors “proof” of its alcohol content. This is where the modern term for a liquor's alcohol content originates.

SHERRY

10. Famous explorers Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus traveled with a large amount of sherry onboard their ships during their historic journeys. In fact, Magellan reportedly spent more on sherry than he spent on weapons for his 1519 trip around the world.

TEQUILA

11. True tequila (made from blue agave in specific regions of Mexico) never contains the infamous “worm,” though other types of mezcal (made from different agave plants) are occasionally sold with the larval form of a moth that lives on agave plants floating in the bottom of the bottle. Even though the presence of these moths was a bad sign—indicating that the crop has been infested—including a “worm” in bottles of mezcal became a popular marketing gimmick in the 1940s and continues today.

12. No one is quite certain when and how the margarita was first created, but the most popular origin story for the tequila drink dates back to October 1941, when bartender Don Carlos Orozco reportedly mixed up the drink for Margarita Henkel, the daughter of a German ambassador who wandered into Hussong's Cantina in Ensenada, Mexico. Henkel lived near the city, and since she was the first person to sample—approve of—the drink, Orozco named it after her.

VODKA

13. The word “vodka” is derived from the Slavic term voda, which translates to “little water.”

14. While most vodka is the product of distilled grains, potato vodka is also a popular alternative—especially for anyone with gluten allergies. Because it's derived from potatoes, this type of vodka is entirely gluten-free.

15. The first country to make vodka its national drink was Poland, which was also the first country to export vodka.

16. During the reign of Peter the Great, it became customary for foreign dignitaries to drink from the “Cup of the White Eagle”—a chalice containing 1.5 liters of vodka. This prompted many nations' ambassadors to travel in pairs, with one official drinking the vodka and the other attending to the important state issues that needed to be discussed.

17. Vodka is the world's most popular liquor by a huge margin, with more than 4.44 billion liters consumed last year. In Russia alone, 13.9 liters of vodka are consumed each year per person.

WHISKEY

18. The name “whiskey” comes from the English pronunciation of the Gaelic term for distilled alcohol, which translates to “water of life” (or “lively water”).

19. Just after his term as the nation's first president, George Washington built a whiskey distillery on his Mount Vernon plantation. After its completion in 1797, it soon became the largest distillery in the U.S., producing more than 11,000 gallons of the liquor per year. He was encouraged to build the distillery by his farm manager, James Anderson.

20. During the Prohibition era, the U.S. government's ban on alcohol sales did not include whiskey prescribed by a doctor and sold in pharmacies. This exemption was one of the chief reasons behind the exponential growth of the Walgreens pharmacy chain, which stocked whiskey and grew from 20 stores at the start of Prohibition to almost 400 stores in 1930.

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Image credit: Shutterstock/Roman Sigaev


20 Things You Might Not Know About Your Favorite LiquorsMental Floss is bi-monthly magazine and website that hosts an unending compendium of quirky knowledge, funny facts, and in-depth features about any and all things interesting and/or sublime.