Taxonomies of cocktail ingredients

I’m looking for resources on classification of types of cocktail ingredients (those with at least some alcohol in them, not grocery/pantry items). Specifically, I’m more interested how the ingredient is used than how it’s made – for my purposes, an orange liqueur is an orange liqueur whether its base is a neutral spirit or cognac.

Is there a generally accepted universal cocktail ingredient taxonomy? There’s a good chapter breaking things down in The Craft of the Cocktail, but it doesn’t quite cover everything I’m interested in, and the liqueur section in particular is oddly weighted, giving equal prominence to amaro/amer and Berentzen apple liqueur.

Some additional context for my question:
For the past few years I’ve been developing a board game about making cocktails. The recipe cards are not only game pieces, but also actual full recipes that players can use to make over a hundred classic and contemporary cocktails. For gameplay reasons, the game can’t use every specific brand and variety of ingredient as its own separate playing piece, so in-game resources are named after a larger category (e.g. Dark Rum, Sherry, Aperitivo), and the ingredients on the cards are annotated so the players are able to make the real drink from the accurate recipe (e.g. Dark Rum blackstrap, Sherry Palo Cortado, Aperitivo Campari).

Spirits have been fairly easy to categorize, with the biggest questions being how granularly I want to subdivide rums (currently just Light and Dark) and tequilas (currently a single resource that can be annotated Blanco, Reposado, Añejo), and whether Old Tom should be its own resource type or just a potential annotation for Gin.

The liqueurs and fortified wines is where it gets hairier. For example, I’d really love to include the recipe for a Bramble in the game. But crème de mûre is used so rarely it doesn’t warrant its own resource type. Just having a Liqueur resource type is too broad – orange liqueur is distinct and prevalent enough to be its own resource type, and maraschino might be, too. And on a gut level, all of those ingredients feel distinct from more herbal liqueurs like benedictine or chartreuse. I could potentially see breaking liqueurs down into Orange Liqueur, Fruit Liqueur, Herbal Liqueur, and possibly another category that could catch maraschino, falernum, amaretto, and others that I haven’t thought of yet. But I also feel a little like I’m stabbing in the dark.

So before I start making my own categories, I’m looking for the generally accepted names and terms that are already in use. It’s possible that no one has felt the need to categorize things exactly this way before. But I figure if anyone has, someone here would know. I’m genuinely in awe of the collected talent/wisdom among the participants in this forum.

I don’t think the taxonomy you seek exists. Liqueurs, as you’ve noted, are a sprawling mess. I think your “stab in the dark” is as good a go at categorization as you’re going to find.

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I’ve been building and maintaining (some parts more thoroughly than others) a deeply hierarchical, taxonomic cocktail ingredient database for over a decade. That database is the lynchpin of my cocktail apps. For the first time, you can now access that database through Total Tiki Online. I recommend you take a look.

The fundamental distinction is critical, because looking at ingredients for mixed drinks is incompatible with looking at ingredients as, say, a spirits afficionado, som, or collector, or as spirits producer, or regulator. The priorities and needs differ significantly across these different groups.

You’ve already bumped into some of the reasons why. For example, dry sherries have roughly ten production-related categories. For cocktail purposes, though, historically it’s either dry sherry or sweet sherry, with discretion for how much oxidation character you want. Some recipes may go as far as specifiying, say, amontillado, but of course Palo Cortado or even Oloroso would work fine. (Contemporary recipes often get more specific.) Campari is a “red bitter”, and Campari is such a huge brand that it has come to embody the category, but there are other entrants, some of which are as old, and some of which are not.

Liqueurs are not that hard to organize, but it takes some work. There are some edge cases, but it turns out most fall into line. I credit Dr. Cocktail for coming up with a start for a modern system of organizing liqueurs. We used that on the original (defunct). I’ve significantly extended that over the years into a deep tree.

Rum is far and away the most problematic category for a host of reasons. Both Matt Pietrek and Martin Cate have proposed ambitious rum categorization systems in recent years. Theirs are both interesting exercises. How useful they are in the end, I am less sure, but they certainly make clear how unruly the rum space is.

From a purely mixological standpoint, the rum world is still hard to organize, but once you study the body of recipes enough, some patterns emerge. I have found the most important factor to be the general flavor character of the rum, which requires binning some things together that may make some people uncomfortable. The rums with the oldest and boldest flavor profiles are pot still rums. We sometimes call them “English-style”, and the three key examples/“styles” are Barbados, Jamaica, and Demerara. Jamaican and Demerara are particularly distinctive. These rums play a huge, irreplaceable role in mixed drinks from the punch era, through Tiki and into the present. The column still era that begins in the 19th Century eventually led to a more focused, prototypical, mainstream rum style we sometimes call “Spanish style”, that was once exemplified (and heavily influenced) by Bacardi. (Bacardi products since the 1960s remain mainstream, but that mainstream has become degenerate.) But what I’m talking about here is liquor that “tastes like rum”. There are a lot of these from a lot of places, and they are useful and diverse. The other big category is the agricoles, which we sometimes call “French-style rum”, which do not “taste like rum”. Their flavor is more akin to tequila, because they’re made from fermented cane juice. Mixologically, cachaça is arguably binned with these. Mixologically, however, rum agricole was an edge case, and is basically a newcomer to the mixed drinks world. It just happens to be popular now because it can be super delicious.

Rum terms like “light”, “dark”, “white”, etc., are all moving targets. You have to take a stand and run with it. These terms are basically orthogonal to the profiles/styles of the above paragraph, but practically speaking, they serve specialized mixological purposes, and they’re not really substitutes. If you make a drink that is designed around a black (young, caramel-color infused) rum from St. Croix but substitute a black rum from Jamaica, you just made a WILDLY different drink. Alas, it goes on and on.

Ok, I’ve rambled enough. Happy to try to answer questions.

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Thank you, Martin, for the thorough and thoughtful response. I’ve been wanting to check out your apps for a long time, but my phone is an Android. I hadn’t realized Total Tiki had a web version! I’m going to check it out now to see how you’ve handled categorization (and maybe whip up a drink or two this afternoon).

In my use case for this game design, I’m having to balance mixological accuracy with making the game fun to play. So the degree of granularity I want for ingredient categorization is somewhat inconsistent and driven primarily by gameplay. And it may require a little bit of fudging at the edges (like with the blackstrap example).

And those decisions create a feedback loop with which recipes I decide to include in the game. For a broad range of classic cocktail recipes, having two types of rum resource would probably cover the game’s needs (and I can get more specific in the recipe annotations for players who actually want to make the drinks). But if I want to skew the recipe set in a more tiki-heavy direction, I’d probably need more granularity in the rum resource types. Relatedly, orange liqueur is such a frequently-used ingredient that in the game it should stand on its own beside the fruit liqueur category, even though it’s technically a subset of it.

But these are all my problems to figure out. I came here looking for guidance, not for someone to do my homework. And you’ve already given me a lot more to think about. I’m going to go off and work on this, but I’m sure I’ll be back soon.

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