Dry or dryness describes the lack of a sweet taste in beverages. The term is applicable to any form of alcoholic beverages including beer, cocktails, distilled spirits, and wine. Generally, a lack of sugar or other simple carbohydrates easily converted to sugar by enzymes present in the mouth, particularly amylase causes dryness, but the presence of another taste that masks sweetness also affects the dryness of a beverage. The mouthfeel of a sweeter drink is often called silky, not dry. Some bartenders use thickeners like gum arabic and locust bean gum syrup to varies degrees of success to achieve a cocktail with dry, yet silky properties. Dryness per se is not necessarily a deficiency in a cocktail, rather it is more a preference of taste and mouthfeel.
A dry wine features little to no residual sugar, thus it does not taste sweet. As grape juice converts to wine, the yeast eats the sugars present in the juice during the fermentation process, which results in alcohol. Many winemakers stop the fermentation process prior to the yeast eating all the sugar, which leaves the wine with sweeter qualities. This sugar left behind is known as residual sugar. When the winemaker allows the fermentation process to finish completely, the wine is considered dry. Wine classifications like extra dry, dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and extra-sweet exist to assist consumers.
In wine drinking, many people confuse the term dry with a sense and consequently use the term incorrectly. Wines that create a drying sensation inside the mouth feature strong tannins. This sensation is not caused by the lack of residual sugar that would cause a wine to be dry, but rather the tannins present. This confusion is compounded by the fact that many high tannin wines are also dry. It is important to understand though that the two are not the same thing and only wines with strong tannins will dry out your mouth. To summarize: dry wine–lacks sweet qualities, dry mouth–high tannin content, many wines are both.
Things get confusing in the cocktail world quickly. For example, dry, in the context of a martini or manhattan refers to the amount of vermouth in the drink. So a dry manhattan features dry vermouth, a perfect manhattan equal parts dry and sweet vermouth, and finally, a person ordering just a manhattan expects just the use of sweet vermouth along with the whisky/whiskey.
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