How to Read a Whiskey Label Without Embarrassing Yourself

How to Read a Whiskey Label Without Embarrassing Yourself

I recently had the chance to sample Bushmill’s second Rare Casks expression, a 29-year-old single malt Irish Whiskey finished in Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks. This stuff retails for a whopping $US750 ($1,041), and it’s worth it. It was initially (triple) distilled in 1992 and aged in bourbon barrels until 2004, then transferred to those sherry casks for another 17 years. At that point it was bottled at cask strength. The end result is that it’s delicious, smooth, and flavorful — kind of nutty with some sweet fruit in the background. Not that you’d know any of that from the label.

Like wine, whiskey appreciation is subjective. If you’ve ever stood in a store aisle staring at a row of whiskey labels with a sense of growing panic, you know that the spirit can be intimidating. The sophistication is reflected in the labels, which can be absolutely inscrutable to a newcomer, and can baffle even an old hand. Knowing just a little bit about the information on your average label can make a huge difference in your whiskey acquisition practices and your enjoyment. Here’s a quick guide to reading a whiskey label without embarrassing yourself.

Your whiskey label decoder ring

One quick note: There’s no technical difference between “whisky” and “whiskey.” The spelling difference is a loose combination of regional preferences and specific choice, so just grab a bottle of whisk(e)y and follow along. Not every label will have all of the following information, but if you buy whiskey regularly you’ll eventually see it all.

A second quick note: The “mash bill” sometimes referred to is the mix of grains used in the distillation process. Different grains in different proportions will yield a different result, and sometimes has a legal implication determining what you can call the whiskey you’ve just created (e.g., bourbon).

Whiskey type and region

First of all, what’s the difference between bourbon, rye, Scotch, etc.?

  • American straight whiskey: Whiskey made from a cereal grain mash with an ABV no higher than 40 per cent, aged a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels.
  • Bourbon: This is almost always from America, and usually adhering to the U.S. legal requirements, which include a mash bill of at least 51% corn, no more than 40% ABV, and ageing in charred oak barrels. There’s no minimum ageing requirement unless it’s called “straight bourbon” in which case it’s been aged at least two years.
  • Scotch, Irish, and Canadian whiskey: Many whiskeys tell you on the label where they were distilled (often following legally-defined practices), and this can make a huge difference in the taste profile and style. It gets even more complicated with Scotch — while it’s all made in Scotland, there are many, many different regions within Scotland producing a wide array of different styles of whiskey, so knowing where that bottle hails from is useful.
  • Rye: Similar to bourbon’s corn requirement, a rye whiskey must have a mash bill that is at least 51% rye.
  • Tennessee whiskey: If you’ve ever called Jack Daniels a bourbon, you have probably been lectured by someone about the fact that it’s a Tennessee whiskey. What’s the difference? Not much, though all Tennessee whiskey must be made in the state of Tennessee.

There are plenty of variations within these broad categories, of course, but this info on the label at least gives you a starting point.

The whiskey itself

The following details have to do ith the whiskey itself and inform what you can expect in terms of flavour and style:

ABV & Proof: Alcohol-by-volume should be pretty familiar to any drinker. It’s a measurement of how much ethanol is in the juice, which is also a measurement of how quickly you will be under the table when you start drinking it. Proof is just twice the ABV, so an 80-proof whiskey is 40% ABV.

Age: A lot of whiskey will have an age statement. Basically, ageing in barrels is what gives whiskey its colour and flavour. Without ageing you have moonshine (which has recently been rebranded as “white whiskey”). In most places you can’t call your stuff whiskey unless it’s been aged for at least a short period of time in wood barrels (typically at least two years, but minimum ages vary). Younger whiskeys that spend just a few years ageing don’t often advertise their age, but the more time a distiller invests into the whiskey, the prouder they’ll be, and that will be reflected on the label.

One thing to note is that it’s not as simple as “more years = better whiskey,” though this can certainly be the case. The longer whiskey sits in barrels, the more complicated it’s going to be, but that doesn’t necessarily mean young whiskeys are only suitable for mixed drinks and gifting to your enemies. Something else to note is that, unlike wine, whiskey doesn’t continue to age in the bottle. Once it’s in the glass, it’s frozen — until you open the bottle, at which point it will start to degrade and you’re on the clock.

Wood: Whiskey is aged in barrels, and the choice of wood determines much of the colour and flavour profile. You’ll often see the type of barrels used in the ageing process listed on the label; if you see more than one kind of barrel, you can assume a more complex flavour profile (and probably a more expensive whiskey). But there’s a lot of subjectivity here, so until you’ve developed your palate enough to know that you like whiskey finished in Madeira barrels, just file this info away.

Single malt/blend: A single malt whiskey is produced in one distiller using a single malted barley or other grain. You might think of Scotch when it comes to single malts, but other whiskey varieties can be single malt as well. A blend is a combination of different malts — basically it’s taking several different whiskey distillations and combining them according to a recipe in order to achieve a consistent flavour profile. There’s no inherent superiority to either. Single malts are unique; blends can be masterful.

Sour mash: This just refers to the practice of re-using some of the previous batch’s mash bill in the new batch. It adds to the flavour and helps balance the juice a bit more, so seeing it on the label is just a clue to how the whiskey was made.

Single barrel: The whiskey in the bottle was literally drawn from a single barrel and not mixed with any other barrels. This means the whiskey will have some surprises for you, most of them good, instead of being blended together to achieve consistency.

Filtering: You might see “non-chill filtered” on the label. Most whiskeys are chill filtered to remove impurities, but there’s been a movement to meddle as little as possible with the natural awesomeness of the juice, so some whiskeys proudly tell you that they left all those impurities in there, bubba. This sometimes means your whiskey won’t be totally clear — but it’s still good to drink.

Legalities around whiskey

A few things on the label have more to do with marketing or legalities than the whiskey itself:

Bottled in bond: This is specific American legal term that means a bourbon sourced from one distillery that has been aged at least fouryears in a federally bonded warehouse and is 100 proof. This dates back to the 19th century when whiskey makers basically poisoned their customers with all sorts of shenanigans, so displaying “bottled in bond” on the label meant the U.S. government guaranteed your safety. These days it’s really mostly about the “single maltiness” of the bourbon and the baseline ageing.

Expression: Sometimes whiskey distillers will name a specific bottling, which is known as an “expression” name. Usually this means there’s no age statement — for example, The Glenlivet “Founder’s Reserve.”

Small batch: This is essentially a meaningless marketing term. Sure, it might indicate that this is a bespoke expression hand-crafted in a dozen barrels. Or it might not. Basically, ignore it unless you’ve got some insider knowledge that it actually means something.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of whiskey knowledge, but at least you’ll have some inkling as to what all that data on the label is good for. The really good news is that the only proper education involves buying a lot more whiskey and drinking a lot more whiskey. This is the way.

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