How to Read a Whiskey Label Without Embarrassing Yourself
I recently had the opportunity to sample Bushmill’s second expression of Rare Caks, a 29-year-old single malt Irish whiskey aged in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks . This stuff sells for a whopping $750 and is well worth it . It was originally (triple) distilled in 1992 and aged in bourbon casks until 2004, then aged in sherry casks for another 17 years. At this point, it was bottled in cask-strength bottles. The end result is that it’s delicious, smooth and flavorful – a bit nutty with some sweet fruit in the background. Not that you know anything about it from the label.
Like wine, whiskey is subjective. If you’ve ever stood in the aisle of a store, staring at a row of whiskey labels with a sense of growing panic, you know the spirit can be frightening. Sophistication is reflected in the labels, which can be completely incomprehensible to a beginner and can baffle even an experienced person. Knowing just a little about your average label can make a huge difference in your whiskey buying methods and your enjoyment. Here’s a quick guide to reading whiskey labels without embarrassment.
Label decoder ring for your whiskey
One small note: there is no technical difference between “whiskey” and “whiskey”. The spelling difference is a loose combination of regional preference and particular choice, so just grab a bottle of (e)y whiskey and move on. Not every label will have all of the following information, but if you buy whiskey regularly, you will eventually see it all.
Second quick note: The sometimes referred to “mash bill” is a mixture of grains used in the distillation process. Different grains in different proportions will give different results, and sometimes it has a legal meaning that dictates what you can call the whiskey you just created (like bourbon).
Whiskey type and region
First, what is the difference between bourbon, rye, scotch, etc.?
- American Straight Whiskey: Whiskey made from must of cereals not exceeding 40% ABV, aged for at least two years in new toasted oak barrels.
- Bourbon: This is almost always from the Americas, and usually meets US legal requirements that include a mash of at least 51% corn, no more than 40% ABV, and aging in toasted oak barrels. There is no minimum aging requirement, unless it is called “pure bourbon”, in which case it is aged for at least two years.
- Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskey. Many whiskeys will list where they were distilled on the label (often in accordance with legal practice) and this can make a huge difference to the flavor profile and style. With Scotch Whiskey it’s even more complicated – although it’s all made in Scotland, there are many different regions in Scotland producing a wide range of different whiskey styles, so it’s good to know where this bottle comes from.
- Rye: As with bourbon corn, rye whiskey must have a mash bill of at least 51% rye.
- Tennessee Whiskey: If you’ve ever referred to Jack Daniels as bourbon, you’ve probably heard someone lecture that it’s Tennessee whiskey. Who cares? Not much, although all Tennessee whiskey must be made in Tennessee.
Of course, there are many variations within these broad categories, but this label information at least gives you a starting point.
The following details should apply to the whiskey itself and give you an idea of what you can expect in terms of taste and style:
ABV and Proof: Alcohol by volume should be familiar to any drinker. This is a measurement of how much ethanol is in the juice, as well as how quickly you’ll be under the table when you start drinking it. The fortress is only twice as high, so 80-proof whiskey has a strength of 40%.
Age: Many whiskeys are marked with age. Essentially, barrel aging is what gives whiskey its color and flavor. Without aging, you have moonshine (which has recently been renamed “white whiskey”). In most places, you cannot name your drink whiskey unless it has been aged for at least a short period of time in wooden barrels (usually at least two years, but the minimum age varies). Younger whiskeys aged just a few years don’t often advertise their age, but the more time a distillery invests in a whiskey, the prouder it will be and it will show on the label.
It should be noted that this is not as simple as “more years = better whisky”, although this can certainly be the case. The longer the whiskey sits in casks, the harder it will be, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that young whiskeys are only good for mixed drinks and gifts for your enemies. It is also worth noting that, unlike wine, whiskey is not aged in the bottle. Once it’s in the glass, it will freeze – until you open the bottle, at which point it will start to decompose and you’re on the clock .
Wood: Whiskey is aged in barrels, and the choice of wood largely determines the color and flavor characteristics. You will often see the type of casks used in the aging process listed on the label; if you see more than one type of cask, you may be suggesting a more complex flavor profile (and possibly a more expensive whisky). But there’s a lot of subjectivity here, so until you’ve developed your taste enough to know you like Madeira casks, just put that information on file.
Single Malt/Blend: Single malt whiskey is produced in a single distillery using single malt barley or other grains. You might think of Scotch whiskey when it comes to single malt whisky, but other whiskeys can also be single malts. Blending is a combination of different malts – in fact, it is several different distillations of whiskey and blending them according to the recipe to achieve a consistent flavor profile. There is no inherent superiority in either. Single malts are unique; mixes can be masterful.
Sour mash: This simply refers to the practice of reusing some of the mash from a previous batch in a new batch. It adds flavor and helps balance the juice a bit, so having it on the label is just the key to how the whiskey was made.
Single Barrel: The whiskey in the bottle was literally taken from one barrel and not mixed with any other barrels. This means that the whiskey will give you a few surprises, mostly good ones, instead of being blended together to achieve consistency.
Filtration: On the label you can see “no cold filtration”. Most whiskeys are chill-filtered to remove impurities, but there has been a movement to interfere with the natural appeal of the juice as little as possible, which is why some whiskeys are proud to tell you that they left all those impurities inside, baby. Sometimes this means your whiskey won’t be completely clear, but it’s still drinkable.
Legal aspects of whiskey
Several things on the label have more to do with marketing or legality than the whiskey itself:
Bonded: This is a specific American legal term for bourbon produced in a single distillery, aged for at least four years in a federal bonded warehouse, and 100% pure. This goes back to the 19th century , when whiskey makers were basically bullying their customers with all sorts of scams, so the word “bottled bond” on the label meant that the US government guaranteed your safety. These days, it’s mostly about “single malt” bourbon and base aging.
Expression: Sometimes whiskey producers name a particular bottling which is known as “expression”. This usually means no indication of age – for example, The Glenlivet ” Founder’s Reserve “.
Small batch: Essentially a meaningless marketing term. Of course, this may indicate that this is an individual expression, handcrafted in a dozen barrels. Or maybe not. Basically, ignore it unless you have insider information that it really means something.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of whiskey knowledge, but at least you’ll have some idea of what all that data on the label is for. The really good news is that the only proper education is to buy a lot more whiskey and drink a lot more whiskey. This is the way.