How to Read a Whiskey Label

by
January 11, 2017

Whether you are new to the whiskey category (and if so, “Welcome!”) or whether you know your single malts from your bourbon, it’s always important to understand what you’re buying. There’s a lot of information given on a label. And sometimes what isn’t said is something to take note of. We’ll go over some terminology in the whiskey world to get you up to speed and ready to make sound purchases.

TERMS OF SIGNIFICANCE

Single Barrel

This product is a bottling which consists of whiskey from one barrel. No other barrels go into bottling. The size of the barrel isn’t restricted, but are often standard 53-gallon (200L) white oak. When purchasing single barrel whiskeys, keep in mind there will be variances between barrels.

Single Malt

This term refers to a malt whiskey which is distilled at one distillery. In the EU, this means the whiskey must be distilled in pot-stills, and the grain used must be barley. Additionally, if Scotch or Irish, the whiskey must be aged at least three years. One point to make, the whiskey used in the bottling can be blended from many different barrels from many different ages as long as all the whiskey is produced at one distillery.

American Single Malt

Distilled in the U.S., these whiskeys must have a mash bill of at least 51% barley and the whiskey must aged in new charred oak barrels. This Standard of Identification is being challenged by many American Single Malt distillers (see the ASMWC website for further details) so stay tuned for updates to this rising category.

Blended Malt

Vatted malt is a term which is no longer in use and has been replaced with “blended malt” by the Scotch Malt Whisky Association (SMWA). This indicates a whisky which is comprised of single malt whiskies from more than one distillery.

Cask Strength

This indicates that water isn’t added to the whiskey after aging, prior to bottling. Typically whiskeys of this sort will be sold at higher than 46% ABV, but there isn’t a minimum. Most other whiskeys are sold between 40-46% ABV as their standard proof.

NCF (non chill-filtered)

Chill-filtration is the industrial process by which some companies remove congeners from their products. At lower temperature and/or when water is added to whiskey which hasn’t been chill-filtered, the whiskey becomes cloudy. Additionally, there are small particles which are removed by this process to ensure the whiskey is clear of debris. However, these congeners and particles contain flavor and texture and removing them affects the end result. You will only see brands which DON’T chill-filter their products making this claim so if you don’t see it, assume your whiskey has been chill-filtered.

Age Statement

Increasingly, NAS (no age-statement) whiskeys are hitting the market. However, if a product makes a claim that their whiskey is x number of years old, not a drop of whiskey in the bottling can be younger than that age statement. The product can be OLDER, but it cannot be any younger. With whiskey, if a bottling is stating their whiskey is x number of years old, you can be guaranteed that it is AT LEAST that old.

Straight

This term is only used with American whiskeys. It means that the whiskey is aged AT LEAST two years in charred new oak barrels (straight corn whiskey can be aged in used charred oak barrels or un-charred new oak). It can be a blend of more than one straight whiskey type (i.e. bourbon, rye, wheat, corn), provided all the whiskey comes from the same state.

Bonded or Bottled-in-Bond

Again, a term which is only used in the United States. Whiskey which is aged for a minimum of four years under government supervision; distilled from one distillery, one distiller, and from one distilling season. The whiskey is also bottled at 50% ABV.

TERMS OF LITTLE (OR NO) MEANING

Small Batch

This could mean two barrels or it could mean 2000 barrels in a batch. There is no legal definition for this term. The brand themselves determine what this means. Take this meaning with a grain of salt. It really is only helpful to differentiate between the products the brand makes from each other.

Craft, Handcrafted, Craft by Hand

None of these terms have any legal significance with regard to the whiskey production. Since there isn’t consensus among the whiskey community, you should take a close look at claims of a “craft, handcrafted, or craft by hand” product. They often lead to more questions than answers.  

OTHER THINGS TO NOTE

VINTAGE YEARS, RELEASE DATES

Years often appear on whiskey bottles. Pay attention to whether they have vintage dates (year of distillation) or release dates (year of bottling). Some whiskeys have both on their bottles. Do a math equation and you’ll have your age statement.

Brands which often include vintage dates: Balblair, Glenrothes, and Glen Garioch.

Brands which often include release dates: Diageo Special Release Single Malts, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.

Brands which often will include both vintage and release dates: Independent Bottlers like Signatory, Gordon & MacPhail, and Cadenhead’s.

STATE OF DISTILLATION

The country of origin is a required feature on all spirits. Additionally, in the U.S., if the state on the label for the company address doesn’t match the distillation state, the state of distillation must be given. However, the TTB (Alcohol Tax and Tobacco Bureau) has approved many labels as of late without this information. Some of this is due to the TTB being overwhelmed, but it is still something to keep an eye on.

These terms are the tip of the iceberg to learn about whiskey, but they are helpful when making purchasing decisions. If you’d like to dive a bit deeper into the whiskey category, please see our Learn section on whiskey or our three-part Whiskey Deconstructed series. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)


Reading a whiskey label at the store?

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