A Tale of Mash and Oak, Part IV: Decoding Whiskey Labels

You might encounter a range of terms on a given bottle. Here’s a guide to those references. 

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  • Distiller: The name of the producer is usually the largest lettering on the label.
  • Location: Often linked with the type or style, although the label will typically indicate where the product was bottled, and sometimes the region will be included as well.
  • Alcohol: Noted either as ABV (alcohol by volume) or proof (which is twice the ABV).
  • Age: This can be deceiving, but remember, older does not always mean “better.” There can be dramatic differences by age among whiskeys from the same distillery. It comes down to personal preference. For example, I’m a big fan of Oban Scotch, but I prefer their 14-year-over their 18-year-old offering. Another key point is that the on-label age is based on the youngest whiskey in the bottle. Blending practices mean that a bottle might consist of 99-percent 12-year-old and 1-percent 10-year-old Scotch, but as a result, it must be labeled a 10-year.
  • Type: The spelling of whiskey vs. whisky can give insights as to style and place of production. Earlier, we talked about single malt, blended and single-cask versions – this is typically reflected in labeling, and there are differences to understand, according to the regional distinctions. More details follow below.

SCOTCH

  • Single malt: All from the same distillery and “lot” but from different casks.
  • Single barrel or cask: Sourced from a single barrel or cask.
  • Blended: A mixture from multiple distilleries.

Note: You’ll likely run across the word “peat.” Peat is a layered soil-like material, consisting of moss and composted vegetable matter, sometimes called “bog.” In Scotch-making, distillers expose the barley or damp malt to smoke from peat fires, imparting a smoky flavor or “peatiness” to the whiskey. It can be measured and is sometimes shown on the label as PPM (phenol parts per million). The higher the PPM, the smokier the flavor.

IRISH WHISKEY

  • Single pot still: Made by a single distillery, from a mixed mash of malted and unmalted barley, distilled in a pot still. The inclusion of unmalted barley is unique and distinct to this style.
  • Single malt: All from the same distillery and “lot” but from different casks.
  • Single grain: Made by a single distillery, using no more than 30 percent malted barley, in combination with other whole unmalted cereals – usually corn, wheat or barley – and distilled in column stills.
  • Blended: A mixture of two or more different types.

JAPANESE WHISKY

  • Blended: Labeled much the same as Scotch, but with one difference. In Japan the distilling industry supply chain is vertically integrated. Producers own both the distilleries and blended brands of whisky, and do not trade with other producers, unlike the arrangement in Scotland.

AMERICAN WHISKEY

There are numerous options and associated requirements for certain classifications.

  • Grain type: There are various combinations, but labeling rules typically mandate a ratio of at least 51-percent to qualify as rye, rye malt, malt (barley) or wheat. Corn whiskey is not bourbon (surprise), but rather, made from an 80-percent corn grain bill. It is also known as moonshine and may be as much as 160 proof. Be careful with it or you’ll be drunk on your ass in a hurry.
  • Straight: Distilled at 160 proof, aged for at least two years, not blended with other spirits, colorings or additives. Often meets one of the grain-type definitions above. For example, a “straight rye whiskey.”
  • Blended: Can include straight whiskey or a blend of not less than 20-percent straight whiskey and, separately or in combination, other whiskeys or neutral spirits. For a blended whiskey to be labeled with a grain type the 51-percent rule applies. The remaining percentage may include unaged grain distillates, grain-neutral spirits, flavorings and colorings.
  • Blended straight: Either includes straight whiskey produced in different states or coloring and flavoring additives (and possibly other approved “blending materials”) or both, but does not contain grain-neutral spirits.
  • Light whiskey: Produced at more than 80-percent ABV, stored in used or uncharred new oak containers.
  • Spirit whiskey: A mixture containing neutral spirits and at least 5-percent of the other, stricter categories of whiskey.
  • Tennessee whiskey: Straight whiskey produced in the state of Tennessee.
  • Bourbon: There are a number of sub-categories and descriptions.
    • Straight bourbon: Aged at least two years and distilled in the same state.
    • Sour mash: Refers to the practice of using “spent mash” (or fermented mash that contains active yeast) from a prior batch in the production of a new mash.
    • Bottled in bond or bonded: Similar to a single malt – made at one distillery in one season and aged at least four years in a federally bonded, supervised warehouse. Always 50-percent ABV. Basically this is an old-school guarantee of quality.
    • Single barrel: Sourced from one barrel.
    • Small batch: Somewhat fuzzy, a definition without strict requirements. Can mean quantities of around 20 barrels or fewer, but some examples are simply batches bottled in smaller quantities after distillation at larger facilities.

CANADIAN WHISKY

Full disclosure: I’m not as familiar with Canadian whisky and their labeling system, which is still somewhat confusing to me at this point in my journey. Canada does not appear to regulate their whisky as specifically as some other countries. What I’ve learned so far is that if it is fermented, distilled and aged in Canada, it’s presented as Canadian whisky. This should not, however, deter you from trying it. This point was recently proven to me when my husband came home with a bottle of Lot 40 Rye Whisky. I was annoyed because 1) I wanted Scotch, 2) I’ve been crossed-up by the Canadian labeling system and 3) I usually don’t like rye. But this one was really good and they labeled it well. So, there’s definitely more to be explored.

Next up – Part V: How to Drink Whiskey