Cracking the Code: Whiskey Labels

Whiskey Labels
Whiskey Labels

Have you ever looked over a whiskey bottle’s label and thought, “what does that phrase mean?” Or, have you been curious about why particular terminology seems to be present on most bottles, but some is unique to a particular brand? And most important of all – what is fluff and what is legitimate?

Being an informed consumer helps to avoid potential buyer’s remorse. Believe it or not, many federal regulations address the particular phrasing permitted on whiskey labels. However, not everything on the label is subject to regulation.

Below is an overview interpreting some of the common phrases, descriptors, and claims found on whiskey labels. It may not be the equivalent of Rosetta Stone, but it could save you from falling for a marketing ploy.

Basil Hayden's
Basil Hayden’s

The basics  – Scotch vs. Bourbon vs. Rye, etc.: 

First, the world of whiskey is represented by many countries, both figuratively and literally. There are rules for marketing whiskey as “Scotch,” “bourbon,” and so on. This is the critical starting point for interpreting whiskey labels – knowing what category of whiskey you are dealing with in the first place. Here’s a very general overview:

Scotch – distilled and aged in Scotland in compliance with the laws of the United Kingdom (among which is an age requirement of at least 3 years).

Bourbon – distilled in the USA (does NOT have to be distilled or aged in Kentucky); mash bill of at least 51% corn; aged in new, charred oak containers; distilled to no more than 160 proof; barreled at no more than 125 proof; and bottled at no less than 80 proof.

Rye – mash bill of at least 51% rye, distilled to no more than 160 proof, and aged in charred, new oak containers; barreled at no more than 125 proof; and bottled at no less than 80 proof.

Wheat – mash bill of at least 51% wheat, distilled to no more than 160 proof, and aged in charred, new oak containers; barreled at no more than 125 proof; and bottled at no less than 80 proof.

Corn – mash bill of at least 80% corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof, and, if aged, barreled at no more than 125 proof; barreled at no more than 125 proof; and bottled at no less than 80 proof.

Malt – mash bill of at least 51% malted barley, distilled to no more than 160 proof, and, if aged, barreled at no more than 125 proof; and bottled at no less than 80 proof.

Irish/Japanese/Taiwanese/Canadian, etc. – whiskey produced from these respective countries under their respective laws.

Oban Single Malt Scotch Whisky

What does “Single malt” mean?

Answer: This depends on the type of whiskey. A Scotch single malt, for example, under UK regulations, must be from a mash bill of 100% malted barley, and distilled in a pot still at a single distillery. An easy rule of thumb is that if it is not a single malt Scotch, that means it is probably blended.

In the USA, there is no applicable regulation. In fact, a group has organized to try to fill in this gap and thereby legitimize the description of “American single malt whiskey.” According to this group, American single malt whiskey is made from 100% malted barley, distilled at entirely one American distillery to no more than 160 proof, aged in oak casks of no more than 700 liters (oh please, if we’re going to be American, don’t use the metric system),  and bottled at no less than 80 proof.

Johnny Walker Red Label Blended Scotch Whisky

What does “Blended whiskey” mean?

Answer: By federal regulation (promulgated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, 27 CFR 5.22), a “blended whiskey” is “a mixture which contains straight whisky or a blend of straight whiskies at not less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis, excluding alcohol derived from added harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials, and, separately, or in combination, whisky or neutral spirits. A blended whisky containing not less than 51 percent on a proof gallon basis of one of the types of straight whisky shall be further designated by that specific type of straight whisky; for example, “blended rye whisky” (rye whisky – a blend).”

That is a really confusing way of trying to basically explain that it is a combination of whiskies with varying mash bills and ages, but at least 20% of the blend is straight whiskey (see more below). This actually represents most of the mainstream whiskies found in bars and liquor stores. However, the age statement rules (see below) still apply.

What do “age statements” mean? 

Answer: By federal regulation (27 CFR Section 5.40), age statements must be placed on whiskey labels when the whiskey has not been aged for at least four years. An age statement is optional for whiskey that is four years old or more, unless the bottle refers to its age or maturity. When calculating the age, the clock begins when the distillate enters the barrel.

The age statement placed on whiskey labels must represent the youngest whiskey blended into the batch that yielded that particular bottle. Or, for each whiskey included within the blend, each respective age may be listed. Also, the age can be stated in years, months, days, hours, etc.

So, when you’re perusing whiskey labels and do not see an age statement, that does not necessarily mean that the whiskey is young. It actually means the whiskey should be (*see the comments below for how this may not be the uniform practice) at least four years old.

Elijah Craig Small Batch 12-year

What does “Straight whiskey” mean? 

Answer: For a bourbon, rye, corn, wheat, or malt whiskey to be designated as “straight,” it must be aged at least 2 years. A “straight whiskey,” without any particular grain descriptor, simply means that the mash bill contains no more than 51% of any particular grain, yet still meets the qualifications of whiskey and is aged for at least 2 years.

What does “Sour mash” mean?

Answer: This refers to the fermentation process of the mash. Prior to being distilled, the mash (the grains) must ferment to produce ethanol. Using a sour mash process means that some of the prior batch, which has already fermented, is added to the new batch as a way to jump start the fermentation process. It is widely used.

What does “Peated” mean?

Answer: This refers to a process whereby peat, partially decayed organic matter, is exposed to the mash prior to distillation during the drying process. The exposure to the smoke from the heat source (usually a fire or burning coals) containing the peat imputes the smoky and somewhat salty flavor that drinkers are familiar with in many Scotches (particularly Islay), but can be used in the drying process for other whiskies, too.

What does “Proof” mean? 

Answer: Proof is another way of stating the alcohol by volume (“ABV”). Beer and wine drinkers are accustomed to seeing ABV statements on their bottles. ABV is simply 1/2 of the proof.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Barrel proof: 

Before it enters the barrel, the distillate that will eventually become whiskey is taken out of the still at a particular proof. It is common for the proof to be around 115 when the distillate enters the barrel. When the whiskey is dumped from the barrel, the proof may have changed over time, due to evaporation and absorption.

“Barrel proof” refers to the proof at the time the barrel is dumped. So, typically, this means that the proof will be higher than most other whiskies, and a seemingly random number.

For example, the 2016 William Larue Weller is a barrel proof whiskey. It was put in the barrel at 114 proof. After 12 years of aging, it came out of the barrel at 135.4 proof. When it was bottled, it was not diluted or filtered in any way to alter the proof.

There are other similar phrases, such as “barrel strength,” “full proof,” or “full strength,” which may not strictly mean that the whiskey was bottled at the same proof as it was dumped from the barrel.

Templeton Rye

What does “Distiller” vs. “Non-distilling producer” mean?  

Answer: This is an area where some producers have gotten into trouble. Sometimes, labels deceptively suggest that the company who bottles and sells the whiskey is also the one who distilled and aged it. Templeton Rye, for example, was the subject of several class action suits alleging that the rye whiskey label’s claims that the whiskey was distilled according to some long-standing unique family recipe were deceptive. Turns out, Templeton Rye was sourced from MGP, a macro-distillery in Indiana from which many other ryes are sourced. So much for that unique family recipe.

So, the lesson here is that not all bottles are sold by the same company that actually distilled or aged the whiskey. Some companies distill spirits and sell them to other companies for aging and bottling. Some companies simply bottle whiskey that was distilled and aged elsewhere.

The whiskey’s label does not have to state where, or by whom, it was distilled or aged. If it’s not on the label, a quick Google search will oftentimes reveal the answer.

The point here is not that non-distilling producers are somehow inferior. To the contrary, High West is a non-distilling producer whose products are distilled and aged elsewhere, but then blended and bottled by High West. High West’s whiskey labels typically state the source, age, and blends very clearly. Not only is High West forthcoming, but their blends have been very well received.

The problem comes in when some non-distilling producers source their product, but then attempt to up-sell it through a fancy and deceptive label. The truth is, the exact same juice may be in a different bottle at a much cheaper price.

J.W. Dant Bottled in Bond

What does “Bottled in bond” mean? 

Answer: This is an important one. For a bottle to be labeled as being “bottled in bond” or “bonded,” it means that it is the product of one distillation season, of one distiller, at one distillery, has been aged in a federally-bonded warehouse supervised by the U.S. Government for at least four years, and bottled at 100 Proof.  So, one of the ramifications of this is that the bottle will not be a blend of older and younger whiskey, because it would not all be the product of one distillation season.

The practice dates to the U.S. Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, which was passed to guarantee that consumers were buying real whiskey, and was strongly supported by Col. E.H. Taylor.

Also, whiskies that are bottled in bond include distiller codes, such as DSP – KYx. The “x” would designate some sort of number. These codes can be utilized to determine the particular distillery where the whiskey was distilled.

So, if you find an older bottle that was bottled in bond and want to find out if it was distilled at a legendary distillery that has since shut down (i.e., Sitzel Weller), then this code can prove quite useful.

Elijah Craig Single Barrel 18 year

What does “Single barrel” mean? 

Answer: Just like it sounds, the whiskey in the bottle is not a blend of several different barrels, but instead from one single barrel. This also means that there will be variances between bottles from different barrels.

The term is not regulated to require the barrels to be the standard 53 gallons. And, depending on how long the whiskey was aged and how much it is diluted prior to bottling, each barrel’s yield could be quite different. So, whiskey labels stating that the bottle comes from a “single barrel” denotes a unique attribute, but not one that necessarily indicates any higher level of quality.

What does “Non chill-filtered” mean? 

Answer: There are different ways to filter whiskey, but one of the most commonly used ways is by chill filtering. Chill filtering is conducted by dropping the whisky’s temperature to approximately zero degrees Celsius, then passing the whiskey through a filter (mesh or paper, typically) to remove natural fatty acids, esters, and proteins.

Though this is primarily done for cosmetic reasons and to eliminate the cloudy appearance when whiskey is cooled or water is added, opinions vary on whether it affects the taste.

Charcoal Filtered

What does “Charcoal filtered” mean? 

Answer: Also known as the “Lincoln County Process” after Lincoln County, Tennessee, this is another filtration method that is used by Tennessee whiskey producers, most notably Jack Daniel’s, and others. The filtration process uses charcoal chips or pellets, through which the distillate passes or steeped in the distillate, before it is aged. While some may attribute this to the charcoal-like flavors from Jack Daniel’s or George Dickel, that may be more influenced by the barrel char level (see below).

Barrel descriptions:

The barrel obviously plays an important role in the aging process. Some whiskey labels may describe certain attributes of the barrel. In the case of whiskey, it must initially be aged in oak. However, the oak may be more particularly conditioned for certain whiskies. The two conditions most likely to be mentioned on a bottle’s label are seasoning and char level.

First, during the cooperage process, the wood is cut and dried. Next, the wooden staves may be seasoned. Seasoning basically involves immersing the wood in certain enzymes and allowing it to cure for an extended period of time. These staves may all be used for the barrel itself (such as E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood) or inserted separately into the barrel during the aging process (like Maker’s Mark Private Select).

Before the spirit enters the barrel, one of the important ways the barrel is prepared is by charring it. This helps to extract certain properties from the oak, such as sugars, so that these can more easily be imparted to the spirit as it ages. This is where the brown sugar/caramel/toffee flavors come from. Also, the charred oak causes some level of filtering through the carbon from the exposure to fire affecting the spirit’s compounds during aging.

There are four barrel char levels, ranging from least exposure to the fire to the most. Char level 1 is exposure for 15 seconds, level 2 is 30 seconds, level 3 is 35 seconds, and level 4 is 55 seconds. Level four is also referred to as “alligator char,” due to the result appearing like dark, shiny alligator skin. The level 3 is the most commonly used.

Port Finished

What does “Matured” or “Finished” mean? 

Answer: Some whiskies seek to add a unique twist by taking the whiskey out of the oak barrel and dumping it into a separate barrel. For example, there are several whiskies that are “finished” or “matured” by being placed in previously used barrels or casks that were used for wine (Whistlepig Old World) or sherry (whiskies listing a “sherry cask” finish). The wine or sherry that is infused in the wood, in addition to the wood itself, impart additional flavor to the whiskey.

Old Fitzgerald 12 year

There are many gimmicks contained in whiskey labels. This could be due to the lack of regulations on point, creative marketing, or downright deception. Regardless, look out for these common gimmicks and do not attribute any meaningful value when seeing them —

“Kentucky” bourbon – Kentucky’s well-deserved reputation for producing quality bourbon has led out-of-state producers to think that by producing bourbon, and by placing the word “Kentucky” on the label, that means the bourbon is somehow distinct. It’s not. Bourbon has its own federal requirements, no matter what state it is distilled and/or aged in.

“Old…” – Whether in the brand’s title or elsewhere noted on the label, “old” doesn’t mean squat. It doesn’t matter if it’s preceded by “very” or any other adjective.

Small batch – Whether a batch is “small” or “large” is relative to the particular distiller. Also, because there are no regulations pertaining to labeling something as a “small batch,” there is no meaningful accountability for whether the whiskey was produced in a batch that was substantially smaller (and, thus, presumably of higher quality?) than a typical batch.

“Craft” – There is no process by which a new distillery enters into the “craft” stage and then later graduates into a macro-distiller. It probably means the distillery is not one of the big boys, but it could be a subsidiary of one. Also, it could source its whiskey from a non-craft producer.

“Aged patiently…” – Patience is relative. Just ask my kids. The rules pertaining to age statements are the only thing that matters when trying to determine a bottle’s age. These sorts of descriptors are meaningless.

“Limited…” – We all know the advertising method of promoting “new” and “limited edition” in an effort to feed on consumers’ fear of missing out. If it says “limited” and it is truly a highly-sought after bottle, all you need to know for verification is whether you found it (along with several others) on a shelf. If so, it’s probably not so limited after all.

“Reserve” – It can’t be too specially reserved if it’s sold in vast quantities. This is meaningless.

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