We are in the midst of a renaissance in craft spirits that has brought back a focus on local distilleries. It’s an exciting time for anyone who loves whiskey, including us at Lifted Spirits. We are passionate about our Bright Gin and Vodka, of course, but we are also looking to the future and the introduction of our own whiskey. We also love sharing what we do and making spirits accessible to anyone who wants to learn.
No doubt we will be sharing our story as we continue on the path to producing our own whiskey (and absinthe!), but until then, here are some tips to help you decipher a whiskey label. (Of course, the label won’t tell you if the whiskey actually tastes good, or if you will enjoy it, but it’s a start.) Here are the things to look for.
Let’s start with some of the whiskey-specific terms that you might come across, as some of these will definitely affect the characteristics of your whisky. Knowing these terms will help you choose a whiskey based on the flavors you prefer.
- Small Batch: The definition varies from distillery to distillery – however, the general industry standard is around 150 barrels or less per batch. There’s a bit of controversy over this term, and brands have been sued for deceptively using the term, so it’s worth a bit of research.
- Single Barrel: This is a premium whiskey where each bottle comes from an individual aging barrel. Single barrel is often associated with smaller batches and higher quality, but are much more challenging because every barrel is different, which changes the consistency from one barrel to the next.
- Single Malt: This is made entirely from malted barley at one distillery and mostly seen in Scotch, or Scotch-style whisky.
- Barrel Proof or Barrel-Strength: This whiskey is bottled at the actual proof that the aged whiskey was barreled at.Generally, approximately 65% alcohol, or 130 proof.
- Bottled in Bond: Bottled in bond whiskey is distilled in one distillation season, by one distiller, at one distillery. Must be 100 proof, and must age for at least 4 years.
- Sour Mash: The process of starting the “mash” distilling process with leftovers from a previous batch. Including the mash from a previous batch helps to provide a more consistent profile and the acidity helps to control bacteria growth.
- Bourbon: An American whiskey made from 51 or more percent of corn and aged in charred new American Oak.
- Rye: Rye whiskey is made from at least 51% rye. The process for making rye whiskey follows the same rules for making bourbon.
Age and Wood
The age of a whiskey refers to the time it spends in the cask, or barrel. The longer a whiskey ages, the more time it has to mellow and interact with the oak. Whiskeys aged for long periods of time will also take on the flavors of the oak, giving the whiskey vanilla and caramel notes.
All whiskeys must touch oak at some point, although the specific age requirements vary depending on the type of whiskey. Most classifications of American whiskey must be aged in a brand new American oak barrel (we suspect someone in the lumber or barrel industry lobbied for that particular legal requirement…), while many scotches actually age in used bourbon barrels.
Alligator-skin char inside a bourbon barrel
Another factor in the aging process is the char of the barrel. Charring refers to the process of burning the inside of a barrel before aging the whiskey. This can range from a light toasting to a deep black char, which caramelizes the sugars in the oak in different ways. Depending on the char, the oak can impart flavors ranging from caramel to toffee, or even notes of coffee and dark chocolate.
Where It’s From
There are several major whiskey-making regions in the world: Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Japan and the U.S. Sub-regions of these countries can often be indicated on the label. The reason this matters? Different regions have different style characteristics, which will impact the flavor profile of the whiskey.
- Scotch whisky often has smoky, or peaty flavors.
- Irish whiskey has a lighter flavor that lacks the peat of Scotch.
- Canadian whiskeys are light and easy to drink. Great for mixing.
- Japanese whisky is smoky with characteristics similar to Scotch.
- American whiskeys are made anywhere in the U.S. These whiskeys can be classified as rye, bourbon, or blended whiskey, all of which have their own flavor profiles.
Whisky vs. Whiskey
Why the difference in spelling? It comes down to the translation of the word from Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms. An easy way to remember who spells what? The countries with an “e”, the United States and Ireland, tend to spell the word “whiskey.” Canada, Japan and Scotland, with no “e”, spell it “whisky.” Of course, that’s just coincidence, and there are exceptions.
If you want to know more about the whisky/whiskey debate, check out our, “Is it Spelled Whiskey or Whisky?” blog post.
Volume and Alcohol Content
The volume of the bottle refers to the amount of whiskey put into each bottle and can vary depending on the country while the alcohol content of a whiskey will be listed on the label as % by volume. This simply tells you the strength of the alcohol in the bottle.
In the US, most spirits tend to be 750mL bottles at 40% ABV (or 80 proof). See below for definitions of a couple of other whiskey classifications at higher proofs.
This can get a bit tricky. In the United States, it is a legal requirement to note the state of distillation. It’s not uncommon for a distillery to source all or some of their spirits from another location, then age, flavor, and/or bottle it in their distillery. If this is the case, the bottle will simply say “made, bottled, or produced in” instead of “distilled in.”
The biggest thing to remember when trying a new whiskey is to have fun. The tips above are guidelines to help you make your decision, but the most important part is to enjoy the journey! Want to learn more? Join us September 24th for “Around the World in Eight Whiskeys,” where we’ll taste 8 whiskeys and explore the history, tradition, and geography that shaped the spirits of each region.