Much like the world of beer and wine, the world of whiskey can be a vast and confusing place for anyone not already accustomed to traveling within it. Thanks to a myriad of styles based on the traditional distillation process utilizing local ingredients and archaic recipes, the seemingly endless supply of whiskey is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Of course, who doesn’t like trying new things? However, the complicated world of fine, and not-so-fine, whiskey can leave one feeling overwhelmed rather than secure in their bottle choice.
Which leads us straight to the point: the bottle. And if you feel like you’re lacking in knowledge when it comes to discerning exactly what these esoteric words elegantly printed on each label actually mean, rest assured you’re not alone. Marketers have done a killer job of mixing fluff with fact in order to sell a subpar bottle for the price of a premium brand. Some even go as far as claiming they themselves distilled the spirit rather than just bottled it (we’ll get into that later). For now, what’s important to grasp are the handful of common industry descriptor terms that provide a surface-level indication of what’s on the inside. Perhaps, this could be one of few times when judging the book by its cover actually comes in handy. With that said, here’s what you need to know.
Know Your Regions
Similar to other spirits, different regions of the world impart various flavor profiles and unique traits onto the whiskey distilled within them. For instance, American bourbon is going to taste completely different than say an Islay Scotch. This is due, in part, to what predominantly what makes up the mash bill (corn for bourbon, barley for scotch), how it’s aged, and even the water used in the distillation process. Similar to other spirits, different regions of the world impart various flavor profiles and unique traits onto the whiskey distilled within them. All these factors boil down to the storied history of these regions and the resources at hand back when distilling whiskey was a hyperlocal business model. In general, there are several common regions where whiskey is produced. They are Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Japan, and America. Within these five countries are subsequent regions that tweak the recipe a bit. Like say, Tennessee whiskey vs Kentucky bourbon; or a Highland vs. say a Lowlands scotch whisky. All of which depend greatly on where they’re produced and what ingredients are used in the mash bill.
It's Okay to Ask
Understanding age is fairly straightforward. For single barrels/malts, this number designates the number of years a particular batch of whiskey spent inside the casks. For blends (most whiskeys out there) the age refers to the youngest whiskey used to make that particular blend. So, in the case of a ten-year-old blend, there could very well be 15 or 18-year whiskeys featured in the batch, but to mark the bottle as such would be false advertising and therefore illegal.
Age Limitations by Region
Bourbon: Minimum 4 years in charred oak
Straight Bourbon: Minimum 2 years in charred oak.
Scotch: Aged for at least 3 years in oak barrels.
Irish Whiskey: Aged for at least 3 years in oak barrels (like Scotch).
Japanese Whisky: Minimum 3 year in oak (sometime Mizuna).
Canadian Whisky: Aged for a minimum of 3 years.
If this seems complicated don’t worry. There are plenty of whiskey drinkers out there who don’t fully grasp the whole single malt vs. blended debate. Here’s an easy way to determine the difference: single malts have to feature whiskey distilled at a single distillery. So, for instance, a Lagavulin 16 year single malt could host a blend of various batches 16 years and older. All of which, though, must have been produced at the Lagavulin distillery – nowhere else. A blend, on the other hand, can feature a combination of both grain and malt whiskies sourced from multiple distilleries and then blended/aged under one roof by a Master Distiller.
Proof vs. ABV
Know What's Desirable
Typically, there are two measurements of alcohol featured on the bottle: Proof and ABV. More often than not, though, Proof will be the more common (or visible) feature. Simply put, Proof is a measurement of alcohol in a beverage. The term actually dates back to 16th century England when spirits, such as whiskey, was taxed differently based on alcohol content (i.e. higher proofs=higher tax rates). Now, alcohol proof is defined as twice the percentage of ABV (alcohol by volume). Meaning an 80 proof bottle of whiskey contains roughly 40% ABV.
Distilled vs. Bottled In
Know the Source, Know the Distributor
Here’s where some general confusion may arise. By law, a bottle of whiskey must state where it was either bottled or distilled. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to stick with whiskey that was distilled and bottled at the same place. Now, some bottles will say “distilled and bottled in,” while others will simply state “distilled in.” Either way, this is a good sign for buyers.
On the other hand, if a whiskey bottle simply features “bottled in” on the label, then aging and bottling were the only two elements of the process completed by that particular brand. What’s typical in these instances is a newer whiskey brand buys a batch from a larger distributor like Buffalo Trace and then blends, ages, and bottles the spirit accordingly. It’s how a new whiskey brand that’s under five years old can sell a bottle of their own branded 10-year at the local package store.
Blended or Single Malt?
As stated above, blended whiskies are unique concoctions fused together complements of a Master Distiller. Typically, you’re bound to find more blends available at the local liquor store than single malts. Blends also, for one reason or another, catch a bad rap in the whiskey community. This, however, shouldn’t be the case for some of the best whiskies in the world are blended.
Here’s another little tidbit most drinkers don’t already know: all whiskies are blended in one way or another. Single malts are just blended with other batches distilled at the same distillery. It’s with true blended whiskies, though, where the magic of aroma and unique flavor profiles are made possible, almost limitless in some sense.
Stick With What Works
Ignoring the Noise
In summation, there’s no replacement for grasping the meaning behind the common vernacular found on your average whiskey bottle. Things can become distracting though, in a world now filled with “handcrafted,” or “locally sourced” everything. Terms like these are perfectly vague buzzwords in which buyers can impart their own meaning to them. In short, they’re worthless. Our suggestion? Pay attention to the basics, do your research, and don’t give into the hype machine surrounding this born-again industry. There are a lot of fine options our there, but also a lot of imposters. The key is learning to decipher between the two.
How to Drink Whiskey
Now that you have a handle on understanding what’s on the outside, let’s dive a bit deeper in enjoying what’s on the inside of the bottle with this guide on how to drink whiskey.