The world of whiskey is a vast and complicated one, which can seem difficult to manage for all but the most seasoned of professionals. And learning even the basics can be a daunting, even herculean task to anybody without proper guidance. But we are firm believers that, like most spirits, whiskey is best enjoyed amongst friends, colleagues, and compatriots. As such, we’d like to help ease the burden of anyone hoping to educate themselves as to the nuances of this storied spirit.
One of the most important things to learn in the whiskey world, as it will help you understand much more about the rest of the industry itself, is the lingo. There are a wide variety of terms used exclusively in this world of alcoholic beverages and, to anyone without a knowledge of them, they can create a fairly impassible barrier. Luckily, garnering an education in the terminology of whiskey just got a bit simpler, as we’ve gathered together fifty of the most important terms every whiskey lover should know in the following guide.
Why Whiskey Knowledge Is Important
A Better Understanding
It’s entirely possible to enjoy and even appreciate whiskey without having an in-depth knowledge of the industry and insider terminology. But if you’re the type who wants to fully understand the depth of history and craftsmanship that goes into each and every bottle of this world-renowned spirit (and all its sub-variants), then increasing your knowledge base is a must.
Your personal whiskey knowledge is a lot like your ability to drive a car. Yes, anyone who can pass a driver’s test has the right to drive a motor vehicle, but you’re going to get a lot more enjoyment out of the process if you understand the inner workings — both literally and figuratively. Furthermore, the more knowledge you have of the subject, the more you’ll be able to narrow down the things you like and don’t like, making it easier to make informed purchasing decisions in the future. And it makes it a whole lot easier to relate to other whiskey aficionados if you’re keyed in on the lingo. As mentioned, none of this knowledge is a necessity. But if you’re interested in making the best of your imbibing experiences, learning these terms is a step in the right direction.
ABV: Short for “Alcohol By Volume,” ABV refers to the alcohol content of a given liquid — AKA the percentage of the liquid that is alcohol. Typically, when it comes to whiskeys, ABV is referred to by its proof rating, but other industries (like the beer world) prefer to stick with ABV.
Age/Age Statement: Though not always required by law, many distilleries will mark their whiskey offerings with the amount of time they’ve spent aging. Typically noted in years, you can often see these statements clearly outlined on the bottle’s label. The general consensus is that older whiskey is equivalent to better whiskey, though there is a debate to be made that this is not necessarily true.
Angel’s Share: During the process of aging whiskey and due to the porous nature of wood barrels, a small percentage (roughly 2%) of every barreled whiskey batch is lost. Traditionally, it was believed that this whiskey evaporated up to the heavens and, thus, it was coined the “Angel’s Share.”
Barley: One of the earliest grains to be used by man, barley is believed to have been cultivated in Eurasia as many as 10,000 years ago. It’s also the primary grain used in the distillation of whiskey (and beer), having been steeped, germinated, and dried. It is worth noting, while barley is the most common malt grain, it’s far from the only one used in the distillation of whiskey or any other spirit.
Barrel/Cask: Large, cylindrical containers typically made from oak wood staves and bound together via metal rings or hoops, barrels and/or casks are the vessels in which whiskeys are aged — imparting both flavors and aromas into the liquor. These containers are also often charred on the inside to impart smokey notes into the spirits, as well.
Barrel/Cask Strength/Proof: Barrel strength, cask strength, barrel proof, and cask proof all refer to the same basic concept — that a given liquor has not been altered or diluted following the aging process. This usually results in a higher ABV, which typically ranges from 58–66%.
Blend: A single whiskey (or other spirit) which has been created by combining multiple other whiskeys and sometimes also neutral grain spirits, colorings, and flavorings. Sometimes looked at as inferior to “purer” single-malt spirits, blending whiskey is also considered by some to be an art — requiring an immense base of knowledge and careful experimentation so as to maintain the integrity of the end product.
Blender: At some distilleries, a single person (or small team) is responsible for creating spirits by combining multiple batches of whiskey and/or neutral grain spirits, colorings, and flavorings together into a single final product. More art than science, these “blenders” must have an exceptional knowledge of whiskey, superb palates, and a good deal of creativity.
Bottled-In-Bond: Exclusive to the United States of America, these are a class of distilled spirits aged and bottled according to the regulations put into place by the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. In order for a whiskey to meet the requirements, it must be distilled in its entirety by a single distiller in a single American distillery within the course of a single year. Following its creation, it must also go through a four-year aging process under government supervision in a federally-bonded facility (a warehouse owned and operated by the State). And finally, it must be bottled at 100-proof — or 50% alcohol by volume.
Bourbon: A charred oak barrel-aged distilled spirit first invented in the United States in the late 1700s that must contain a mash of at least 51% corn, alongside malt and rye.
Char/Charring: In order to impart smoky flavors and aromas into whiskey, the inner surface of wood barrels (used for aging) are partially burned. Levels of char are rated by time, starting at 15 seconds for Level 1, 30 seconds for Level 2, 35 seconds for Level 3, and 55 seconds for Level 4. Buffalo Trace has even gone so far as to create barrels with a Level 7 char of 210 seconds (or 3:30 minutes).
Chill Filtration: Typically done for cosmetic reasons — like clarifying a spirit to eliminate cloudiness and residue — this is a process by which whiskey is cooled to between -10° and 4° Celsius (14° and 39.2° Fahrenheit) and then fed through a fine adsorption filter. Many whiskey brands have been avoiding this process in recent days so as to preserve the overall integrity of their offerings.
Congener: Chemical byproducts of distillation, these are substances other than the desired ethanol produced during fermentation. These substances — which include things like tannins, methanol, acetone, and more — are primarily responsible for creating the flavors and aroma found in a given whiskey. It’s also suggested that congeners are responsible for the primary symptoms of hangovers, though this has yet to be definitively proven.
Cooper/Cooperage: A “cooper” is a person whose profession lies in the creation or repair of barrels and casks. A “cooperage” is the facility in which a cooper performs his or her work.
Corn: A cereal plant native to North America used in the creation of everything from snack foods to sweeteners and everything in-between. Corn is also heavily used in the creation of whiskey, especially bourbon — which has a required mash makeup of at least 51% corn.
Distillation: When broadly defined, this is the process by which a liquid is purified through a process of heating and cooling. Regarding whiskey, “distillation” is the name for one of the larger processes in its creation — including removing the alcohol created during fermentation from the wash, resulting in a concentrated liquid that will go on to be matured into a final spirit.
Distiller/Distillery: A person or company that creates liquor; the facility in which liquor is created.
Distiller’s Beer: Not simply a colloquialism, this is a thick, fermented mash comprised of water, yeast, and cooked grains. By definition, it is in fact a beer and is perfectly drinkable with an ABV of roughly 7-10%. However, in order to create whiskey, this liquid must be further distilled — often multiple times.
Dram: Technically, this refers to a liquid volume of exactly 1/8 fluid ounces. However, it is also colloquially used to describe a small drink of whiskey or other distilled spirits.
Ethanol: A colorless, volatile, flammable liquid created by the natural fermentation of sugars. Ethanol is a type of alcohol — specifically, the type that can be imbibed by humans as in whiskey, gin, tequila, vodka, etc.
Expression: The term used to describe variations on a given whiskey recipe. This can be the result of changing a spirits ingredients, the distillation process, its age, the amount of char on barrels, or any other minor alteration that does not change the overall spirit too much from the original recipe.
Fermentation: The chemical breakdown of a substance — in this case, the breakdown of sugars by yeast resulting in the creation of ethanol. This is an absolutely essential process in the creation of whiskey and beer — even non-alcoholic varieties.
Finger: An imperfect measurement of volume, this refers to the amount of liquor it would take to fill a rocks glass to the width of a single human digit wrapped around the base. This amount should span roughly 3/4 of an inch and equates to roughly an ounce of liquor — of course, that also depends on the width of the finger in question.
Finish: This actually refers to two different and distinct things regarding whiskey. First, “finishing” is a reference to a secondary aging process at the end of the creation of a whiskey — in which the spirit is removed from one barrel or cask of a particular origin before being moved into another of a different origin. The second meaning is a reference to the tail end of a drink of whiskey — specifically, the flavors that become apparent after you’ve swallowed the whiskey in your mouth, AKA the aftertaste.
Foreshots/Feints: “Foreshots” refers to the first vapors to burn off during the process of distillation — often containing dangerous volatile alcohols, such as methanol. “Feints” refers to the unfavorable remnants left after the tail end of a distillation run and are often returned to the still for later batches.
Mash/Mash Bill: The specific mixture and proper ratio of grains used to make whiskey. Many distilleries utilize the same mash bill for many different offerings — similar in concept to a signature or secret sauce you might find at a restaurant.
Master: An honorific title granted to top-level professionals — usually with years and years of experience — in the whiskey industry, e.g. Master Distiller, Master Blender, etc.
Nose/Nosing: As you may be aware, smell and taste are inextricably connected — meaning flavors are dulled when you are unable to smell. Thusly, smelling or sniffing (AKA “nosing”) whiskey is an important part of the process. This skill can be improved by learning the proper technique and choosing the right glassware. Those with more advanced palates are capable of identifying certain profiles in a given whiskey simply by smelling it alone.
Oak: An acorn-bearing tree and the primary source of lumber used in the creation of whiskey barrels and casks.
Oxidation: An essential part of the whiskey tasting process, this references what happened to a given alcoholic liquid once it is exposed to ambient oxygen. It is widely understood that, in order for a whiskey to achieve its true potential regarding its flavors and aromas, exposure to oxygen is an absolute necessity. It’s worth noting, however, that oxidation starts as soon as a bottle is opened and will continue, even if you re-cork it. Thusly, over time, oxidation can negatively impact the flavors of a whiskey. As such, it’s best to enjoy a bottle of whiskey over a relatively short period of time once you’ve opened it.
Palate: In regards to whiskey (and spirits in general), this is a generic term that refers to one’s ability to discern and appreciate the nuances of flavors, aromas, and textures of an alcoholic beverage. Someone with a “distinguished palate” is one with a high aptitude for whiskey tasting.
Peat/Peated: A brown, soil-like deposit created by an absorbent moss native to boggy regions — and found en masse in the country of Scotland — that is often cultivated and dried to be added to whisky recipes. Peat is one of the primary ingredients that gives scotch its distinct smoky flavor and aroma. A “peated” whisky is one that has peat added to its recipe. Interestingly, peat has also been used as a fuel source, like coal, for centuries.
Proof: An alternative measurement of the alcoholic content of a given beverage — defined as twice the ABV (alcohol by volume) measurement. For instance, a 100-proof spirit contains 50% alcohol.
Rackhouse/Rickhouse: Regardless of your choice of spelling, the definition is the same; these are facilities in which barrels containing alcoholic beverages are stored on racks (sometimes several stories high) during the aging process.
Region: A broadly defined term that refers to the locale from which a particular whiskey or whisky hails. This can include extremely wide areas, like countries, but can also be much smaller — including specific counties or towns. Specifically-defined regions also help consumers distinguish the differences in spirits from various parts of the world. Regions are especially important when it comes to Scotch whisky, as there are several distinct, defined areas of the country — each with its own whisky style as defined by the local ingredients and resulting flavor profiles.
Rye: A cereal grain related to barley and wheat used frequently to create flour, beer, bread, whiskey, and even vodka. A “rye whiskey” is one whose mash bill is comprised primarily of rye grains. Rye is grown around the world.
Scotch: A malt or grain whisky made, from start to finish, within the borders Scotland and adhering to a specific set of legal guidelines — including that it must be made from water and malted barley (although it can have other grains added), aged in oak barrels for at least three years, and be at least 80 proof.
Single Barrel: A premium category of whiskey in which each individual bottle is comprised exclusively of an aged spirit from a solitary wood barrel or cask.
Small Batch: Though ill-defined in regards to actual quantity, this term refers to a whiskey offering created from a limited number of select barrels of the aged spirit. There are no legally-defined parameters as to what makes a whiskey “small batch.”
Sour Mash/Sweet Mash: “Mash” is a generic term that refers to a mixture of crushed malt or grain meal (also known as “grist”) that’s steeped in hot water — used primarily in the creation of alcoholic beverages. “Sour mash,” the most well-known type that’s used in the creation of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, requires that a small amount of already-used mash is returned into the following batch — much like a sourdough bread starter. “Sweet mash,” by contrast, uses fresh yeast in its fermentation.
Spirit: A generic term used to refer to any distillate, or alcoholic liquid comprised of ethanol and water made from a mash. You’ll see this word used often as a synonym for “liquor.”
Still: Also called a “pot still,” this refers to an apparatus — most often constructed from stainless steel or copper — which is used to distill alcoholic spirits like whiskey, cognac, or similar.
Straight: As defined by United States law, “straight” whiskey refers to a spirit distilled from cereal grain mash to a concentrate that does not exceed 80% ABV and is subsequently aged in charred oak barrels for at least two years at a concentration not exceeding 62.5% at the start of the process.
Tun: A large (usually stainless steel or sometimes copper) vessel designed to hold the ingredients of a given whiskey, including liquids, used especially in the process of mashing — AKA the conversion of the starches in crushed grains into sugars for fermentation.
Unicorn: An unofficial, colloquial term used by whiskey/whisky fans to describe a particularly difficult-to-find offering. Rarely seen and even more rarely enjoyed, unicorn whiskeys can be likened to once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Wheat/Wheated: A cereal grain utilized in the creation of food products around the world, wheat is sometimes used as a replacement for barley in the malt of a whiskey, beer, or other spirits. It does not change the distillation process, but it can alter the flavor. By contrast, if a spirit is “wheated,” that means it has wheat added to its recipe not as a replacement for barley (or whatever other grains the liquor might contain), but rather as a flavor-adding element. This is often seen in bourbons, or “wheated bourbons.”
Whiskey: A distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. This particular regional spelling — which originated in Ireland — is used commonly to denote spirits from Ireland, the United States, and various other locales. It’s been suggested that this spelling is common in the USA thanks to Irish immigrants and is sometimes used simply as a preference of a given distillery.
Whisky: A distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. This particular regional spelling — which originated in Scotland — is used commonly to denote spirits from Scotland, Japan, Canada, and various other locales. Sometimes, this spelling is also used as a distillery’s preference and there are no laws denoting how it must be spelled.
White Lightning: Also known as “White Dog,” this once referred exclusively to colorless, corn-distilled bootlegged moonshine. Today, it’s a colloquialism for virtually unaged “white” whiskey — usually clear in its appearance, harsh in its flavors, and high in alcohol content.
Yeast: A microorganism used widely in the creation of alcoholic beverages, especially whiskey and beer. This microscopic fungus is capable of converting sugars — like those found in a whiskey mash — into alcohol and carbon dioxide. And different types of yeast can result in vastly different flavor profiles. Some brands even own their own proprietary strains.
The Best Bourbons You Can Buy
Now that you’ve edified yourself as to the terminology surrounding this magnificent inebriant, it’s time to drink some! Pick out the best bottle to sip neat, on the rocks, or in a classic cocktail from our list of the best bourbon whiskeys you can buy.