The curious thing about words on whiskey labels is that so few of the terms mean what they seem to say, and of course American whiskey is no exception.
So just for example a ‘bourbon’ doesn’t have to come from Bourbon County, half a rye whiskey doesn’t have to be rye, and a Blended American Whiskey is completely different to Blended Scotch.
Understanding an American whiskey label is the key to making the best decisions when bidding on American whiskey, and like all secret codes there is a key to deciphering them.
Here we decode the most commonly used terms.
If the type of grain is mentioned on the label it means that the whiskey is made from at least 51% of that grain. The rest of the mash can be composed from any other grain. So for instance:
An American spirit labelled as Rye Whiskey will contain at least 51% rye and will have been matured in new charred oak barrels with no artificial colouring.
Wheat Whiskey will have been made from a minimum 51% wheat.
Corn Whiskey is the exception to this rule and must be made from a minimum 80% corn. It might have been aged in reused or uncharred oak barrels.
If the label says it is a Straight Whiskey then it is simply telling you that it has been aged for at least two years in barrel. The term can be used in conjunction with other ones, so for instance if the whiskey contains at least 51% rye then it can be called a Straight Rye Whiskey or if it’s a bourbon that has been aged for two years it can be a Straight Bourbon.
Whiskey labelled as a Bourbon might have been made anywhere at all in the USA however not every American whiskey can be labelled as a Bourbon. In practice most bourbon is made in Kentucky, partly because the climate is ideal for maturing this type of whiskey. The rules are that Bourbon must contain a minimum 51% corn, it has to be distilled to a maximum of 80% ABV and then reduced to no more than 62.5% ABV to be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Bourbon whiskey cannot be bottled below 40% ABV and cannot be artificially coloured.
To be labelled as a Tennessee whiskey it must be made from a minimum of 51% of any one grain, but in practice it’s likely to be corn. Tennessee whiskey must be distilled at below 80% ABV and within Tennessee.
Tennessee’s unique selling point since 1941 has been the ‘Lincoln County Process’ where the whiskey is filtered through a bed of maple charcoal to give it a sweeter smokiness. It is then aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years.
Even if a whiskey is a Tennessee Whiskey it might prefer to self identify as a Bourbon, and that’s ok too.
Barrel variation in Kentucky is so great that most distilleries blend barrels together to maintain consistency but blenders are always on the lookout for that special one.
A whiskey labelled as Single Barrel doesn’t just tell you that it was bottled from a single cask. It’s also telling you that a chosen barrel was specially selected. Importantly, each single cask expression is guaranteed to be a unique limited edition. It might form part of a collectable series and there is the attractive potential to eventually complete a set.
A label that tells you the whiskey is from a ‘Small Batch’ can in fact be bottled from a blend of any number of barrels. The blender’s ultimate goal is for the flavour of each cask to complement the strengths and weaknesses the others.
A small batch has the practical advantage that the blender can achieve complexity and balance without the need for consistency from one batch to the next.
Counterintuitively some small batches can become more desirable than single casks because they are more accessible.
The whiskey label can say it is ‘Bottled In Bond‘ if it is made at a single distillery, from a single season of distillation, aged for a minimum of four years in a bonded or government supervised warehouse and bottled at 50% ABV.
There has been an exception for export to accomodate high alcohol duties particularly in places like UK. Whiskeys for export have been labelled as a ‘Bottled In Bond’ whiskey even if the whiskey is bottled as low as 40% ABV.
The label can tell you it is a sour mash whiskey if it is made from a ferment that has been given a boost from a previous fermentation added. Crucially for the brand, it gives the whiskey a level of consistency from one batch to the next.
Proof is the American term for the alcohol measurement that is exactly double the alcohol by volume. So for instance 100 degrees American proof is equivalent to 50% ABV.
The alcohol strength normally appears on American whiskey labels as, for example, ‘100 PROOF’.
Not to be confused with ‘British Proof’
British proof is calculated differently to American proof (of course it is). In the UK the ‘full proof’ or ‘100 proof’ of a spirit was that gunpowder soaked in the spirit would burn brightly if set on fire. So 100 British Proof is the equivalent to about 57% ABV.
Finally, while it’s true that most American Whiskey is spelt with an ‘e’, it is also ok if some American Whiskies are spelt without the ‘e’.