How To Read A Whisky Label & Understand All The Details On it
Reading the label when you are about to purchase a bottle of whisky is an important activity to understand what you’re getting into. Sure we can ask the person working at the liquor store for help from time to time, but knowing what you like, and being able to find it is pretty important. A lot of whisky drinkers do not move beyond the name brand stuff, and a true whisky lover knows how pivotal avoiding the mainstream can be.
Knowing whisky intimately, and understanding every aspect of how it was made, bottled and presented to you not only makes you more knowledgeable but also facilitates conversation with your peers. One loves drinking whisky sure, but the magnitude of a good conversation about whisky is immense.
There is a lot you can tell by looking at the label of a bottle of whisky. Knowing how to read and understand one is just one of the first few steps of becoming a whisky savant. When reading Whisky labels, you can break find a number of details mentioned very clearly on them. These details can be broken down into a few categories, and we have done that for you. Along with the category, we have explained the purpose and meaning of each detail you may find on whisky bottle labels. This can help you understand what you are purchasing, or are about to enjoy.
The Brand Name
Perhaps the most simple and standout detail mentioned on a whisky label is the name of the brand, or distillery that has created the whisky. Since we form a large chunk of our perception, judgment or associations for whisky with the brand name, it is the most visually discernible detail on a whisky label.
The Chivas Regal crest, bearing the name of the brand is a legend in the industry.
It is meant to appeal to the familiarity in the minds of the consumer, and is by far the most striking part of a whisky bottle. Usually, brand names printed on a whisky label are accompanied by a distinct logo or emblem of some kind. The Chivas Regal crest and luckenbooth are two of the most iconic and easily recognizable brand emblems in modern history.
The name of the expression is the second most visually striking pieces of text on a bottle of whisky. Usually, most brands discard the need for an ‘expression’ name since expressions usually come to be known by their ‘Age’ instead. It is a sporadic practice, and sometimes whisky makers and blenders rely on using an expression name to draw extra attention to a release.
Written just below the brand & distillery name, you can find the name ‘Founder’s Reserve’.
For instance, most of The Glenlivet’s luxury single malt Scotch whiskies are known widely by their age, and do not carry an expression name. However, when the Speyside giants released a single malt Scotch to honour their founding father, George Smith, they chose to name it. The name “Founder’s Reserve” was chosen in order to pay homage to the man who created one of the most enduring symbols of single malt Scotch whisky in the Speyside region.
The age of a whisky is a straightforward detail that one doesn’t necessarily have to labour to decipher. Most whiskies that carry an ‘age-statement’, have their age divulged on the whisky bottle’s label itself. Since age matters a lot for serious whisky lovers, it is an important detail that one must never overlook.
The Ballantine’s Finest is a renowned no-age-statement blended Scotch whisky
There are plenty of whiskies that have no ‘Age’ mentioned on their label, which means they are ‘no-age-statement’ whiskies. These are whiskies wherein the distiller, or blender has chosen not to divulge an age-statement. The ‘Age’ of a whisky is always the age of the youngest whisky used in the blend. Single malt whiskies are blended too, because ‘Single Malt’ means distilled, matured and bottled at a single distillery. Therefore, when you buy a 12 Year Old single malt, there might be some portion of an older whisky in it. If there are no details about the age of a whisky mentioned on the whisky label, it is safe to assume it is a no-age-statement whisky.
The Type Of Wood
A very important piece of information that can definitely make or break your selection of whisky if ignored. The kind of oak barrels used to mature a whisky are very clearly spelled on a bottle of whisky in order to help customers make an informed choice. Like most things in life, everyone has their own preferences when it comes to their whisky. Many whiskies undergo a single cask maturation in ex-Bourbon barrels, whereas some undergo a double and even triple maturation in special barrels. Sherry, Port, Rum, Wine and many different kinds of barrels are used by distillers and blenders.
Aberlour 16 Year Old’s Double Cask Maturation in ex-Bourbon and Spanish Oloroso Sherry is clearly stated on the label
Some choose to mature their spirit in these barrels for extended periods of time to impart their influence into the whisky. Some choose to ‘finish’ their whisky in special barrels for a shorter amount of time. Whatever the case, bottlers do clearly divulge this information on the label to help someone that isn’t fond of Sherry matured whisky to be stuck with it by mistake.
Most often located in the space below the brand name and the age of a whisky, the region where a whisky was distilled is an important aspect of whisky making. Scotland has five clearly defined regions of whisky distillation – the Highlands, the Lowlands, the Speyside, Islay and Cameronbridge. Most single malt Scotch whiskies bear the name of the region on the label itself.
If it’s not Scotch whisky, it usually bears the ‘nationality of the whisky’ on the label instead. In case of Jameson, the words ‘Irish whiskey’ are always clearly visible on the bottle. Whether it is a Japanese whisky, or an American Bourbon, it always finds a mention on the bottle.
The Alcohol Content
A very important detail that can determine the buying behaviour of a consumer. The alcohol content, usually written as “ABV” or “Proof” in case of American whisky, refers to the alcohol content in the whisky. “Proof” is just the two times the “ABV” number, and we have no idea why the Americans write it that way.
The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso carries an alcohol strength of 61.3% ABV.
The standard alcohol content in whiskies around the world is 40% ABV (80 US Proof), but many whisky brands choose to go either slightly, or greatly over that limit. 40% to 43% is the space where most whisky brands land, but sometimes it could be much higher.
Rabbit Hole Bourbon is an American made whiskey, hence it displays both the ABV and Proof numbers on its label.
Cask-strength whiskies are usually significantly higher in this regard. They can go as high as 50% ABV to even 60% ABV. The Glenlivet Nadurra Series of cask-strength single malt Scotch whiskies are known for their high alcohol content.
The Aberlour A’bunadh is another excellent example of a whisky with high alcohol content. Higher alcohol content means the whisky will be stronger, taste harsher and will have you tipsy much sooner than the rest. So when you are out selecting a whisky for yourself to purchase, pay close attention to the “ABV” or “Proof” on the whisky label.
On the lower right hand side of the bottle, you can read “42.8%”.
In India, most whiskies and spirit based alcoholic beverages have to stick to the 42.8% ABV limit.
The Size Of The Bottle
There are two standard sizes among large whisky bottles, and most whisky enthusiasts can usually tell the volume of a whisky by observing the size of the bottle. However, you can take the guesswork out of the equation since all it takes is a cursory glance at the whisky bottle label to find out. Indian whisky brands are usually straightforward, and print the details of the bottle quantity in ‘ML’ or Millilitres.
Although you may find yourself getting confused when it comes to foreign whisky brands such as Scotch whisky, or Irish whiskey. If a bottle of whisky says “70 cl”, it means the quantity is “700 Millilitres”, and if the bottle says “100 cl”, it’s a “1 Litre” bottle. If the bottle says “75 cl”, it means the quantity is “750 ML”. Smaller bottles, or miniatures are usually “60 cl”, or “60 ML” for imported whisky brands.
The Cask/Serial/Batch Number
For limited edition, and small batch whiskies, the cask numbers or serial numbers are usually printed very prominently on the label. This helps the owner of the bottle know that they are in possession of an authentic product, and adds an element of exclusivity for them.
One can clearly see the “Batch Number 58’ on the whisky label for Aberlour A’bunadh
Most whisky brands that regularly release limited edition expressions, such as Aberlour’s A’bunadh small batch cask-strength single malt Scotch, bear a batch number for the whisky with the label.
The Bottlers’ Name
Sometimes, whisky distilleries sell their products to independent bottlers and collectors in bulk quantities. This means, instead of a bottle, they purchase an entire barrel of whisky and bottle them independently. What does this accomplish? Well an independent bottler might choose to mature the whisky further, eventually bottling and selling them at a special price. They might even auction off these ‘limited edition’ bottles which is something ‘Gordon & Macphail have been doing for many years.
Gordon and Macphail are one of the most famous independent bottlers in Scotland. Their frequent independently bottled releases of The Glenlivet and Longmorn have previously netted huge sums of money. The Longmorn 1970 Collection features the Gordon & Macphail name more prominently. Most often, independent bottlers choose to feature their name more modestly instead. If it has been bottled at the distillery, the whisky label will display that information too.
The Master Distiller’s/Master Blenders’ Name
Heritage whisky brands such as The Glenlivet, Aberlour, Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s usually bear the name of the Master Distiller or the Master Blender the whisky label. Big whisky distilleries and houses with centuries of history usually have legendary Master Distillers and Master Blenders working for them. These names obviously command a lot of respect, and thus, it is only natural for a premium whisky to bear the name of the person that made it possible.
Sometimes, a person’s stature even goes beyond the confines of the ordinary as it did with The Glenlivet Master Distiller, Alan Winchester. The Glenlivet’s Vintage 1966 Winchester Collection was named in honour of the man who has laboured to elevate a great brand to divinity. You may notice that “The Winchester Collection” also bears the Date of Bottling since it is an extremely rare and valuable release.
Most standard whiskies are chill-filtered by distilleries or blenders in order to remove any esters and impurities that might end up making the whisky look cloudy, or impure. However, in recent years, there has been a rise in the number of whisky makers choosing not to chill-filter their products.
This practice is very common among cask-strength whiskies, wherein the distiller ensures no meddling with the whisky after it is taken out of the barrel. The Glenlivet’s Nadurra Series is a notable collection of non-chill filtered single malt Scotch whiskies.
That concludes our breakdown of whisky bottle labels, and the meaning of all the details printed on them. Although fairly simple, these details might not always be self-explanatory for many whisky enthusiasts. We hope any questions, curiosities and perplexities you may have had regarding all the things printed on a whisky label have been put to rest.