When you pick up an American whiskey bottle, you’ll see some terms that are regulated and offer great insight, while others are just marketing drivel that do not amount to a hill of spent mash. Hopefully, this quick-hitting guide helps you select the perfect bottle in your next shopping experience.
These are common terms without government classification or definitions. While some terms are straightforward and legally bound by truth-in-labeling laws, others are generic and offer no help.
Sour Mash – “Sour Mash” is a production technique of taking the backset of the previous distillation run and adding it to the new mash. The earliest record of the sour mash technique dates back to a woman’s distillery in 1818, but it’s crucial to developing flavor and initiating fermentation.
Handcrafted – The use of “Handcrafted” is why several brands have been being sued. What does it mean? Well, that’s a good question. It’s not a regulated term, and technically, all whiskies use hands and machines during manufacturing.
Small Batch – A method credited to the great Booker Noe, “Small Batch” is a technique of mingling choice barrels. Before this technique became widespread in the 1990s, brands dumped hundreds, sometimes more than 1,000 barrels for a bottling batch. Today, each brand has its own target number of barrels for a small batch that range from five barrels to 200, but all of them are allegedly pre-selected barrels for the batch. Then again, small batch is not a regulated term, so who really knows?
Single Barrel – The “Single Barrel” technique has been used for ages, but nobody had made a single-barrel product commercially available until the George T. Stagg master distiller Elmer T. Lee introduced Blanton’s in 1984. Like small batch, single barrel is not a regulated term, but its insinuation offers certain truth-in-advertising protections to consumers, and you should be able to trust that a single barrel is just that — a single barrel of bourbon.
Made by – When you see the words “made by” whichever distillery that could mean they did not distill it. The so-called non-distiller producers purchase whiskey from a sourced whiskey supplier and bottle it for their own brands. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a traditional business model, but many have attempted to skirt the truth, often leaving out the state of distillation and using “made by” vs. “bottled by.” When you see “distilled and bottled by,” that’s when you know the distillery actually distilled the product.
These selected regulated terms can be found on many American whiskey bottles.
Bottled-in-Bond – An important term from the late 1800s, “Bottled-in-Bond” means the spirit must be the product of one distillation season by one distiller at one distillery, stored in a bonded warehouse for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof. There’s more to it, but that’s the gist of it.
Bourbon – U.S. government: “Whiskey produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80 percent alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5 percent alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.”
Straight Bourbon – When you see “Straight Bourbon” on a label, the regulated term means, according to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau: “Bourbon whiskey stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more. Straight Bourbon Whiskey may include mixtures of two or more straight bourbon whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state.” Note: When “straight” is not on the bourbon label, the bourbon does not have to be at least 2 years old.
Wheat Whiskey – Thanks to a few strong contenders, such as Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, wheat whiskey is having a nice comeback. This is its own category and should not be confused with wheated bourbons, which is a style of bourbon. The U.S. government defines wheat whiskey as: “Whiskey produced at not exceeding 80 percent alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent wheat and stored at not more than 62.5 percent alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.”
Corn Whiskey – In the coming years, you’ll start to see more corn whiskey on the shelves. Distillers realize that this category has great potential at lower production costs than bourbon. The government defines corn whiskey as: “Whiskey produced at not exceeding 80 percent alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent corn and, if stored in oak containers, stored at not more than 62.5 percent alcohol by volume (125 proof) in used or uncharred new oak containers and not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood.”
Straight Rye Whiskey – The most popular of the non-bourbon American whiskeys, rye whiskey carries as much history, maybe more, as bourbon. But post-Prohibition lackluster sales led to its eventual decline. Recently, rye has made a resurgence. Rye whiskey must come from a fermented mash of at least 51 percent rye. If the label does not contain “straight,” the rye whiskey may have additives. Thus, “Straight Rye” is defined as: “whiskey stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more. Straight Rye Whiskey may include mixtures of two or more straight rye whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state.”
Light Whiskey – Like corn whiskey, “Light Whiskey” is a category that should see an uptick in the near future. The reason why: MGP Ingredients, the supplier of bulk whiskey to several bottlers, is sitting on a boatload of Light Whiskey, which is defined as: “Whiskey produced in the U.S. at more than 80 percent alcohol by volume (160 proof) [but less than 95 percent alcohol by volume (190 proof)] and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers.”