7 Bourbon Buzzwords to Look For
Reading bourbon and whiskey labels can sometimes feel like decoding an encrypted message however if you look for a few important words you can figure out what is most likely in the bottle.
Bourbon Buzzwords that Matter:
Bourbon/Rye/Corn/Whiskey – This signifies what kind of mash bill was used. Read our post on the difference between bourbon and whiskey to get a better understanding of these differences.
Straight – This is a word that it often overlooked but still carries a lot of weight when it comes to useful information on a bottle. First, straight bourbon has a minimum aging requirement of two years. It also requires any straight bourbon aged less than 4 years to state the age of the spirit on the bottle. Straight bourbon doesn’t have added coloring, flavoring, or other. This has recently stirred up a lot of controversy due to Templeton admitting to adding less than 2.5% flavoring which is still allowed as long as the label doesn’t have the word “straight”. If the label says straight you know it’s only whiskey and maybe water in the bottle.
Single Barrel – While single barrel bourbons can have issues when it comes to consistency there are strict guidelines for what it means. The contents of the bottle are from the same barrel and have not been mixed with other barrels
Distilled in – While NDP’s dodge adding these words to the label there’s no getting around it when you see “Distilled in” on a label
Mash bill – Not popular, but some brands will include the mash bill on the label. More common in single malts and 100% corn whiskies
Barrel proof/Cask Strength/Uncut – There has been no water added to the whiskey. Whatever proof it was coming out of the barrel is the proof that is in the bottle.
Unfiltered – Taste wise, filtering is not a big deal and most whiskey is filtered through mesh or charcoal. If the label doesn’t clarify filtered or unfiltered simply add some ice water and if it turns cloudy you know it’s unfiltered.
Bonus: Age Statement – If you see an age number on a bottle you can guarantee that the youngest whiskey in that bottle reflects the number on the bottle. What’s also interesting is that if a whiskey is less than four years old it’s required to have an age statement. There are literally hundreds of bottles breaking this law.
Bourbon Buzzwords that Don’t Matter:
Hand Crafted – Still trying to figure out what this means. It’s a fluff word and as an informed bourbon drinker you’re free to ignore
Small Batch – Some may argue with me on this one but until there are strict laws on the quantity of barrels that can be used and still labeled small batch this term is useless. Small batch can be anywhere from 1 barrel (the smallest batch) to 1,000 barrels.
Rare – Who defines this when it comes to whiskey? Of course the brand wants you to believe that it’s rare. When they include this word on the bottle you can almost guarantee it is anything but “rare”. This buzzword is only useful when it comes to ordering steak
Bottled by/ Produced by – This provides no valuable information as to what’s inside the bottle. The company or brand that takes whiskey and puts it in a bottle gives no indication of quality
Distilling company – Don’t be fooled by the word “distill” in the name. This doesn’t mean they’re actually the ones doing the distilling. Confusing and deceiving but that’s the way the system works for now. It’d be like me setting up Blake’s Bakery but all I do is buy cakes from Publix and charge 3X the amount I bought them for. Is this legal? Yes. Is this ethical? I guess
Prohibition Era – Not sure why we’re still using something that happened almost 100 years ago to sell whiskey but it definitely lends no credibility to the whiskey
Bottlegger – See above. Why would untaxed whiskey make people want to buy something that is legal and taxed?
Family recipe – Sounds cool but still gives no indication as to what is in the bottle. Just because your father and grandfather were pilots doesn’t mean you should leave your seat in coach to land a 747
Sour Mash – “Sour mash is a process in the distilling industry that uses material from an older batch of mash to start fermentation in the batch currently being made, analogous to the making of sourdough bread.” Almost all distilleries use the sour mash process now but for some reason some distillers advertise their whiskey as “sour mash”. This is comparable to Ford marketing a car as the new 2014 Focus gasoline. Sure, there are cars without gasoline engines but that’s typically not the case.
Bottled in Bond – This used to carry some weight but doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
“To be labeled as Bottled-in-Bond or Bonded, the liquor must be the product of one distillation season (January to December) and one distiller at one distillery. It must have been aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years and bottled at 100 (U.S.) proof (50% alcohol by volume). The bottled product’s label must identify the distillery where it was distilled and, if different, where it was bottled. Only spirits produced in the United States may be designated as bonded.”
Really the only useful information would be if a non-distiller producer (NDP) labeled their product as Bottled in Bond. I doubt we’ll see that any time soon.
Craft – This word actually carried some weight however too many have used it and it has become watered down. Until we get a legal definition of “craft” or “artisan” they mean nothing.