Decoding labels

he whisky label is a treasure trove of information if you know how to crack the codes. Graham Moore reveals all
By Graham Moore
Whisky brands emerged when the law first allowed the Scots to export whisky to England in bottles, as opposed to kegs, and merchants began to promote their own unique blends, creating for each an image that would identify their whisky the world over. Advances in printing technology led to the adoption in the late 1880s of wide-scale advertising, which played heavily on romantic images of Scotland, and much of the wording which appeared on the new labels, such as ‘special’, ‘finest’ and ‘oldest’, survives to this day.Today labelling plays an important role in the distillers’ marketing strategy. Single malt whisky in particular is firmly placed in the luxury goods sector of the market, and the label can significantly enhance the impact of a product’s branding. The consumer must be able to spot his favourite brand immediately on the shelf, and bottles and labels are designed to catch the eye of the undecided. Distillers give no less thought to changing a successful design than they would to changing the nature of the spirit itself. However, the label is not simply an advertising device or marketing tool. There is much useful information to be gleaned from a whisky label. To understand this fully we need to know the legal definition of whisky itself, and this was defined by the Royal Commission of 1908, set up in the wake of the famous ‘What is Whisky?’ case. The commission took 33 sittings over a period of 18 months to come up with its definition of whisky as being “a spirit obtained by distillation from a mash of cereal grains saccharified by the diastase of malt”. Obviously a pure malt whisky will only come from a mash of malted barley. The law also stipulates that whisky must be distilled in Scotland if it is to be called ‘Scotch’ whisky. Although one town in Japan was renamed Aberdeen so that its distillers could have an authentic ‘Scots’ name on the labels, you can not have Japanese Scotch.Furthermore, to qualify the spirit must also be matured in oak wood for a minimum of three years before it becomes whisky at all. Malt whisky labels are generally informative and succinct, giving the name of the distillery, the whisky’s age and alcoholic strength, and confirming that it was made in Scotland entirely from malt. Given the constraints of the Trade Descriptions Act, the labels of blends are more often prone to flights of fancy and the blenders are fond of shoe-horning superlatives into every available space. Words such as ‘special’, ‘finest’, ‘old’ and ‘reserve’ are common and usually denote nothing more exclusive than a standard blend. However one exception would be a blend described as deluxe, where one can assume a higher malt whisky content than in a standard blend. An age statement will also confirm a higher degree of maturity as it must by law refer to the youngest whisky in the blend, whether that is a malt or grain whisky.Sometimes, what the label does not say can be more telling than what it does. For instance, if it is a blend does it say ‘distilled, blended and bottled in Scotland’, or does it omit ‘blended’ or ‘bottled’? If so, then where was it blended or bottled? If it is a malt whisky does it say ‘single malt Scotch whisky’? Each of these four words is significant. If there is no distillery name, or the word single is missing, it will be a vatted malt, a product of more than one distillery. Beware, though, of vatted malts whose names imply a single distillery, such as names beginning ‘Glen’. Malt whisky labels usually carry the name and address of the company and the distillery somewhere in the small print, as well as giving the distillery name in the headline. A vatted malt will not be able to give a distillery address.It can be argued as to whether the independent bottlers serve a niche market or create one, but their labels often contain even greater detail, aimed squarely at satisfying the enthusiast’s thirst for minutiae. Labels may quote the region of production, the dates of distillation and bottling, and even the cask number. The phrase ‘matured in an oak cask’ is superfluous: this is a legal requirement for Scotch whisky. Merchants will buy stocks of whisky which may be left to mature at the distillery, or matured in their own bonds, and are bottled when the merchant feels the time is right. For this reason their whiskies may not necessarily correspond to the versions bottled by the distillers themselves. One thing that must be accepted with independent bottlings is that the whisky may not have been matured under the same conditions, or even in the same area, as the distiller envisaged, and you may or may not like the difference.
Vatted malt whisky labels
The difference between single malt and vatted malt whisky
A single malt is the product of a single distillery and does not have to be the product of a single distillation run. A vatted malt, while comprised entirely of malt whiskies however, will be a mixture of malts from a number of different distilleries, the vatting produced by a company or merchant is usually independent of the distilleries themselves.The above label is one from the vatted malts produced by Gordon & MacPhail (see article page 60). It is clearly a premium product, note the distillation is from 1946. But note the wording. Whiskies marked ‘pure malt’ or ‘all malt’ must by law only contain malt whiskies. However the word ‘single’ is missing, as is the name or address of an actual distillery. Other than that, details appear such as the alcoholic strength and volume of the contents, the words ‘malt Scotch whisky’ and the phrase ‘produced and bottled in Scotland’. Blended whisky
Blending is taken to mean the mixing of grain whisky from patent stills with varying proportions of pot-still malt whisky. Grain whisky, which forms the major component of an average blended whisky, is mainly derived from cereals other than barley. The spirit must be distilled at a strength below 94.7 per cent volume and matured for three years in oak wood before it is legally recognised as grain whisky. The formula of every blend is the closely guarded secret of the manufacturer and is usually known only to a handful of people in the company on a need-to-know basis. Anything from 15 to 40 or more malts may be mixed with the grain spirit, and the malt content of blends varies enormously according to their price range. A cheap supermarket own-brand may contain less than 10 per cent malt whisky, whereas an average standard blend will usually contain 30-40 per cent. Teacher’s Highland Cream is a notable exception to this with a minimum malt content of 45 per cent, and it makes a point of advertising this fact on its label. A deluxe blend, such as Johnnie Walker Black Label or Chivas Regal, will not only have a fairly high malt content, maybe 60 per cent, but it will also carry an age statement. The age will apply to the youngest whisky in the bottle, be that malt or grain. There will always be exceptions of course, but
most whisky in standard blends is used at the legal minimum age of three years. Z Graham Moore is the author of Malt Whisky, A Contemporary Guide, published by Swan Hill Press. Price £19.95, available from