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 labelling laws, others are generic and offer no help.
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 flavour and initiating fermentation. Everybody uses this technique, but if you see 'Sour Mash' prominently on the bottle and 'Bourbon' is nowhere to be found, that means they likely had the product approved under a separate whiskey category.
The use of 'Handcrafted' is why several brands are currently 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.
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?
'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 created 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.'
When you see the words 'Made by' whoever distillery, that could mean they did not distil 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 as 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. Brands like Smooth Ambler and Redemption purchase sourced whiskey and accurately publish the whiskey origins on the label. With that said 'Made by' does not necessarily mean the brand is being dishonest, just look around the label and make sure they're disclosing the state of distillation.
These selected regulated terms can be found on many American whiskey bottles and are usually stipulated by law.
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.
US law: 'Whiskey produced in the US at not exceeding 80 per cent alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 per cent corn and stored at not more than 62.5 per cent alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.'
When you see 'Straight Bourbon' on a label, this means, according to the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau: 'Bourbon whiskey stored in charred new oak containers for two 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 two years old.
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 US government defines 'Wheat Whiskey' as: 'Whiskey produced at not exceeding 80 per cent alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 per cent wheat and stored at not more than 62.5 per cent alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.'
In the coming years, you'll start to see more 'Corn Whiskey' on the shelves. Distillers realise that this category has great potential at lowering production costs than Bourbon. The government defines 'Corn Whiskey' as: 'Whiskey produced at not exceeding 80 per cent alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 80 per cent corn and if stored in oak containers stored at not more than 62.5 per cent 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 lacklustre sales led to its eventual decline. Recently, rye has made a resurgence. Rye whiskey must come from a fermented mash of at least 51 per cent 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 two 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.'
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 US at more than 80 per cent alcohol by volume (160 proof) but less than 95 per cent alcohol by volume (190 proof) and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers."