Understanding liquor lingo can be like trying to decrypt a secret code. With acronyms like ABV and phrases like Navy Strength plastered across liquor bottles, making an informed decision in the liquor store can be a daunting task. Words on your favorite whiskey labels are even more nebulous and esoteric. If you’ve ever tried to Google “Bottled-In-Bond” while at the liquor store, this guide to whiskey terminology is for you. Here, 10 essential whiskey terms every whiskey lover or aspiring whiskey expert should know.
Also referred to as “barrel proof,” cask strength refers to whiskies that are bottled straight out of the barrel. Cask strength spirits have no water added and generally range from 60 to 65 percent ABV—which translates to around 125 proof. It doesn’t get much boozier than a cask strength whiskey.
These are the chemical compounds (other than straight ethanol) that make it to the final distillate. These compounds are produced in the mash and are usually composed of fatty acids, esters and aldehydes (gluten is not one of them). Some congeners, like those fatty acids and esters, benefit the whiskey’s profile by adding body and depth to its flavor. Others, like acetaldehyde (a result of oxidation in the mash), have vinegary flavors like a spoiled dry cider that could negatively affect a whiskey’s flavor.
This is a process in which whiskey is chilled prior to filtering and bottling. By chilling whiskey, impurities can be removed as the spirit is run through a filter. While this process might strip the spirit of any nasty flavors (like those undesirable acetaldehyde compounds), it also has the ability to remove the good acids and esters that you want in a whiskey. Whiskey labels that read “non-chill filtered” are good for purists searching for a natural-tasting whiskey.
This term refers to the Bottled-In-Bond Act, a bill that politicians signed into law in 1897 to protect the quality of bourbon and rye whiskies being produced in the United States. The law states that all whiskies labeled bottled-in-bond have to be produced by only one distiller at an American distillery during a one-year period. Bonded spirits also have to be aged at least four years, under close government supervision in federal buildings. When bottled-in-bond whiskies are bottled, the spirit must be at 100 proof (50 percent ABV).
New American Oak
Cooperage in America is about as old as the country itself, and “New American Oak” refers to the wood in which most American-made whiskies are aged. American barrels are constructed from white oak grown primarily in the Midwest, the Appalachians, and parts of Oregon. Whiskeys produced in American oak barrels tend to be creamier, with stronger flavors of cream soda, vanilla, or coconut, as compared to whiskeys made in imported barrels. The general consensus amongst distillers is that 70-80 percent of a whiskey’s flavor comes from its time spent in barrels.
No, not that same kind of malt you’d find in your milkshake, but similar. Malting is a process in which grains like barley or wheat are allowed to germinate and sprout. During germination, the grain’s starches are converted into fermentable sugars. After the grains germinate, they are toasted to prevent the grain from growing any further. The malting process gives whiskies a toasty, honeyed sweetness, almost like Honey Nut Cheerios or buckwheat honey.
The mash bill is the mix of grains used to make whiskey, which are distilled after the fermentation cycle. Most whiskies (like bourbon and rye) have very specific guidelines for their mash bills. Bourbon’s mash bill, for example, must consist of over 51 percent corn, while rye’s mash bill must consist of over 51 percent—you guessed it—rye. If these guidelines for bourbon and rye are not followed verbatim, the bottles cannot be legally defined (and labeled) as such.
Peat is a brown, soil-like deposit found in Scotland that consists of decomposed vegetation. It is basically a naturally occurring compost pile—except it’s also a nonrenewable fossil fuel. Scots use peat as fuel for their fires to roast grains to make malt. As the grains are roasted, they absorb the smoke and flavor of the peat. This is the flavor most commonly associated with those highly coveted Islay scotches.
If you’ve ever seen pictures of a hillbilly making moonshine, he or she was most likely using some sort of makeshift pot still. Pot stills are wide-based stills traditionally made from copper that are heated directly during the distillation process. Distillates are produced one batch at a time and a pot still better allows for alterations to texture and taste. Because of this, spirits produced on a pot still tend to be more raw and less striped of flavor or congeners than those produced in a column still. Irish whiskey and scotch are required by law to be distilled in pot stills.
The alternative to pot stills, column stills are more commonly used by big American whiskey brands to distill bourbon and rye. Instead of direct heat, these stills use steam injection or “jackets.” A column still works almost like a series of pot stills, except the pot stills are stacked on top of one another in one long vertical column. On top of the boiler, which houses the mash, is the analyzer column, in which the steam enters and begins its ascent. After the alcohol boils off into vapors it travels up the analyzer column and up into the rectifier column, where it cools and begins condensing. These spirits require less aging, are more pure and are less prone to volatile compounds.