Get confused at liquor shop? Here’s a complete guide on how to read and understand whiskey labels

If you are someone who enjoys classic whisky but is often confused about what to choose from the aisle while purchasing a bottle? If that’s the case, we are here to decode and help you to read and understand whisky labels.

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Understanding a whisky label can be daunting and that is one of the reasons why whisky drinkers don’t risk trying new brands and often opt for what they’ve tried before. However, if you knew the technicalities involved in whisky-making and what’s written on the label of a bottle, it can help you find a suitable bottle that will appeal to your taste buds.

From single malt and scotch to Bourbon and oak barrels, age of the bottle, and region of production – the label has almost all the needed information. Before we explain how you can understand and read the labels, it is important to know that the drink is spelled both as whisky and whiskey. This is because of the country of origin. American and Irish regions spell the drink with an ‘e’ while in Scotland and Canada, it is spelled without it.

If you are someone who enjoys classic whisky but is often confused about what to choose from the aisle while purchasing a bottle? If that’s the case, we are here to decode and help you to read and understand whisky labels. Pankaj Arora, Brand Advocacy Manager-India Area – Brown Forman (maker of Jack Daniel’s) tells us:

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A person who is buying a whiskey bottle for the first time should consider the following points –

Origin – Which country’s whiskey you are buying – If it is a cold country’s whisky then it will be lighter in colour, and subtle in flavours and if it is from a moderate/ warm country’s whiskey then it will be intense in flavors on the palate. It will be darker in colour.

Barrels – Some brands mention barrels on the bottles and the kind of barrel used gives a distinct flavour profile in whiskies.

Unique making process – Some brands mentioned their unique making process such as Jack Daniel’s mentions the charcoal mellowing process which is a unique way of mellowing whiskey with maple wood charcoal to make whiskey smooth.

How are whiskies different from one another?

There are different styles of whiskies available on shelves and they are different from one another on the following basis –

Origins – There are different whiskey-making countries like Scotland, Ireland, America, Japan, and Canada. These all countries produce different styles of whiskies.

Raw Material – Every country has its own choice of ingredients to make whiskies such as Scotland, Japan, and Ireland use Barley and wheat as their key ingredient for whisky making whereas Americans use corn, rye, and barley as ingredients for whiskey making.

Whisky Laws – Every whisky-making country has its own law for whiskey making regarding minimum time for aging in barrels, styles of barrels, distillation process, etc.

Barrels – Barrels also play a huge role, in some countries the use of barrels multiple times for aging and in some countries, new barrels must be used to age whiskies.

How is whisky different from whiskey?

The name is based on factors such as the type of cereal grain used in the distilling process as well as how and where it was produced. The countries which use E in spelling are Ireland and America and countries which do not use E are Scotland and Canada.

Does this change impact the taste?

Yes, spelling with an E and spelling without an E changes the origin of whisky and so change of origin changes the impact on the palate too.

How to decide which brand is smooth and which is not?

There is no whiskey in the world that is bad but it’s just one is better than another. Every palate has different eating habits and of course, perception of smoothness will be different from person to person but in general, if we have to explain smoothness then whiskey should have a good intensity of flavours so that one small drop of whiskey can expand into your whole mouth and should not give you alcohol burns on the palate.

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What are the do’s and don’ts when buying a bottle of whiskey?

Do’s – Identify your expectation from a whiskey and then choose wisely based on the origin of whiskies (What style of whiskey does a specific country offer and is it according to your palate).

Don’ts – Don’t just judge whiskies based on age as bigger age does not necessarily give you a well-balanced flavour.

What are the dos and don’ts of drinking whiskey?

Do’s – If you are a person who loves whiskey with water then you should use natural spring water or without any added antibacterial chemicals as water with anti-bacterial chemicals mutes the aroma and flavours of whiskies which spring water doesn’t.

– Always go by recommendations of right serves by the brands as they are tried and tested for a great experience with whiskey.

Don’ts – Avoid hot (High chili) food along with whiskies as it overpowers the palate and recesses the real flavours of whiskies.

How to understand the whiskey by reading the label

A whiskey bottle has the following elements on the label and every element is important to understand:

Brand – The Brand name of the whiskey is renowned.

ESTD – Establishment date gives us the confidence to buy whiskey as if the establishment is old and renowned. That means they are into the whiskey-making business for a long time and have got good experience in whiskey-making.

Origin – Origin gives us an idea of what style of whiskey that region offers so you can have an expectation from the liquid inside.

Barrel – The style of barrel used gives you an idea of the liquid inside as well and you can research on the internet about the style of the barrel. 

Does the number of years make a difference? How?

 Yes, the number of years in barrels makes an impact on whiskies but in some countries, however, climate plays a major role as in cold countries whiskies have to spend more time in a barrel to get colour and flavours and in moderate or warm countries whiskey has to spend almost half time to get flavours and colour as compared to cold climate.

What are those numbers (12 years, 14 years…)

A distillery ages its whiskies in barrels and there are millions of barrels that age in their barrel houses every barrel behaves differently because of different atmospheric conditions so to make one brand with the same consistent taste, the whiskies have to be blended. So, the age mentioned on bottles is the minimum age of whisky gone into blending.

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First published on: 21-05-2023 at 15:29 IST