If you’re like me, you probably don’t spend a lot of time soaking up the particulars on the labels of bourbon bottles whilst out and about shopping at your local liquor store. You’re maybe focused on brand recognition…scanning for the big names…or just after your go-to sipper. If you do happen to stop and review the particulars, it can be a bit confusing. Below we arm you with everything you need to be whiskey-wise and interpret the sometimes-strange wording found on bourbon labels.
At its core, bourbon is a drink derived from greater than fifty-one percent corn in its mash. If it has less than that it can’t be called bourbon. Beyond the basics of that threshold, mash bills vary quite a bit, and some distillers keep their mashbills a secret. If you have a couple extra minutes, you can take a deep dive into Mash Bills for Bourbon to understand more.
On the label you’ll find where the bourbon was distilled, which, contrary to popular belief, does not have to be in Kentucky. Take a moment if you must to let that soak in. There's some amazing pours that come from a lot of other spots all around the country...and it's true, bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States so long as it has fifty-one percent corn in the mashbill and is aged in a new, charred oak barrels.
Also on the label, the location the bourbon was aged and bottled will also be found, along with details on who the producer is as the producer may not be the same as the brand. This shouldn’t be terribly shocking as a lot of brownwater is sourced from Indiana.
No, this isn’t a dating reference, but rather universal terms used in the land of bourbon. Bourbon can be labeled as bourbon even if it was in the new charred oak barrel for a whole one second worth of time. There is no minimum aging required. There are some terms however that help us consumers understand the products better. If a label states, the spirit is a “straight bourbon” that indicates it has been aged for at least two years.
The term "single barrel," like E.H. Taylor Single Barrel references the fact that the bottle you are drinking is the product of a single barrel that is not blended with other barrels. You may really like one bottle and not like the next as there can be a fair bit of difference between these single barrel offerings!
If you see the term “sour mash” that means that the distiller added small amounts of previously fermented mash as a starter for the new mash. Michter’s Sour Mash is one such pour that comes to mind. Interestingly, you’ll not find the term “bourbon” anywhere on that label…that’s because it doesn’t technically qualify as bourbon. Although Michter’s doesn’t disclose the mashbill for their Sour Mash product, the labeling clearly tells us that it falls below the fifty-one percent threshold. It’s great whiskey nonetheless!
The age statement you find on a bottle may or may not be as clear cut as you might think. The back side of an Eagle Rare bottle states that it’s “AGED 10 YEARS” and this age statement is suggestive of the youngest of the whiskies used in producing that bottle and may or may not be comprised of a blend of different aged whiskies that could include bourbon of a much older vintage...ten years in this case is the bottom floor.
Many of the bourbons that you purchase will have been diluted with water and filtered prior to making it from the barrel and to your lips. Some bourbons however are sold at “cask strength” or “barrel proof” or “barrel strength”…etc…these bourbons have not been diluted and are coming to you in their unadulterated straight from the barrel form.
The overall strength of a bourbon (or any spirit for that matter) is measured in ABV or alcohol by volume. ABV is one half of the indicated proof on the bottle. Weller Full Proof is fifty-seven percent alcohol by volume, which equates to a proof of one hundred and fourteen. The term proof dates to the 16th century in England when tax rates on spirits were dictated by their alcohol content…it’s a historical term of reference that hangs on today but means much less in the grand scheme of things now then back then.
It feels weird to pick up a bottle of “America’s spirit” and see the metric system used to express the volume. Since 1980, volumetric labeling has been done in milliliters, with 750ml or a “fifth” equating to just shy of a fifth of a gallon.
Since the late 80’s you’ll also find a warning from our government on every single bottle which firstly implores pregnant women to not drink and among other items, warns folks to stay off heavy machinery if they’ve been imbibing a bit too much. Getting pulled over on a tractor I'm sure makes for a great story, but yes, probably best to not.
With these basics of bourbon underfoot you should be well armed to take on any liquor store decision and are hopefully a bit more whiskey-wise than when you started reading today. For more great content like this, be sure to stop by the Blog. Get an idea of what bottles are going for on the secondary market by consulting the Bourbon Blue Book to find the latest pricing so you don't get taken!
Bourboneur Tasting Sheet