One of the many mysteries of whiskey is how to read the label. Over the next two weeks, I'll have a few tips on deciphering whiskey labels and the terms used on them.
The first step in deciphering whiskey labels is to figure out who makes your whiskey. This is actually harder than it sounds, depending on the type of whiskey you are drinking. Here is how it's done.
Single Malt Scotch
With Single Malt Scotch, it is easy to figure out who makes the drink. In most cases, the name on the bottle is the name of the distillery. Glenlivet Distillery makes Glenlivet, Laphroaig makes Laphroaig, etc. There are some exceptions, where distilleries use multiple brand names (Ledaig, for instance, is made by Tobermory distillery), but for the most part, what you see is what you get.
Bourbon and Rye
Bourbon and American rye whiskey are the exact opposite of Scotch in this regard. It is often impossible to tell who distilled the whiskey from looking at the bottle. Bourbon distilleries give their various expressions brand names (they are usually named after historic distillers) that often have no relation to the distillery name.
There are only nine Kentucky Bourbon distilleries in the US (many of which make rye as well). Some of them have a brand that goes by the distillery name (Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Maker's Mark) but others do not, and most of them have numerous brands that go by other names. For instance, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and Rittenhouse Rye are made by Heaven Hill; George T. Stagg, Sazerac Rye and Blanton's are among the offerings of Buffalo Trace; Knob Creek, Baker's and Old Granddad are Jim Beam; and Bulleit Bourbon is made by Four Roses.
Sometimes, this sort of labeling appears purposefully misleading. There is often no indication on the bottle or even the Bourbon's website that shows the consumer where it is distilled. This can make the world of Bourbon very confusing. It looks like there are hundreds of distilleries, when there are, in reality, very few.
In addition, if you see a brand you've never seen before, you can't be sure if it is a new label from an existing distillery or an independent bottling company that has bought and bottled whiskey from one of the distilleries. (Unlike Scotch bottlers, independent Bourbon bottlers almost never reveal the name of the distillery their whiskey comes from, which further adds to the confusion).
Interestingly, the production of Bourbon is, in some ways, much stricter than that of Scotch. Unlike Scotch, for instance, Bourbon cannot use artificial coloring and can only be aged in new barrels. The labeling, however, is another story.
In my view, the distillery should always be listed on the label and bottlers should be required to reveal where their Bourbon comes from. This would help demystify the Bourbon world to consumers and keep everyone honest.
Japanese whiskey is the most forthright in its labels. Typically, Japanese whiskey includes both the distillery name and the company that owns the distillery. For instance, Suntory Yamazaki whiskey is made at the Yamazaki distillery, which is owned by the Suntory Corporation. The same goes for Nikka Yoichi. This is one of the only examples I know of where the actual corporate owner has their name on the label as part of the whiskey name. If this were used in Scotland, you would have Diageo Lagavulin or Edrington Macallan.
Who makes your whiskey, of course, is a separate question from who owns it, and like most commodities on the global market, whiskey distilleries are being absorbed into the hands of a small number of international corporations, but that is a discussion we will take up on another day.
Irish whiskey is similar to American whiskey in that you cannot necessarily tell the distiller from the name on the label. However, there are only three working distillers in Ireland (Bushmills, Midleton and Cooley) so you know that your whiskey comes from one of those distilleries.
Next Wednesday: A Guide to Label Terms