Reading a whiskey label means wading through numerous terms which may be ambiguous, confusing and downright misleading...actually, it's a lot like reading law. To guide you through this twisted path, here is a handy glossary of common terms used on whiskey labels.
Age: When a whiskey says that it is 10 years old, contrary to popular belief, that does not necessarily mean the whiskey in the bottle has all been aged for 10 years. Rather, it means that the youngest whiskey in the bottle is ten years old; it usually will be mixed with older whiskies unless it is labeled single cask or has "distilled on" and "bottled on" dates. If a whiskey does not list an age, you don't know how old it is, but if it is Scotch, it must be at least three years old. If it is Bourbon, it has no minimum age requirement unless it is labeled Straight or Bottled in Bond.
Abv/Proof: The acronym abv stands for alcohol by volume and denotes the percentage of alcohol in the whiskey. Whiskey can range from 40% all the way to 60% or higher for certain barrel strength Bourbons. Proof is an old American formulation of alcohol percentage. The proof is equal to double the abv, so 50% abv equals 100 Proof. American whiskies often use proof but also must include abv.
Bottled in Bond (BIB): Bottled in Bond is an American term which denotes a whiskey which (1) has been aged at least four years; and (2) is at least 100 proof (50% abv). The term comes from a nineteenth century law which sought to improve the quality of whiskey for consumers.
Cask Strength/Barrel Strength: This indicates that the whiskey has not been diluted with water prior to bottling. In other words, it has the same abv it had in the cask, which means it will be stronger than other whiskey, which is diluted with water after coming out of the cask. Generally, Scotch uses the term cask strength while Bourbon uses barrel strength or barrel proof.
Natural Colouring: The designation Natural Colouring appears on Scotch bottles to denote that the Scotch does not contain caramel coloring. Few people realize that many, if not most Scotch does contain coloring. In recent years, there has been a consumer movement against coloring. Unlike in some European countries, Scotch sold in the US is not required to disclose on the label whether it uses coloring, so if it does not say Natural Colouring, it's probably colored. This is not an issue for Bourbon as U.S. law prohibits the use of coloring in American whiskey.
Non-Chill Filtered: Chill Filtering is another process which has recently come under attack by consumers and critics. The process cools whiskey down and filters it to eliminate oils that can cause a cloudiness to form at cool temperatures. Critics say these oils contain essential flavors. Many Scotches are now bypassing this step though almost all Bourbon is still chill filtered. Again, if the label does not say non-chill filtered, the whiskey probably was chill filtered.
Single Cask/Single Barrel: Single Cask (Scotch) or Single Barrel Barrel (Bourbon) means that the whiskey in the bottle came from a single barrel. If it does not say this, then the whiskey is probably a mix of whiskies from different barrels. Note that just because it is single cask does not mean that it is cask strength and vice versa. Unless it is designated as cask strength, single cask whiskey can still have added water.
Straight: Straight is a term used in American whiskey that signifies that the whiskey has been aged for at least two years. For instance, Straight Bourbon Whiskey or Straight Rye Whiskey.
Next Wednesday: Who Owns Your Whiskey