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The whisky virgin

Deconstructing whisky words for newbies

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They say Scotch is one of the most difficult spirits to understand, and with a proliferation of marketing jargon and technical speak littering the shelves, the Whisky Virgin dissects some of those confusing him most.

Whisky selection on store shelves
Whisky labels: There's so much confusing terminology used, but what does it all mean?

I’ve learned a lot of new vocabulary on my journey up the whisky river and into the heart of malty darkness. Cask strength = no added water, too easy; single cask = just one barrel in the bottle, mate. But as far as I’ve come, I still don’t understand a lot of the stuff I read on whisky labels. How limited is a ‘limited edition’? How chill is ‘chill filtering’? And how old and/or rare does a ‘rare old’ whisky have to be?

I’ve been tipped off that there might be some marketing fancy talk used on whisky labels and that not everything I read will mean what it seems. With that in mind, I’ll try to suppress my natural trusting optimism as I look for the truth behind the labels and unpick expectations from reality. Come with me, as I deviate a bit from the usual format and try to get educated.

‘Natural colour’: If a label carries this statement it doesn’t contain any spirit caramel

Old and/or rare

The Expectation

Pretty self-explanatory, this one. You’d think that if something’s called old and/or rare it’s going to be something special, something from a bygone era, a real treasure… right?

The Reality

So, it looks like a bottle of Scotch could be three years old and one of a million others just like it, and still have the words ‘old and/or rare’ on the wrapper. I reckon this is a bit like when my estate agent described the flat I now rent as ‘cosy’ and ‘liveable’ and ‘free of owl infestation’ – which is to say liberal with the dictionary definitions. It seems obvious now I think about it, but not every bottle of no-age-statement ‘Old-Glen-Scottish-y’ in the off-licence on the corner is probably that ancient.

Natural colour

The Expectation

Aren’t they all natural colour?

The Reality

Apparently not. Turns out the whisky feds are okay with Scotch makers darkening up their wares a little for looks and consistency. I’ve been told 100% that if the label on my bottle says it’s ‘natural colour’ then no food colouring, or ‘spirit caramel’, has been added. So there we go, ‘natural colour’ is a straight up promise.

A given: Of course all Scotch is matured in oak casks, but some labels still state the obvious

‘Traditionally made’, ‘finest oak cask’, ‘Gluten free’

The Expectation

It’s special in some way. Like, they did a bit extra when they were making it. Really went above and beyond.

The Reality

I found out during vigorous research – bothering bartenders and people on twitter, and stuff – that all of these things are legal requirements or facts of how Scotch whisky is made. If a label says the single malt it’s selling was ‘aged in 100% oak casks’ or whatever, that’s a given. You wouldn’t write on your Tinder bio that you’ve got lungs, or that you own a phone, or were born of mammal parents. Also, turns out whisky is all gluten free anyway.

Non-chill-filtered

The Expectation

Unfiltered is better, right?

The Reality

This had to be explained to me a few times. Apparently when whisky comes out of the barrel it’s all thick and chewy full of bits and it can look kind of cloudy, especially if cold water is added. In an effort to make whisky clear and presentable, producers will chill it down and pass it through a filter at low temp, leaving all the oily and hazy bits behind. I’ve heard some people say this takes a little flavour and texture out too, but that’s probs something for me to look into another day. Non-chill-filtered booze might not be ‘better’ than the next thing but if I see these words on a whisky tin I know they tell me something about what happened to the liquid inside. Nice.

Gold rush: Some ‘limited editions’ inspire whisky fans to queue overnight to obtain a bottle

Select/ Reserve/ Cut

The Expectation

You’ve seen this sort of thing before. Whiskies called something like ‘Loch Swally: Master Blender’s Selection’. Come to think of it, I’ve seen a lot of ‘cooper’s reserves’ and ‘master distiller’s cuts’ out there in whisky land. Seems like this should mean they took extra care with this one: your drink wasn’t built in a giant factory by whisky robots, the master blender selected it special, like.

The Reality

Lots of firms sell whiskies with select/reserve/cut on the label but they all seem to mean something a bit different. One distiller’s reserve could be a pricier version of your favourite Scotch aged in a different type of cask, another could be their entry level offering. The problem, I reckon, with this sort of language on whisky tubes is that it sounds good but leaves me asking more questions. In what way is it different? Did the manager really select it? Who normally does the selecting? We may never know.

Limited edition

The Expectation

Seems to me this should mean a finite number of bottles have been made. I should buy one before it’s too late, for the bragging rights, and the glory, and the millions I’ll make flogging it on later. 

The Reality

In my rummagings around the Scotch market, I found out that some companies put the number of bottles in a release right there on the box, some post that info online, and others keep it on the down low. Seems like an edition can be technically limited – as in not part of an ongoing production – but still be pretty massive. Seems to me I’ve been easily swayed by this sort of thing in the past, but I guess I need to dig a little more when I see something that calls itself limited before throwing down my hard-earned sofa change. I mean, everything’s limited if you think about it; life, the sun, student loan debt – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything limited is hard to get.

Wow, it seems like the whisky cartels really play their cards close to their chests, right? Everything’s code words and double-talk and propaganda. I’ll be honest, I feel a little more confused than I did when we started this whole thing. It seems like the more I read whisky labels the more questions I have. Will the opaque whisky business turn your boy into a stone-cold booze cynic? Nah, I’m just going to make sure I keep asking questions. This Scotch is an exquisite-oak-revival-vatting: what do you mean by that, my good fella? Why is it different? How does it taste? Why should I buy it? I just wish I’d started thinking like this before I threw down on that case of limited edition Rare-Old-Glen-Scottish-y at my local off-licence. Oh well, we’re all learning here, right?

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