Most professional jargon, or industry-specific vocabulary, is mind-numbingly boring. Is there anything more tiresome than corporate speak’s endless cycle of “circling back,” or “putting a pin in it?” The wild world of whiskey terms however, is a different story. This unicorn industry, as we all know, is so enchanting that its terminology could never be dull. And understanding whiskey's terms of art serves two important purposes. First, it will allow you to make the best possible choices about your particular tastes. Prefer a crystal-clear whiskey? Make sure to look for “chill filtered” on the label (read on for the reason why).
A sophisticated grasp of whisky lingo will also ingratiate you with a vibrant community of whiskey connoisseurs, which are some of the best folks on earth if we do say so ourselves. So let’s take a look at some important terms that will sharpen your whiskey acumen and make drinking it even more enjoyable (if that’s possible).
Angel’s Share: Although the term sounds a bit ephemeral, distillers take precise account of the “angel’s share,” or the roughly 2% of whiskey that evaporates to the heavens as it ages in wooden barrels.
Bottle in Bond: The U.S. government’s 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act required that whiskey be distilled by a single distiller, aged for four years, and bottled at 100 proof (or 50% alcohol by volume). If you see “Bottled in Bond” on the label, you can count on a high-quality whiskey.
Cask Strength: Another whiskey term found on labels that you should be able to interpret is “cask strength.” The price point is higher for this type of whiskey because it is bottled straight from the cask, not diluted with water as is often the case.
Chill Filtration: When whiskey gets cold, its fatty acids congeal and make the liquor look cloudy. Some distillers choose to filter these out for aesthetic reasons, even though it can have a negative effect on the flavor. If the cloudiness doesn’t bother you, look for the words “non-chill filtered.”
Column Still: Column stills are more commonly used by big American whiskey brands to distill bourbon and rye. Instead of direct heat, these stills use steam injection or “jackets.” A column still works almost like a series of pot stills, except the pot stills are stacked on top of one another in one long vertical column. On top of the boiler, which houses the mash, is the analyzer column, in which the steam enters and begins its ascent. After the alcohol boils off into vapors it travels up the analyzer column and up into the rectifier column, where it cools and begins condensing. These spirits require less aging, are more pure and are less prone to volatile compounds.
Cooperage: An integral part of any distillery’s brand identity is the spirit’s origin story. The land where the grains are grown, the water source, and the unique craftsmanship of the barrels are all points of pride. The cooperage, or the facility where the barrels are made by a skilled cooper, is often highlighted as a way to differentiate the product in a crowded market.
Heather: If you find yourself at a Scotch tasting, keep this whiskey term in your back pocket or you may end up looking like a newbie. Scotch experts often detect the grassy taste of heather, a wild plant with delicate pink flowers that grows abundantly in the Scottish highlands.
Mash Bill: This term, most often used in relation to American whiskey, is the unique recipe for the ratio of grains used to make the spirit. Most popular of course are barley, corn, rye, and wheat, but some mash bills incorporate oats, millet or rice for a distinct flavor profile. Here’s how American mash bills break down:
Pot Still: Pot stills are wide-based stills traditionally made from copper that are heated directly during the distillation process. Distillates are produced one batch at a time, and a pot still better allows for alterations to texture and taste. Because of this, spirits produced in a pot still tend to be more raw and less stripped of flavor or congeners than those produced in a column still.
Single Barrel: Single-barrel whiskeys are not blended with other whiskeys for uniformity like many commercial products. Whiskey enthusiasts love the uniqueness of this premium class of whiskey, which they rightly see as an opportunity to diversify their collections. One way consumers can get in on the single barrel trend is through Barrel Global’s whiskey marketplace. This market innovation allows members to purchase full barrels of whiskey at a reasonable price point, hold the whiskey at a secure warehouse while it ages, and then either resell or bottle the barrel.
Premiumization: Premiumization, or the rise of higher-priced spirits, is a major trend in the whiskey world as consumers demand more sustainably and locally-sourced whiskeys. Millennial and Gen-Z consumers are willing to pay more for sustainably produced goods, which means that prices must rise to cover additional production costs. For this group, it’s more about quality than quantity, and experts predict that premium whiskeys will continue to gain popularity in the years to come.
Terroir: Wine drinkers aren’t the only ones tossing around the French term “terroir” anymore. Distillers large and small are highlighting the precise combination of soil, climate, sun, and other conditions that make their spirits unique. Grain-to-glass distillers in particular are bringing this concept to the forefront, creating distinctive flavors through the exclusive use of high-quality local ingredients.
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