Whisky Label Lore

Similar to French or German Wine, the label of a Whisky can tell you a lot. There are some basic rules how to distinguish simple Whiskies from high-quality Whiskies. This article shows you the most important features of Scotch Whisky by means of three different labels.

Let's begin with a simple, cheap Blended Whisky. A Single Malt Whisky already has more information on the label, while a single cask bottling is full of details.

1. Blended Scotch Whisky


The Famous Grouse bottling
The Famous Grouse

A blended Scotch Whisky (here: Famous Grouse) displays at the minimum the information shown on the label above. But this needs some further explanation.

Scotch: A Whisky may only be called Scotch if it matured in oak casks in Scotland for at least 3 years. Without the specification 'Scotch', the Whisky could be from India, for example, which ranks among the world’s biggest Whisky-producing countries.

Age: If the age is not specifically stated on the label, you can assume that the Whisky is not much older than the required 3 years. Don't get fooled by words like 'rare'. 'Rare' Whiskies are very often high-selling Whiskies.

Content: For stating the content of the bottle different units are permitted. Bottles may be labelled as 70cl or 0.7 litres, for example. The letter 'e' behind the content statement refers to the measurement of the volume. 'e' stands for 'estimated', since there are always small inaccuracies in  technical processes.

Alcohol content: The alcohol content is stated as alcohol by volume. Theoretically you could also state a weight percentage but this isn't permitted by the law.

2. Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The Label of the Ardbeg TEN
Ardbeg TEN 0,7l

Single Malt Scotch Whisky is made exclusively from malted barley and is produced by a single distillery. Therefore the name of the distillery is always stated on the label. The term 'Blended Malt' indicates a Malt Whisky that contains several Malt Whiskies from different distilleries. Please don't confuse Blended Malt Whisky with Blended Scotch Whisky as mentioned in section 1. A Blended Scotch contains large amounts of industrial Grain Whisky.
Region: The region may be added before the phrase "Single Malt Scotch Whisky". The classic regions are Highland, Speyside, Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. Following the new 2009 legislation, also other regions may be stated now, for example Orkney or Arran.
Age: The age statement on the label indicates the youngest Whisky used for this bottling. Single Malt Whisky may also contain Whiskies of different ages, but they are all from a single distillery. The rule of thumb is: the older the Whisky, the mellower and better it is, since pungent aromas degrade during maturation. But the time needed for maturation also depends on the size of the casks. A Whisky that matured in small casks for 12 years is usually mellower than a Whisky that matured in very large casks for 18 years. So age shouldn't be the only criterion when you choose a Whisky.
Alcohol content: The better a Whisky gets, the higher its alcohol content is usually, because the philosophy of the producers is to give the customer a bit more of the product if the bottle is expensive. But beware! Most Whiskies taste better if you add a little water. This has nothing to do with adulteration or watering-down. Whisky with a higher alcohol content usually lasts longer than Whisky that has been reduced to drinking strength.

3. Cask Strength Bottlings

The Label of the Caol Ila Signatory
Caol Ila 30 years

Cask Strength Bottlings are a treat you shouldn't miss. The Whisky is filled into the bottles straight from the cask, without any dilution.

Filtration: Some bottlers swear by filtration, others are strictly against it. Some cool the Whisky down to a few degrees Celsius before bottling in order to filter out all the hardly soluble particles (chill-filtration).

Limited number: Since Whisky matures individually in casks, each cask tastes differently. That's why there is always a limited number of bottles from single cask bottlings. If the Whisky sells well, the bottler will try to bottle a similar cask again, which will nevertheless taste a bit differently. Beside the bottle number sometimes also the total number of bottles is stated.

Alcohol content: You shouldn't be put off by the relatively high alcohol content of a cask strength bottling. These Whiskies are usually reduced to drinking strength at a ratio of 50:50 with still, mineral-poor spring water. Thus your bottle lasts twice as long. Furthermore, the more intense taste that immediately results from dilution and the possibility to experiment broaden your taste experience significantly.

For further information, please also read the article on alcohol and water.

With some practice you can quite easily deduce the content of a bottle from the statements on its label.