Whisky Tasting Masterclass 3: How To Read The Label

by Fraser Robson

When you begin learning about whisky, you’ll notice that tasting whisky has so much more to offer than simply tasting the whisky, identifying the aromas and flavours, understanding the distillery process etc. It really is an exciting world of exploration and one of the things that many people find interesting is understanding the labelling as, whether you regularly enjoy whisky or you’re new and participating in a whisky tasting session with friends, it’s something that everybody can easily learn and enjoy.

Here are some great tips for reading a whisky label, particularly for beginners:  

1. Single Malt Scotch Means…
To be credited with the name single malt Scotch, the whisky must have been maturated at one single distillery in Scotland and only contain 3 ingredients: barley, yeast and water. You can make single malt all over the world, however you can’t make Scotch anywhere other than Scotland. The whisky must have been aged in the cask for at least 3 years. Many bottles don’t tell you the age anymore so this will give you a good idea.

Fraser says When whisky is first distilled, it’s a clear colourless liquid of approx. 70% alcohol. This is then reduced to approx. 63% and placed into the cask to mature. The alcohol content continues to reduce throughout the maturation process, which for a Scotch whisky lasts 3 years, if not longer. At this point, the whisky must still contain at least 40% alcohol to be classified as Scotch.’ 

2. The Number 
This relates the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. For example, a Springbank 10 Year Old Scotch whisky may contain older whisky cask combinations (e.g. 15, 20 years etc.); however the youngest whisky in the bottle is 10 years old, which is why that’s the date noted. When a whisky contains several casks, it is called a ‘Master Blender.’ This is when the distillery blends together several casks to make one consistent product. Occasionally a distillery will need to use older (or younger) stock to ensure that all of their 10-year-old bottles, for example, are of a consistent flavour and quality every single time.

3. The Alcohol Percentage 
The alcohol content in Scotch is variable. Legally, all Scotch whiskies must contain at least 40% alcohol to be classified as Scotch, with anything less being a spirit. It is quite usual to see labels with 43% and 46% alcohol content; however when you see a random number such as 53.2% or 65.6%, it’s likely that it’s a cask strength whisky. Essentially, this means that the whisky hasn’t been reduced with water to get it to bottling strength; It’s straight from the cask. 

4. The Region
This is the region where the whisky was produced and matured. It’s entirely unique to the individual variety and, for those of you who are interested in visited the distillery to see how the whisky process takes place, just give them a call; most distilleries are friendly and more than happy to offer tours and tasting sessions. I visit them myself and it’s a lot of fun.

5. The Colour 
A whisky’s colour can indicate many factors, including the cask used during the maturation process, its age and more. For example, golden tones suggest that more bourbon casks were used in the maturation process; whereas darker coloured liquids, especially those with red and mahogany tones, suggest that sherry casks were used. Similarly, you will usually find that the darker the colour, the older the Scotch. It’s not a confirmed science but it’s a lot of fun and does tend to be quite accurate so give it a go.

6. The Alcohol Content

Fact: If It Contains Less Than 40% Alcohol, It’s NOT Scotch.

All single malt Scotch whiskies are fairly strong as by law they must contain at least 40% alcohol to be named ‘Scotch’. It’s the most tightly regulated and protected drinks in the world and anything with less alcohol content must be called a spirit. In addition, to be classified as a Scotch whisky, the liquid needs to have been matured and distilled in Scotland. This has earned it worldwide respect – something that we, as Scotsmen, are extremely proud of.

Fraser says ‘The effect of the strength is subject to individual differences and can depend on which other drinks you’re used to. If you aren’t used to drinking straight spirits, the alcohol intensity can seem harsh initially but don’t give up. Place another glass on the table with some water and a pipette so that, if you need to, you can dilute the Scotch with several drops of water. It's very effective and, don’t worry, after the initial intensity hits you, it will subdue so you’ll still be able to taste, smell and enjoy the delicious flavours and aromas of the whiskies.’

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