As you wander towards the Scotch aisle of your local liquor emporium, you begin salivating just thinking about the peaty goodness that you are about to imbibe. But as you arrive at your bottled treasures, you realize that you have no clue what you are looking at. You know what types of Scotch you prefer, but you don’t know a thing about reading the labels. Well friends, not to worry. Here is The Savory’s guide to deciphering a Scotch whisky label:
A Scotch whisky label is made up of several elements that indicate aspects of production, age, bottling and ownership. Some of these elements are monitored by the Scotch Whisky Regulations as issued by the Scotch Whiskey Association, who “promote, protect and represent the interests of the industry in Scotland and around the world.” Some of these label elements reflect tradition and marketing.
The Label Breakdown
The Malt: Hey, Scotsman, what are you putting in that bottle? The label on a bottle of scotch whisky must and will always contain a declaration of the malt or grain whiskies used. A single malt Scotch whisky is one that is entirely produced from malt in a single distillery. Whilst browsing your bottles, you may also see the term "single cask", signifying that the bottling comes entirely from one cask (or barrel). The Scotch Whisky Association declared that a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries in one bottle must be labeled a "blended malt". The term "blended malt" is debated by much of the Scotch community, as some maintain that consumers confuse the term with "blended Scotch whisky", which mean that the Scotch contains some proportion of grain whisky.
The Strength: So is this gonna get us drunk? Like most labels, the alcoholic strength is displayed on the label with "Alcohol By Volume" ("ABV") or just simply, "Vol." On average, bottled whisky is between 40% and 46% ABV, but is considerably stronger when first emerging from the cask—normally 60–63% ABV. Distilleries add water to create the desired bottling strength. If the whisky is not diluted before bottling, it is typically labeled “cask strength.”
The Age: We don’t like our Scotches young. An age listed on the bottle must reflect the guaranteed age of the youngest whisky used to produce that product. Scotch whisky without an age statement may, by law, be as young as three-years-old.
The Brand: As good ole’ Willy Shakes asked, “What’s in a name?”, the brand name featured on a Scotch label is usually the same as the distillery name. But sometimes, multiple whiskies are produced at the same distillery. A bottler name can also be listed, if independent of the distillery. In addition to requiring that Scotch whisky be distilled in Scotland, the Scotch Whiskey Regulations require that it also be bottled and labeled in Scotland. Labels may also indicate the region of the distillery. Check out our incredible Scotch-by-region infographic HERE.