There are lots of good glossaries out there that define lots of whiskey-related terms and I encourage you to explore them. Below are just a few to get you started. Above all, don’t be daunted by all these terms. If you are new to whiskey, you will eventually learn and understand many of them. And, quite frankly, you can still enjoy whiskey without knowing a damn thing about it! So, if you feel like skipping this section, by all means, please do!
ABV: This is a shortening (abbreviation) of the term “Alcohol By Volume”. ABV is just a fancy way of saying how much alcohol is in the whiskey, and in the whiskey world, it is usually more commonly just referred to as “Proof”.
Angel’s Share: Over time, as whiskey ages in the barrel, a portion of it evaporates. This is called the “Angel’s Share”. As a general rule, the older a stored whiskey is, the more will evaporate.
Barrel (or “Cask”): A barrel is just the big wooden container in which whiskey is aged. Although typically (and sometimes, by law), it is made of oak, it can also on other occasions be made of other woods.
Barrel Proof: If a whiskey has had no water added between the time it leaves the barrel and is bottled, it is considered “Barrel Proof”. This is also sometimes referred to as “Cask Strength” or “Barrel Strength”. Water is usually added to many whiskies after it leaves the barrel and before bottling to reduce the amount or percentage of alcohol it contains. A whiskey that is “Barrel Proof” let’s the drinker decide if they wish to add water and how much. (Of course, you can also add water to whiskey as well, to reduce the alcohol level and/or to change the flavor profile.) And….if you are like me, you can add NO water, so you can taste exactly what it tastes like when it leaves the barrel.
Blended Whiskey: Most of the whiskey (including a lot of the “major brands”) you’ve probably encountered when first starting to drink whiskey were likely to be blends. This only means that whiskey from different barrels (and sometimes, different distilleries) was combined to make the final whiskey product. Although it is not allowed in whiskey called “Bourbon”, it can also be whiskey that was blended with a neutral grain spirit, or with coloring or flavoring. An example would be some Canadian whiskies, which do allow the adding of coloring or flavoring. Blending in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is was makes what may be your favorite brand, consistent in its taste.
Bottled in Bond: Any whiskey which is labeled “Bottled in Bond” must be aged at least 4 years (unless it is from pre-1958, in which case it is 8 years). This aging takes place in a federally-bonded facility, under government supervision. All the whiskey in the bottle must have been distilled within the same calendar year and at the same distillery Bottled in Bond must be bottled at 100 proof. This term is only used in the United States and the term comes from the regulations that define it that come from the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897.
Bung/Bung Hole: This term is only included almost completely because I have a juvenile sense of humor! Let’s face it, the child in us (or at least me) finds this funny. The “Bung Hole” is actually the hole in the wooden barrel in which whiskey is aged/stored that is used to fill and empty the barrel. The “Bung” is just the wooden stopper that fills the hole (so the whiskey doesn’t pour out!). There is also something called a “Bung Hammer” which is used to drive the “Bung” into the “Bung Hole”. (Insert your own jokes here!)
Cask: (See “Barrel”)
Charring: This refers to the process that creates a layer of charred wood on the inside of a barrel. There are different degrees or levels of charring that can effect the taste of the whiskey placed in that barrel. In the bourbon world, there are generally four levels of chars, with each level getting “more charred” as the result of a longer burn time. The place that makes barrels is called a “Cooperage”. I encourage you to check out other sites that detail how barrels are made and charred….it is pretty interesting.
Chill Filtering or Filtration: This is a cooling process during distilling that is usually done to remove cloudiness and residue in the final product. Some experts believe that this process reduces the integrity (and changes the taste) of the final product.
Distillery (or Distiller): This is an easy one. This refers to the company (or person) who makes the whiskey!
Dram: This is often used as a slang term for a small drink of whiskey (and, sometimes other spirits). Technically, it refers to 1/8 fluid ounces. There are many similar terms out there, such as “Short Snort” or a “Wee Drop”. “Short snort” is a favorite expression of mine.
Finish: Ah…..here’s an interesting term because it actually two very different definitions in the whiskey world, based on its use.
1.) In almost all of the reviews found on this site, you will see a reference to a whiskey’s “finish”. For this use of the term, it means the part of the tasting or sip you’ve just taken that comes at the end (or, at the “finish” of the taste). This will differ for just about everyone. While it is usually referring to the flavors you taste after you’ve swallowed, sometimes it can be interpreted as also including what you taste right before the swallow. Clear as mud, right? This is one of those concepts that isn’t concrete, is hard to describe and which one learns over time. It is a bit of a cop-out to say it, but eventually, you will know it when you taste it. The finish will almost always be the last thing you taste, but some reviews on this site also reference an “Aftertaste”. USUALLY, an “Aftertaste” (for me, anyway) is a taste that stays in your mouth long after you’ve swallowed. The finish, in contrast, is usually encountered DURING the sipping process.
2.) On a completely different note, “Finish” can also refer to a process used during the making of whiskey. It refers to a secondary aging after the whiskey has gone through its normal process. This secondary aging takes place after the whiskey leaves its original barrel. It is then placed in another barrel to further age. USUALLY, the secondary aging is shorter than the original aging. The purpose is to add additional flavors or textures to the whiskey. So, for example, I am fond of whiskey that it secondarily aged in used Port casks. This usually imparts a little bit of sweetness to the whiskey. Different types of wine casks are also commonly used to “Finish” whiskey.
Heat: This is a term used in the reviews to describe the amount of the “burning” sensation or warm feeling that a whiskey imparts. If there is a lot of heat, that means that it is either very warm or causes a nearly burning sensation. On super rare occasions, it is an almost intolerable actual burning sensation that is very unpleasant. Luckily, this doesn’t happen often. Sometimes, this heat can be harsh, which usually isn’t pleasant, but “heat” can also be very pleasant. You can feel the heat in the back of your mouth or as your sip goes down your throat. On some occasions, you may feel it in the front or roof of your mouth. Heat is often increased as a whiskey’s proof increases, but not always. Everybody has a different threshold for heat, so try different whiskies and see where you fall. If you try a higher proof whiskey (say, 125+) you may wish to reduce the size of your sip or, at least reduce the size of your first sip. I find that heat almost always hits hardest on the first sip and many times, even though you may think you are ready for it, it may still sneak up on you. Unless the heat is particularly harsh, your mouth often adjusts and later sips don’t feel as intense. The beauty of “heat” is that it can almost always be reduced by adding a few drops of water or perhaps, an ice cube. AND….I think heat is an acquired taste. Don’t expect to enjoy it your first time out. But…you may after many sips!
Malted Barley: Barley is a grain and is an ingredient in many types of whiskey. Malted Barley refers to the barley grain that has been partially germinated and then heated or roasted so that the germinations stops. The method of heating and the type of wood or other product used to produce the heat can effect the taste of the whiskey. So, for example, barley malted using applewood will add a different flavor profile than barley malted using mesquite.
Mash: This is the mixture of the water and cooked grains (e.g. corn, wheat, etc) before yeast is added to start the fermentation process.
Mashbill: This is a term used to describe the “recipe” used to make the whiskey. It describes the percentage of each ingredient contained in the recipe. Some distilleries use the same mashbill for all their products (but usually varying the yeast used). Others have a different mashbill for each product. And, of course, there’s also everything in-between! Common ingredients in a mashbill include (but are not limited to) corn, rye, barley, wheat, and other grains.
Moonshine: Often bringing up images of stills hidden in the mountains, “Moonshine” is most often used to reference distilled spirits that were made illegally (i.e. without regulation or paying taxes), outside of a commercial distillery. With the increasing interest in it, however, it is now also made legally (more or less using the same general techniques) by legitimate distillers under strict quality control in “commercial” establishments.
Mouthfeel: This is a term you will see in the “Palate” section of the reviews. A whiskey’s “Mouthfeel” is what it feels like in your mouth. Simple, right? This is another term that will make more sense the more whiskey you drink. This will be described in the review by such terms as “Oily”, “Thin”, “Watery”, “Rich” or “Earthy”. Each of these will become more apparent after you’ve had the opportunity to try a wider variety of whiskey. So, just another excuse to try more whiskey!
Nose: This is a whiskey term used to describe the smell or aroma of a whiskey. Since everyone’s sense of smell is a bit different, each person may pick up on different scents in a whiskey.
Nosing: Well, since “nose” means “smell”, it should come as no surprise that “nosing” is just a fancy word for “smelling”. Nosing is a whiskey term used to describe the sniffing process that takes place before you actually taste your whiskey. I encourage all new whiskey drinkers to take a few moments before drinking to “nose” their whiskey. Why? Well, for one thing, your sense of taste and smell are tied together. For another, eventually, you will begin to pick up certain things about the whiskey you are about to drink. For example, you may get a powerful scent of rye that gives you a heads up that you are about to drink a high-rye bourbon. Now…..that said……in many of my reviews, you will see that the way a whiskey smells doesn’t always forecast the way it will taste. I invite you to explore the reviews to look for examples. There are quite a few where I found the smell to be very unpleasant but was pleasantly surprised that it tasted nothing like (and luckily, not as bad as) it smelled. Many experts believe that using the right glass to drink your whiskey will help you with this. Most commonly used is a Glencairn glass, whose shape was designed specifically to enhance the nosing process, but there are others as well. Try different ones and see which one you like! OR……drink it out of whatever glass is handy! After all, you’re supposed to enjoy this and if that makes you happy, then do it! As long as it holds your whiskey for you to drink it, it will work!
Palate: Here’s another term that has two meanings, but this time they are closely related. Palate refers to a person’s ability to detect different nuances in the flavor, aroma, and even texture of your whiskey. Like many things, this can improve with practice, so don’t worry too much if you start out and have a hard time with it. Practice makes perfect, right? (or, close to, anyway…..) The other way you’ll see the term “Palate” used in the reviews is as another word for “Taste”. So the “Palate” of the whiskey is just a description of the taste or tastes experienced.
Proof: This is a term used to describe the amount of alcohol in a whiskey (and other spirits). In the U.S., proof is on a scale of 200. So, whatever the “proof” is, cut it in half and that is the amount of alcohol. As an example, a 100 proof whiskey contains 50% alcohol.
Ricks: Ricks are the structures (usually made of wood) upon which barrels of whiskey rest while they are aging.
Rickhouse (also Rackhouse): The warehouse building where barrels are stored for aging can be called Rickhouses or Rackhouses (as well as just “warehouse”).
Single Barrel Whiskey: If a bottle of whiskey is labeled as “Single Barrel”, it means the contents were drawn from one barrel and not mixed with whiskey from any other barrels. Because of this, a whiskey that is “Single Barrel” may taste different from other “Single Barrels” bottles of the same brand, because those came from other barrels. This is why reviews of Single Barrels are tricky and should not be taken as a definite indication of what EVERY “Single Barrel” selection from a particular brand will taste like. Rather, the review should give you a GENERAL idea of what you can expect from a “Single Barrel” selection from that particular brand. I highly recommend that when you buy a single barrel selection, that you taste it as soon as possible. If you really like it, GO BACK to the store and buy some more, because other single barrel selections of the same brand may be from a different barrel and WILL taste differently.
Small Batch Whiskey: Most recognizable, “brand name” whiskey falls into this category. These are a result of a mingling of whiskey from different whiskey barrels to produce a specific flavor. Master distillers are tremendously talented individuals who can consistently blend whiskey from many different barrels to produce a consistent taste. This is why a whiskey with a different, recognizable taste (Jack Daniels, for example) can always taste the same, no matter when or where you bought your bottle. Imagine how difficult this is, particularly when you are bottling large quantities. To my knowledge, there isn’t a “legal” definition that requires a whiskey to fulfill to be called “Small Batch”.
Still: There are different kinds (I urge you to explore some other sources for details) but a still is basically the magic equipment that makes the whiskey! Many people when they hear the word “Still” image a copper contraption back in the woods or mountains that some moonshiner uses to make his “hootch”. Well, although most distillers use commercially produced stills (as opposed to the moonshiner’s often home-made ones), the concept is surprisingly similar so the equipment (the “Still”) really isn’t that much different.
White Dog: This is a term that describes the end product that comes out of a still (but before any aging). This is a colorless liquid that is usually high in alcohol. If it is bottled immediately after the distilling process, without aging, it has most of the characteristics of “Moonshine”. In some areas, “moonshine” is also called “White Lightning”.
Are these all the whiskey terms? Not even close. BUT……..these should get you started and hopefully will answer some questions without having to explore other sources. The plan is, over time, to add to this glossary as it is needed (and, as we have time). If you find a term in one of the reviews you don’t understand, please feel free to contact us and we’ll try to not only explain it but also add it to the above list. Thanks!