Whether you are just beginning to dip into the “water of life” or you are shyly familiar, knowing the right whiskey terms to use will help you navigate its oaky and smoky world.
Here are 35 essential whiskey terms that every whiskey lover needs in their vocabulary.
35 Whiskey Terms for Whiskey Lovers
Here is a quick breakdown of the most common terms every whiskey lover should know.
Whiskey labels on the bottle often display an age statement indicating the youngest spirit in the bottle.
A brand’s decision to feature an age statement usually comes from a marketing standpoint and cannot tell you definitively a whiskey’s status.
Whiskey’s aging process calls for storing distilled spirits in wooden barrels. Since wood is porous and responds to environmental factors like humidity and temperature, a portion of the whiskey it contains evaporates or soaks into the barrel itself.
The industry refers to this stolen portion as the angel’s share. The poetic term comes from the idea that the lost whiskey evaporates into the heavens, going to the angels.
Barley is whiskey’s primary grain. The barley typically undergoes malting, mashing, and fermenting to convert its simple sugars into alcohol.
Some whiskeys, such as Irish whiskey, use other grains like corn, rye, or wheat, but malted and unmalted barley is the most universal.
Single-grain Scotch whiskeys can contain more than one grain, but they must be made by one distillery to qualify as a single-grain whiskey.
Distilleries select barley varieties because of influences like viability and yield since grain flavors aren’t apparent until after distilling.
Whiskey blending is a craft combining at least two different whiskeys to create a new blend. Blending paves the way for unique flavor profiles you can’t get from a single mash.
The concept is relatively simple, but it takes a nuanced understanding of which flavors find a balance to blend whiskey well. It helps to visualize the final profile you’re after and then choose a base whiskey to lay the foundation before adding accentuating whiskeys.
Bottle in a Bond
The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 assured whiskey authenticity and quality standards and gave distillers a tax advantage. This law enhanced market standardization in the United States.
The identifying markers of whiskey that can call itself Bottle in a Bond are that it ages for at least four years in federally bonded warehouses, undergoes production in a single distillery and within a single distilling season, and bottles at 50% ABV.
Bourbon is a specific grain whiskey variety containing a grain mixture of at least 51% corn. To qualify as bourbon, the whiskey also has to be produced in the United States and has to mature in charred new oak barrels at 125 proof.
Another defining characteristic is that bourbon cannot contain any additives, like flavoring or coloring. Its rich flavor profiles come from the barrels, predominantly featuring notes of oak, vanilla, and spice.
95% of bourbon comes from Kentucky, and the lore is that its name comes from the state’s Bourbon County.
Cask-strength whiskey means whiskey containing a high alcohol level. Whiskey typically undergoes dilution with water prior, which settles the ABV to around 40%, and stores in a cask prior to bottling.
Cask-strength whiskey skips the diluting process and additional storage, going straight from the barrel to the bottle. In contrast to whiskey, which does not have cask strength, its ABV is closer to 65%.
Charring is an action taken with the barrels that contain maturing whiskey. Charring is burning a barrel’s interior and the level of charring influences the whiskey’s color and flavor.
Charring impacts flavoring by creating small openings in the oak staves, which allows the whiskey to interact more intimately with the wood. Charring depth determines the concentration of flavors in the liquid.
Column stills facilitate whiskey distillation by sustaining ongoing distilling. The grain mash enters through the top of a column still, moving downward and close to the heat source. Column stills can consist of copper and stainless steel.
Congeners result from the fermentation process similar to ethanol. Congener content depends on the original carbohydrate sources used in production. The more heavily distilled whiskey is, the fewer congeners are present.
Carbohydrates are sugars, and sugar content directly links to the hangover you receive after drinking. A whiskey containing fewer congeners will give you a more mild hangover than one with high congener content.
The liquid produced through fermentation that is distilled into whiskey is called distiller’s beer.
A cooperage is a business or facility producing casks, barrels, and other wooden vessels. Cooperages are in high demand for distilleries since wooden barrels play a vital role in whiskey production.
The barrels contribute the majority of whiskey flavor profiles, so their details are crucial. The craftsman behind barrel-making bear the title of “cooper.”
A distillery is a location where manufacturers create liquor. In 2023, the United States is home to 812 whiskey and bourbon distilleries, rising an average of 14% annually over the past five years.
New York, California, and Colorado hold the most whiskey distilleries in the country.
Draff is a Scottish term referring to leftover grain from the fermentation process. Draff is a waste product that distilleries generally give to farmers for animal feed.
While people usually consider draff low-value, it can operate as biofuel. An eco-conscious furniture designer in the United Kingdom locally sources draff from whiskey distilleries to manufacture a sustainable material.
Also of Scottish origin, the term dram refers to an ancient measurement unit that equals about 1/8 of an ounce. Bartenders serve a dram of whiskey either neat or on the rocks. It’s a minimal amount intended for high-proof spirits.
Ordering a dram of whiskey indicates that the drinker has an interest in savoring the sensory experience of consuming it rather than just drinking it to drink it. The term dram weaves deeply through whiskey culture.
When speaking the whiskey language, the term expression means a variation of the same whiskey recipe. Different expressions of one whiskey allow manufacturers to sell more bottles by adjusting to characteristics like the cooperage, proof, distillation process, or maturity.
High rye indicates that the grain mash contains higher rye content than the standard for whiskey.
High rye whiskeys have at least 51% rye in the mash bill and typically sit closer to 70%. Rye is distinctly peppery and spicy, so high rye whiskeys amplify those flavors.
The term honey barrel alludes to any barrel for aging whiskey that is particularly (almost mythically) good. Knowing what distinguishes a honey barrel from the rest is not a definitive set of characteristics but rather overall recognition of high-quality flavoring.
A batch of barrels might have a few honey barrels in the mix. Honey barrels offer rich wood sugars and a naturally cohesive flavor that enhances the whiskey.
Some whiskey experts believe environmental factors like sun exposure and extreme swings in humidity foster honey barrels, but there is no exact science to it.
Lincoln County Process
The Lincoln County Process is a Tennessee whiskey-specific production method involving filtering the whiskey through maple wood charcoal before aging it. Whiskey craftsman at the Jack Daniel’s distillery developed the technique in Lincoln County.
The charcoal filtration provides smooth and distinctive Tenessee whiskey flavoring that feels mellow compared to other whiskeys.
Malt whiskey is whiskey made from malted barley. The malting process includes soaking the grains in warm water before spreading them out for partial germination.
This opens the grains to release what mashing turns into sugars. Scotch whiskey is a malt whiskey.
Whiskey mash is the water, grain, and yeast combination used to create the whiskey. The mash plays a vital role in the flavor profile, as different grains taste differently.
A whiskey’s mash bill is another term for the mash. It refers to the list of ingredients in the whiskey recipe. The mash bill is the most influential determining factor in whiskey’s flavoring aside from the barrel it ages inside.
The term Master Distiller is newer to whiskey culture than most of the others on this list. There is no definitive explanation for what qualifies someone as a whiskey master. Calling someone a whiskey master tends to indicate respect for their expertise.
Often, the Master Distiller is the top craftsman at a distillery with the most experience or practical education.
Moonshining is the unlawful distilling of whiskey done without a license. The term dates back to Prohibition-era laws when bootleggers illegally produced and sold whiskey to meet off-market demand in places like speakeasies.
The term moonshining comes from distilling at night to evade suspicion, often under the full moon, to provide people with adequate light for operations.
New American Oak
Most barrels for aging whiskey are oak for the flavoring. Variations in oak change the flavor profile of the whiskeys as they age. New American oak offers sweeter flavoring, heavy in vanilla and light in coloring.
New American oak barrels present more robust flavor profiles for American whiskeys because the effects of charring and toasting decline with use.
On the Rocks
Drinking whiskey on the rocks means pouring it over ice cubes, as opposed to drinking it neat.
People enjoy whiskey over ice because its molecular structure responds well to water’s presence, bringing aroma to the surface and heightening the drinker’s sensory experience.
Pot still is another form of distillery manufacturers use for small batches of whiskey. A pot still is a spherical container made from 100% copper. Pot stills are less efficient than column stills but arguably better at preserving and concentrating the whiskey’s flavor.
The proof is twice the ABV content of a spirit. For example, a whiskey with a label of 120 proof contains 60% ABV.
The term came from the 18th Century when soldiers from the British army determined whiskey’s quality by applying it to gunpowder. They decided the proof was in how the gunpowder reacted to being lit.
Single-barrel whiskey is a select whiskey style that ages in one barrel. Each single-barrel whiskey tastes a little differently due to subtle variations in each barrel’s wood and where the barrel sits in the rickhouse.
Every individual whiskey barrel provides a unique micro-ecosystem defining its content’s flavor. That’s why most whiskeys, like blended Scotch Whiskey and Blended Malt Scotch Whiskey, are referred to as blended whiskeys.
They are produced from various barrels of the same fundamental recipe. It yields a more uniform end product for mass distribution.
A Master Distiller or a distillery’s expert team typically chooses the single-barrel whiskey bottles after taste-testing each barrel and identifying the one containing the most unique and compelling flavor.
The term small batch refers to a whiskey batch aged in specific barrels. Manufacturers promote small-batch whiskeys to premium markets because of the additional care distillers take to create a unique flavor profile.
Sour mash is an American method of producing whiskey that transfers some of the mash from the “old” to the new batch.
People like to credit a male Kentucky doctor and whiskey enthusiast for inventing the sour mash method, but the Kentucky Historical Society verifies a Kentucky woman, Catherine Carpenter, as the original author of a sour mash recipe.
Straight Whiskey is a whiskey style that ages in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. A straight whiskey can stand alone or blend with other straight whiskeys as long as all the combined whiskeys come from the same state.
A tun is a huge cask used to produce whiskey and other alcohols like wine. The name comes from the Medieval English unit of liquid volume.
Mostly, people mean the liquid at the end of the fermenting process when referring to wash, but the wash is what the mash becomes as soon as it combines with yeast for fermenting.
Whiskey stones are small, natural stone cubes close in size to ice cubes. They are usually made from non-porous soapstone and chilled to cool the whiskey without diluting it.
White Lightning is a subcategory of moonshine. It’s unaged, clear whiskey made with a corn base, known for its high alcohol content. Popular moonshine manufacturer, Ole Smoky, produces a popular version of white lightning that’s perfect for mixing drinks!
Now, you can confidently share your enthusiasm for the “water of life” with others without betraying your novice in whiskey culture. Did we leave out any essential whiskey terms? Leave us a comment below and let us know!