How to Read a Spirits Label, from A to Z

Bottles for an article on how to read the labels of spirits
Photo by Tom Arena

You’ve scored an interesting-looking spirits bottle, but when you peer closely, the amount of information crammed onto its label is overwhelming, even confusing. Here’s your guide to understand what it all means, and most importantly, how a bottle’s label can help you better enjoy your next pour.

What’s in the bottle?

Producer: The producer or brand name, the spirit type and additional info that tells you what’s in the bottle, i.e., “Brand X White Rum.” Often, those details are scrambled, sometimes with additional words tossed above, below or in-between the lines. You may need to do a mental unscramble.

Type of Spirit: In general, this is easy to recognize (“Tequila,” “Bourbon,” etc.). But every now and then, the lines blur. Sometimes, there’s an illusion of interchangeability, like gin vs. “botanical spirit,” Tequila vs. “agave spirit,” or whiskey vs. “spirit drink.” Often, if there’s not an easily recognizable spirit type, it’s a red flag. There’s usually a reason the bottle didn’t fit into prescribed categories. However, occasionally, it signals a unicorn like for Mezonte, an unregistered artisanal mezcal.

Subcategories: The label also could indicate distinctions within a type of spirit. For example, Scotch should be marked as single malt or blended; Cognac as VSOP, XO, etc.; Tequila as blanco, reposado, and so on.

Proof/abv: The amount of alcohol by volume (abv) in a spirit. Most spirits are around 40% abv, or 80 proof. Below that, it’s likely a flavored spirit or a liqueur. Above that, particularly north of 90 proof, you might consider adding water or ice to help smooth out the alcohol.

Size: In the U.S., most spirits bottlings are 750 milliliters. Occasionally they’re larger (1 liter is the next most common size) or smaller (375 ml, a good size for vermouth).

Spirits labels explained

How and where was it made?

Raw Materials: The degree of transparency varies widely here. Some producers view the raw ingredients used as proprietary information, while others gladly trumpet its grains or other materials, along with provenance and proportion in the mix. Look for phrases like “100% agave” (for Tequila), “made from grapes” or “distilled from corn” (for say, vodka). Some producers will also list organic certification or note if ingredients are sourced locally.

Who made it? For spirits produced in the U.S., the distillery brand on the label is usually the one who makes the spirit. However, a fairly common practice is called contract distilling, where one distillery may distill, age and/or bottle on behalf of another. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s disclosed. Perhaps the most famous contract distiller is MGP in Indiana, which provides whiskey and other spirits to a wide range of producers. Keep an eye out for labels with a state that differs from the producer’s location.

For spirits produced outside of the U.S., the label must include the country where the spirit is produced, as well as the name of the bottler or importer.

Occasionally, labels will also name the distillers and blenders who were involved in making the spirit. It’s not always used, but it can make a bottle a collectors’ item, particularly if it’s signed.

A Step-by-Step, Beginner’s Guide to Tequila

How old is it?

Break out the magnifying glass. A lot of small print is involved in untangling age statements, if they’re provided at all. If your bottle is not a dated single barrel or single cask bottling, it’s generally a blend. For these, the number listed most likely denotes the youngest spirit in a blend, as with Cognac designations and most whiskies. So, read closely.

Many spirits categories have specific designations that indicate the age or age range of what’s in the bottle, like Tequila (blanco, reposado, añejo, etc.) and Cognac (VSOP, XO, etc.). Bourbons labeled “Straight Bourbon” must be aged a minimum of two years, while products identified as bottled-in-bond means they were aged a minimum of four years. Others, most notably rum, have more relaxed rules that vary from country to country, which can make it difficult to pinpoint the exact age.

Some aged spirits are in dwindling supply, so it’s become more common to blend together various ages, which sometimes results in non-age statement (NAS) bottlings.

It’s also common to see ages phrased as “a blend of whiskies between four and six years.” Is it mostly four-year-old whiskey, with just a dash of six-year-old? That information usually is obscured, although a minority spell it out in excruciating detail in marketing materials.

Solera is another word that signifies a blend of ages. Also called fractional aging, the process adds young spirit to barrels that already contain a blend of older distillate. This is a much-simplified explanation of a process that can result in very good, consistent Sherry, rum and other spirits. The number on the label often points to the oldest spirit in the solera blend, even if it contains just the tiniest amount of it.

Other phrases that imply age, but usually mean little are barrel aged and cask finished. These terms indicate that a spirit spent some time in one or more barrels. If there’s no indication about how long the liquid rested in oak, odds are it wasn’t very long.

What are “Bottled-in-Bond” Spirits and Why Should I Care?

How rare is it?

Perhaps the most reliable term to look for is single barrel. Barrel dimensions can vary, but in general, a standard 53-gallon barrel yields fewer than 200 bottles.

Batch and Bottle Number: Most mass-market labels don’t include this information. Smaller spirit producers labels often contain this. Some larger producers also print batch/bottle info when they want to spotlight limited editions.

Less reliable indicators include terms like small batch and limited edition. Small batch has no specific legal definition. Some experts say this indicates 150 barrels or fewer, while others throw this term around with no clear meaning at all.

Limited edition implies a finite supply of the spirit, whether that’s an older spirit that can’t be reproduced, or a newer blend which theoretically can be replicated.

Also beware of descriptive words that don’t mean anything, except perhaps how the spirit is being marketed. For example: ultra-premium, heritage, forthright, tremendous, handcrafted, natural and luxury are all vague words taken directly from bottle labels.

File these terms alongside label/bottle design, pictures on the label or colorful storytelling. Their function is to sell and entertain. If this enhances your enjoyment of a spirit, that’s great. But too often, these buzzwords are positioned to imply they mean something more.

Published on March 31, 2020
Topics: Drinks