The words and phrases used to describe whiskey and how it is made can be confusing. Meanings can often change from distiller to distiller. Some terms are defined by production methods and or even have strict legal requirements, while other phrases found on bottles are more colloquial and used to convey a general sense of a whiskey’s taste or history.
To help cut through the noise, we look at five commonly used whiskey terms—cask strength, expression, mash bill, single malt and small batch—as defined by experts. Most refer to how whiskey is distilled, aged or blended.
“Cask strength refers to whiskey that comes directly out of the barrel, not proofed down by water,” says Victoria Butler, master blender at Tennessee whiskey-producer Uncle Nearest.
Most whiskey is diluted with water to bring it down to 40% abv (alcohol by volume), or 80 proof. However, some distillers will add less water and dilute it to taste. Sometimes, no water is added at all.These whiskeys are usually labeled “cask strength” and are often bottled at 50% abv (100 proof) or higher.
Of course, you always have the option to add water or ice to your glass to moderate dilution, if you prefer.
“There’s no legal definition for this, it’s parlance used by whiskey makers,” says Louise McGuane, founder and CEO of J.J. Corry Irish Whiskey.
Many distilleries produce more than one type of whiskey. The ratio of grains used in the mash might vary, it could be fermented or distilled in a slightly different way, aged for a variety of time periods, or different casks may be used to adjust how the finished whiskey tastes.
Some distilleries call each new variation on their house style an “expression,” meaning it’s how flavors found in a particular whiskey are expressed, conveyed or released.
The term has a second meaning too, says McGuane. “It’s whiskey-makers and distilleries expressing themselves and setting themselves apart.”
“Mash bill is the grain recipe of a distillate,” says Butler. “The grains are cooked and fermented to begin the whiskey-making process.”
Specifically, that mash bill (or recipe) refers to the types and varying percentages of grain used to make a whiskey. The four most popular grains used in whiskey production are barley, corn, rye and wheat. Other grains like oats, millet or rice are sometimes used as well.
The phrase “mash bill” is most often used when talking about American whiskey. For some types, the mash bill is strictly regulated. For example, the mash bill for bourbon must be at least 51% corn, while for rye, it must be at least 51% rye grain. The remaining 49% can be comprised of any grain and can impart different flavors to the finished whiskey.
The easiest way to understand this term is to break it down into two parts: “single” refers to one distillery, while “malt” refers to how the whiskey is made.
“Malt whiskey is a whiskey that is made from 100% malted barley,” says McGuane. Malting is the process of soaking a grain of barley in water until it germinates. Once it sprouts, the barley is dried and then distilled.
A single malt means that all the whiskey is produced at one single distillery.
“People often think that means it’s a single cask,” says McGuane. “It’s not. It can be 400 casks of malt from one distillery blended together.”
While most people are familiar with single-malt Scotch, not all single malts come from Scotland. They can be made in Ireland (as J.J. Corry does), the U.S., Japan or anywhere else.
Exactly how small is a “small batch” whiskey? “It’s unregulated and undefined, there can often be ambiguity with the term,” says John Little, founder and whiskey maker of West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler Spirits.
Primarily used in American whiskey, this phrase is generally meant to indicate when a smaller number of barrels than usual are blended, usually to create a special expression from a distiller. But since there are no specific parameters around what constitutes “small,” this can be a meaningless term.
“We have used it in the past, and we still use it, because our batches are still very small—11 barrels or less is the largest we’ve ever done,” says Little. “But what’s small batch to us probably doesn’t mean anything to the heritage distillers.”