This slightly confused compilation of 19th & 20th century history explains why
the invention of whisky labels was such a great one. Most governments have
local regulations about the information that the label must contain, like the ABV
and size of the bottle. For Scotch malt whisky there are a few extra guidelines,
but that still leaves plenty of room for information on whisky labels & packaging.
Most of the people were still illiterate in those days (at least in Scotland ;-).
So, even if Post-It notes had been invented, most people couldn’t use them
to write down what was inside the bottle. That means that most people simply
finished the entire bottle right after they opened it. (At least I assume they did.)
This WHISKY LABEL INSPECTOR should help (relative) novices make sense of
some of the facts and nonsense that can be found on an average whisky label (*).
Most whisky bottles don’t reveal much about their contents by themselves.
For the many long, dark decades between the invention of bottles and the
invention of whisky labels people had little choice; they had to open the bottle
and sample its contents if they wanted to know what the whisky inside it was...
While some whisky bottles can look fantastic, the characteristics like design, shape and colour are ‘extrinsic’.
There is no direct relation between these mostly visual qualities and the quality of the whisky inside the bottle.
In fact, when it’s good whisky, the size of the bottle is more important than all else; the emptier the bottle gets,
the more you wish you had bought a bigger bottle... Or a SPARE BOTTLE of course. However, this could lure
a relative novice onto a dangerous path that leads down the slippery slope of collecting whisky - which is tricky.
The name of the distillery is
given on both official and
independent bottlings, but
not on ‘bastard bottlings’.
The year in which a whisky
was distilled (*). Used mostly
for single cask and independent
bottlings (and small vattings).
The age (in years) of the
YOUNGEST whisky in the
bottle. Older whiskies may
be part of the ‘vatting’ too.
The company that bottles one
or more casks of whisky usually
also owns those casks, but this
is not necessarily the case.
Many people instinctively dislike regulations when they appear to limit
their personal freedom - and I have to admit that I have similar instincts.
However, regulations can be a good thing when it comes to restricting
the entrepreneurial spirit of businesses. When profits are to be made,
the interests of producers and consumers are not always aligned...
One of the reasons for the solid reputation of Scotch malt whisky is the
fact that its production is governed by the Scotch Whisky Association
and a number of Scottish, British and European laws. Whisky or whiskey
produced in other countries wasn’t as strongly regulated in the past.
Benefits for consumers are the fact that Scotch whisky labels provide
a lot of useful information - and the stuff won’t make you go blind...
When it comes to single malt Scotch whisky, the name of the distillery
on the label guarantees that all of the whisky in the bottle was distilled
at that distillery. Mind you: it does NOT mean that the whisky was also
matured at that distillery. Casks can be stored at central warehouses.
Also, keep in mind that the strictest labeling requirements apply to
single malt whisky. Other whisky types like ‘bastard malts’ or vatted malts
can use the name of a distillery that existed long ago without problems.
Another issue that complicates matters is the fact that a malt whisky
distillery can have different ‘brands’ in its portfolio. For example, the
Buichladdich distillery on Islay also produces a more heavily peated
variety called ‘Octomore’. And the Tobermory distillery on Mull doesn’t
just produce a ‘Tobermory’ malt whisky, they also make ‘Ledaig’.
But wait, there’s more... Take the Stronachie distillery for example.
There actually used to be a distillery by that name, but those buildings
were demolished in or shortly after 1928. Nevertheless, at the start of
the third millennium bottles of ‘Stronachie’ suddenly emerged again at
the shelves of liquorists around the world. This was a ‘bastard malt’;
a type of single malt whisky that conceals its true heritage.
So, if you plan to invest your money in one or more bottles of whisky,
some research into the distilleries of Scotland can prevent you from
making a poor choice. A single malt whisky can set you back 100 euro’s
or more, so that equals a few hours of work (at least) for many people.
Many single malt Scotch whiskies proudly display their region of origin
on the label. The idea of ‘Scotch whisky regions’ used to have a factual
basis during the 18th and 19th century. Ironically enough, most people
in the past didn’t think about whisky in that way - if they thought at all...
During the 1960s and 1970s, the general public became aware of the
concept of wine regions. In the late 1980s whisky writer Michael Jackson
and United Distillers introduced the idea of ‘traditional’ whisky regions to
a broader audience - and it worked. For a long time, the regions were:
- Speyside (the heart of Scotland is the home of most distilleries)
- Highlands (the Highlands cover the largest land area by far)
- Lowlands (this is the southern part of Scotland, closest to England)
- Islay (the small, rugged island directly north of Ireland)
- Campbeltown (the peninsula between the Isle of Arran and Islay)
The Scotch Whisky Association crossed those last two regions from
their ‘official’ list of 3 whisky regions, but that decision didn’t meet with
approval on Islay. According to the SWA they are now just another part
of the Highlands, but most distilleries still proudly put “Islay” on the label.
That makes sense - their peaty style is the most recognisable of all...
The age statement on a whisky label tells you how long the YOUNGEST
whisky in the bottle was matured. When it was a vatting of the contents
of multiple casks, some older whisky may have been added to the mix.
An age statement in years can give you an indication of the ‘maturity’
of a whisky - but time is just one of the factors. Whisky ages faster in
a small cask than in a larger cask. And a sherry or wine cask usually
imparts more character than a bourbon cask. So, an age statement
can give you a general idea about maturity, but it can be a tad vague.
Scotch whisky has to be matured for at least 3 years before it can be
sold as such - and it often needs considerably longer. On the other hand,
the producers want to sell their whisky as soon as possible. As a result, we
see more and more insufficiently matured ‘No Age Statement’ (NAS) whiskies.
Just like the attention for whisky regions, the focus on the ‘vintage’
of a malt whisky (the year of distillation) originated in the wine world.
Before the 1990s, most single malt whiskies were identified by a fairly
simple age statement on the label - and often some of fancy medals.
I have my doubts about some ‘improvements’ in the whisky industry
but in some respects vintages can tell you more than just the age of
the whisky. For example, a 25yo Glen Garioch might be excellent,
but a Glen Garioch distilled in 1987 or 1988 should be avoided.
The new owners did some experiments that didn’t work out too well.
On the other end of the spectrum, there have also been a few years
when the work at some whisky distilleries seemed particularly blessed.
All bottlings of Ardbeg and Brora from 1972 and 1974 I’ve sampled
were exceptional. This is another area where doing some research
before going shopping for whisky can pay off. Online resources like
the Malt Maniacs Monitor can help you make the wisest choice.
The cask type is not always given on a whisky label - and when it is, the phrasing can be
confusing. The words ‘American Oak’ don’t equal ex-bourbon wood and ‘European Oak’
doesn’t necessarily mean ex-sherry wood. That being said, the history and size of a cask
are among the most important factors shaping the development of a whisky.
Single malt Scotch whiskies can be divided into two groups: official bottlings
(released by a distillery or its owners) and independent bottlings (released by
smaller independent bottlers). Those independent bottlers are also the source
for most single cask bottlings - just a few hundred bottles from a single cask.
During the 1990s, Scotch whisky bottlers could usually have their pick from all
the casks in a warehouse. These days, the distillery has the bargaining power.
Bottlers usually receive a list of the casks that a distillery is willing to part with.
Sometimes, smaller independent bottlers don’t even get a chance to sample
the contents of a cask beforehand. That makes a purchase quite a gamble.
The labels usually provide sufficient information about the bottler, but there
are grey areas too. Like: what if an independent bottler owns the distillery?
Some people think that all whiskies are bottled at an alcohol percentage of 40%.
Many are, but an ABV of 43% or 46% is quite common. There are some ‘overproof’
releases at 50 or 60% and some malts are bottled at ‘cask strength’ (= undiluted).
The ABV of 40% is just a MINIMUM ABV - set by EU law on January 1, 1980.
In Britain 40% used to be the MAXIMUM PROOF as well. The Central Control Board
(Liquor Traffic) changed the UK law in April 1917 to limit alcohol abuse.
The 40% rule was repealed again at some point, but for a while you
were breaking the law if you were sipping a cask strength whisky.
Whisky writer Charles MacLean quipped: “The belief was that ‘Drink is doing more damage than
all the German submarines put together’ - in the words of Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions at
the time (and a rabid tee-totaller).” PLOT SPOILER: the tee-totallers ultimately lost the war...
The ‘standard’ bottle size for Scotch whisky is 70cl in the EU and 75cl in the USA.
Litre bottlings used to be available (almost) exclusively through travel retail, but those are now
quite common in regular shops too. As far as miniatures go: they make sharing quite difficult.
Whisky miniatures usually contain 5cl of whisky, so those are mostly of interest to collectors.
Lately we’ve seen more bottlings of unusual size on liquorist’s shelves - like 33cl or 50cl.
Even larger bottles (like the ‘party size’ 3 litre bottle of Chivas Regal at the right) are rare.
The legal requirement to list some of the ‘essential credentials’ of a malt whisky on the label provides some security.
There are fake whisky bottles out there (especially in the ‘collectible’ segment), but the fine print on a whisky label
usually won’t help you identify those. I suspect that very few people actually read the fine print beforehand. Instead,
they use the text to entertain or enlighten themselves AFTER opening the bottle and pouring themselves a dram.
For example, Bunnahabhain used to put some song lyrics on the back to accommodate drunken singing.