How to read a Scotch whisky label

With so many Scotch whiskies in the market right now, it can get a little confusing when one is trying to figure out what to buy. But it doesn't have to be.

Many of the labels on the bottles have information, some required by law, that will allow you to make a proper, basic judgement about what the Scotch is like.

But what are the basics of a whisky label? What are the key points to look out for when reading a whisky label?

To answer that question, I recently sat down with former regional brand ambassador of The Balvenie, Matthew Fergusson-Stewart (who is also the current regional brand ambassador for Glenfiddich), went through every single detail of the label on a Balvenie 12 Year Old Doublewood.

The Balvenie has one of the most detailed labels in the Scotch industry.

Other than the usual compulsory information, they also explain the casks they use for maturing the whiskies, what the flavour profile is, and so on, making it the perfect example for the subject.

1. Country of origin

"The first thing you look for is country of origin. If it says "Scotch", then it has to be from Scotland. No whisky made in other countries can use that term," said Fergusson-Stewart.

Some distilleries also name the region in which it is located. For instance, Islay distilleries usually proudly proclaim "Islay" on their labels, while others might indicate "Speyside", "Highlands", "or "Campbell-town" on theirs.

If there is no declaration of region, then a good indication of where the whisky is from would be the compulsory address located on the label. The Balvenie, for instance has their address in Dufftown, Banffshire, which is located in the Speyside region.

2. Style of whisky

The next thing you should look out for, is whether the whisky is a single malt, blended malt, blended, single grain, or blended grain.

Yes, there are five different categories of Scotch whiskies, and it has to be clearly stated on the label.

In the case of The Balvenie, it is clearly stated that it is a single malt, which means all the whisky in the bottle comes from one single distillery.

3. Distillery name

While most single malts producers, like The Balvenie, would declare their brand proudly and prominently on the label, there are some that choose to bottle their malts under a different name.

"Some distilleries might want to sell some whisky at a low-price point through a mass supermarket chain, and don't want that to damage their brand equity, then they might put it under a different name," said Fergusson-Stewart.

Independent bottlers tend to put the name of the distillery from which it came from on the label, but the law says their name must be twice the size and more prominent than the name of the distillery.

"This is so people don't mistake the product as one that was bottled by the distillery themselves," he said.

4. Volume of liquid

The most common volume around the world is 70cl (centilitres, or 700ml), except for in the US (which doesn't use the metric system), and in Malaysia and South Africa, 75cl is also quite common. If a bottle contains 1 litre, then it's probably a duty free bottling.

5. Alcohol by volume (ABV)

The legal minimum for Scotch whisky is 40 per cent ABV. Alcohol levels in the cask tend to drop the longer it is aged. "You could keep ageing and ageing it, and eventually you'd just end up with a liquid with no alcohol in it. So there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, and they chose 40 per cent," said Fergusson-Stewart.

"The most common ABV for commercial bottlings are 40 per cent, 43 per cent, and 46 per cent. If it's any higher, it's usually cask-strength, though not all the time."

If a Scotch label says "cask strength" on the label, it means that the whisky was taken straight from the cask, and the alcohol level was not reduced by adding water to it. If it says "single cask", that means that the liquid in the bottle came from only one single cask, and is not a blend of different malts from different casks.

6. The age statement

This has been the subject of some debate among whisky lovers of late, with more and more commercial non-age statement (NAS) whiskies coming into the market.

However, not having an age statement doesn't mean that a whisky is inferior to those that do. Sometimes, it might just be a blend of old and young whiskies, which can affect the age statement.

According to Fergusson-Stewart, it is not a requirement to put an age statement on the label, but if a whisky producer chooses to do so, they have to put the age of the youngest whisky in the mix.

So, if it is a blend of 12 year old, 15 year old and 25 year old, then they can only put "12 Year Old" on the bottle.

7. Type of cask or expression

The Balvenie's labels tend to have terms such as "Double-wood", "Port Wood", "Triple Cask" on them, though these are not legally defined terms - other distilleries have their own descriptions for their expressions.

"Doublewood means we age it in two different types of casks. In this case, we choose to detail what cask we used and what it adds to the whisky on the label," said Ferguson-Stewart, adding that The Balvenie has very detailed labels because it is seen as a whisky for connoisseurs.

"The people who drink it are people who want this sort of information. They want to know more about the whisky, and understand how it's made."