10 Whiskey Terms That Everyone Should Understand

If you have been reading our whisky-related content, you know by now that we are big fans of whisky. However, with acronyms like ABV and phrases like Cask Strength thrown around by whisky aficionados, trying to understand liquor lingo can feel like you’re trying to decrypt a secret code. That is why we have compelled this list of 10 essential whisky terms everyone needs to know.

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1. Proof

Proof is defined as twice the alcohol content by volume (ABV). For instance, a whisky with 50% alcohol is 100-proof whisky. Standard figures like 120-proof would contain 60% alcohol, and 80-proof means 40% of the whisky is alcohol content. 

While ABV is pretty standard internationally, the proof scale varies from country to country. For example, whisky with 45% ABV is about 78.90 proof in Great Britain, 90 in the U.S., and 45 in France.

In case you were wondering, this term came into use in the 16th century in England. Sailors had to come up with a way to tell the strength of the liquor they were carrying. So they came up with a rather crude test to determine alcohol content.

whiskey proof

2. Cask Strength

Also referred to as “barrel proof,” cask strength refers to whiskies that are bottled straight out of the barrel. This means the whiskey has not been altered or diluted following the aging process. 

Most whiskies are brought down to a standard percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) or proof by adding water before bottling so that each batch is consistent. Cask strength spirits generally range from 60 to 65 percent ABV—which translates to around 125 proof.

People like cask strength whiskies for different reasons. For some, it’s the allure of tasting a whiskey that is a pure, undiluted form—an experience akin to sipping straight from the barrel with a straw. For others, it’s the flexibility to control the dilution themselves.

The latter advocates for one to first try it neat and then slowly adding water, tasting the whisky after each addition. Adding a few drops of room-temperature water to your Whisky will release the flavors, bring out the complexities in the Spirit, and soften the alcohol punch a little bit. Just be careful not to over-dilute.

cask strength

3. Mash Bill

Our ancestors learned long ago that certain grains could be combined with water and turned into alcohol with a bit of luck and patience. Over thousands of years, we have now perfected the recipe. 

Mash bill refers to the mix of grains used in the production of whisky.

The most common grains used include:

  • Malted barley
  • Corn
  • Rye
  • Wheat
  • Exotic Grains (distillers are experimenting with flavors from ‘exotic’ grains like sorghum, quinoa, rice, buckwheat)

Most whiskies (like bourbon and rye) have very specific guidelines for their mash bills. For example, Bourbon’s mash bill must consist of over 51 percent corn, while rye’s mash bill must consist of over 51 percent—you guessed it—rye. If these guidelines for bourbon and rye are not followed verbatim, the bottles cannot be legally defined (and labeled) as such.

That being said, there are endless possibilities to a mash bill’s grain ratio and a whisky’s mash bill depends on each individual distiller.

mash bill

4. Congener

During whisky production, sugars in the grains will convert into alcohol using different strains of yeast. The yeasts convert amino acids naturally present in the sugars to ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol.

While ethanol isn’t the main outcome of the fermentation process, there are other by-products collectively known as congeners.  Examples of congeners include tannins, methanol, acetone, and more.

Researchers believe that congeners are primarily responsible for creating the flavors and aroma found in a given whiskey. They also suggested that congeners are responsible for the primary symptoms of hangovers, though this has yet to be definitively proven.

The amount of congeners present in a whisky can vary. But as a general rule, the more distilled a spirit is, the lower the congeners.

congeners whiskey

5. Angel’s Share

While this term may not be found on the side of a bottle, it pervades the whiskey industry and affects every batch of whiskey made.

For over two centuries, whiskies have been mainly aged in wooden barrels.  The wood absorbs some of the more unpleasant aspects of the whisky distillate (such as sulfur), and, in return, imbues the liquid with flavors unique to itself.

However, during the process of aging whiskey and because of the porous nature of wood barrels, a small percentage (roughly 2%) of every barreled whiskey batch is lost annually. Traditionally, it was believed that this whiskey evaporated up to the heavens,  thus, it was coined the “Angel’s Share.”

Since most whiskeys and scotches are aged for many years, the total volume can drop quite significantly. For example, a ten-year-old scotch can lose up to 20% of its volume by the time it’s ready for bottling.

Diageo the owners of Crown Royal has been experimenting with coating the outside of the barrel with plastic wraps or using new barrel designs in an effort to eliminate the evaporation problem. Due to how long it takes to test these methods (possibly up to ten years or more), it may be a little while before we know for sure if any of them will truly work.


6. Blend

 A whisky that has been created by combining multiple other whiskeys and sometimes also neutral grain spirits, colorings, and flavorings. For example, blended Malt Whisky is made by combining single malt whiskies from different distilleries.

Blending whiskey is considered by some to be an art — requiring an immense base of knowledge and careful experimentation to maintain the integrity of the end product.

Aren’t single malts better than blends?

Simply put: no. They’re just different. While many blended whiskies are cheaper than single malts, that doesn’t mean that single malts are necessarily better. Blended whiskies provide a huge range of flavors, as you’d expect from something created by mixing whiskies from different distilleries.

In fact, they not only rival single malts not only for complexity and flavor but also for price. Some of the most expensive whiskies ever auctioned were blends.

scotch blend whisky

7. Finishing

Finishing is a relatively modern phenomenon whereby a distiller transfers whisky from one type of cask into another. This 'secondary maturation' adds complexity to the whisky, depending on the type of cask used.

In the 1980s, a Scottish distiller by the name of David Stewart (long-time master blender for William Grant & Sons distillers) started to experiment with aging whisky in a different cask after it had already reached full maturity.  

In the past two decades, more and more distilleries are embracing this practice. Nevertheless, very little is known about what happens to the whisky when it’s re-casked. It’s a technique largely based on trial and error and shared learning between distillers.

A similar term—finish—is a reference to the tail end of a drink of whiskey — specifically, the flavors that become apparent after you’ve swallowed the whiskey in your mouth, AKA the aftertaste.

David Stewart whiskey

8. Nose/Nosing

Smell and taste are inextricably connected—meaning flavors are dulled when you are unable to smell. Thus, smelling or sniffing (AKA “nosing”) whiskey is an important part of the whisky drinking process. Some people with more advanced palates are capable of identifying certain profiles in a given whiskey simply by smelling it alone.

But for many, this skill is improved by learning the proper technique and choosing the right glassware. 

  • Start with your whiskey poured neat, preferably in a glass designed for tasting whiskey such as a Glencairn.
  • Swirl, then gently breathe into your mouth, close your lips, then breathe out slowly through your nose. 
  • This will likely feel a little awkward at first, but it’s easy to get the hang of it.
  • After two or three breaths, breathe directly into the nose.
  • Never put your nose straight down into the bottom of the glass like you might with wine. When you do that, you might sort of burn off your nasal hairs due to the alcohol strength. Then you probably won’t be able to smell things for the rest of the day!

Smelling your whisky can help you pick out flavors and aromas that you won’t be able to detect through sipping alone.

nosing whiskey

9. Bourbon

Bourbon is a charred oak barrel-aged distilled spirit first invented in the United States in the late 1700s that must contain a mash of at least 51% corn, alongside malt and rye.

Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV and be no more than 62.5% when put into casks for aging in new charred oak barrels. 

It has no minimum aging period, but to call your product Straight Bourbon (a special distinction of quality), it must be aged for no less than two years and have no added coloring, flavor, or spirits.

You Might Also Enjoy Reading: A Brief History of Bourbon and How It Became So Popular

Some widely known Bourbon whisky brands include Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam.

Woodford Reserve

10. Scotch

 A malt or grain whisky made, from start to finish, within the borders of Scotland and adhering to a specific set of legal guidelines — including that it must be made from water and malted barley (although it can have other grains added), aged in oak barrels for at least three years, and be at least 80 proof.

Scotch is aged in used oak barrels, including those that previously stored Sherry, beer, and yes, bourbon. Scotch also tends to be aged longer than bourbon, with many of the most popular Scotch whiskies hitting shelves after anywhere from 12-25 years inside barrels.

Some widely known Scotch whisky brands include Glenfiddich and Johnnie Walker.

scotch whiskey

Bonus: Whiskey vs. Whisky

Whiskey- this regional spelling — which originated in Ireland — is used commonly to denote spirits from Ireland, the United States, and various other locales. It’s been suggested that this spelling is common in the USA thanks to Irish immigrants. 

Whisky- this regional spelling — which originated in Scotland — is used commonly to denote spirits from Scotland, Japan, Canada, and various other locales.

That being said, there’s no law that dictates you have to use one or the other. Therefore the two terms are used interchangeably.

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