By: Scott Ritenbaugh
You probably already know how to read almost everything on a label that you need to if you’re asked a basic question about a specific bourbon: the proof/ABV, its age, etc. But there are a few things you will need to be aware of when reading the label that can help clarify a couple of items, like whether or not the company distilled their own bourbon and if the spirit is actually a bourbon or if it’s a liqueur or specialty spirit. Keep in mind that these are general rules, not hard, steadfast rules. While the examples that are laid out here will be true most of the time, there are always exceptions. It is worth researching some of these instances to get further clarification.
With the raised awareness of the practice of buying bulk bourbon for repackaging, there’s one thing that you’ll need to be able to discern on a label. The main difference you’ll be looking for is whether the label says “distilled by” or “distilled in. If a distillery makes its own bourbon the label will say “distilled by.” However, if the bourbon is the product of another distillery, bought in bulk and bottled under a different brand name, it will usually read ‘ distilled in.” The difference between “in” and “by” will tell you if the brand is producing its own product, or if it is buying bourbon from somewhere else.
Flavored “bourbons” are a growing trend in the industry, and while bourbon may be used in the product, once sugar or flavoring is added, it is no longer bourbon. When sugar or flavoring is added, the new product will generally fall into one of two legal definitions: liqueur or a distilled spirit specialty. While both might still have many bourbon characteristics they are not legally bourbon anymore. When there are qualifiers like “flavored” or “infused” you’re no longer legally in the realm of bourbon. And despite what a lot of purists might say about these products, they are generally great entry points or novice bourbon drinkers and consumers who generally like sweeter drinks. If you add sugar and cream to coffee is it still coffee? Maybe not to a purist, but at the core you’re still drinking coffee. It’s the same with bourbon, and it may turn out to be a perfect segue to traditional bourbon for a consumer.
You also need to be aware of the new trend of secondary maturation/finishing and whether the product is still allowed to label itself bourbon. Secondary maturation/finishing is when aged bourbon is put into a second barrel or has staves added to the original barrel. If the second barrel is also a new, charred oak product, then it can maintain the legal status of bourbon. But if it goes into a used barrel, or a non-oak barrel, it cannot maintain bourbon status. Anytime a secondary aging process is used, it has to be described on the label.
Some bourbon labels mention the sour mash process on their label. It appears as “made from sour mash” or “sour mash recipe.” Generally, most bourbons on the market are made from sour mash, and many do not mention the term on the label. During the distillation process, the still uses heat to separate the alcohol from the water and cooked grain solution. What is left in the still after the alcohol has boiled off is a mixture of water and solids. The solids are removed, and the remaining liquid is called stillage or backset. It is common practice to mix this liquid stillage with the fresh grains and water for the next batch. This sour mash process is beneficial to each step of the distilling process, from maintaining the pH of the water to adding important nutrients needed during the fermentation process. A bourbon made from sweet mash has been produced using only fresh grains and water. Sweet mash rarely appears on a label.
In the image below you will see the six items that must be included by law. They include Brand Name, Class/Type Designation, Alcohol Content, Name and Address of the Distiller, Net Contents & the Government Health Warning.
With the information presented here, you should be ready to make an informed selection the next time you are at your favorite local store.