Episode 022 - Decoding Spirits Labels
What’s shakin, cocktail fans?
Welcome back to another episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast. I’m your host, Eric Kozlik, and today I’m coming atcha with another Bar Cart Foundations episode.
Today’s topic is how to read the label on any spirit bottle and know what all the numbers, terms, and designations ACTUALLY mean.
How do you calculate proof vs. ABV? What’s the difference between a V.S. brandy and a VSOP brandy”? How do you know if your distiller is making their spirit from grain to glass, or just bottling somebody else’s juice?
These are all things we’ll talk about in this episode, but for now, I want to give you the opportunity to make yourself a drink.
Featured Cocktail - The Sidecar
For today’s featured cocktail, we’re going to use a set of spirits and mixers that exemplify some of the terms we’ll discuss later in the episode so that you can make the connection between words on a label and actual in-glass cocktail applications of those terms--essentially, why they matter.
The cocktail in question is the Sidecar, which is a lovely combination of Brandy (or Cognac), Orange Liqueur, and Lemon Juice.
You’re going to want to start off with 1.5 - 2 oz of a V.S. Brandy or Cognac, which is great for mixing cocktails. You’ll learn more about what V.S. means later in the episode. To that, you’re going to add 1 ounce of Orange liqueur (usually Cointreau), and ¾ - 1 oz of lemon juice. You shake that all up with ice, and you strain it into a coupe glass and garnish with a nice orange twist.
Personally, I like to swap out Grand Marnier for Cointreau when I make my sidecars, and the reason for that is because Grand Marnier is aged in oak, which gives it a more nuanced flavor profile, and we’ll go into more detail about aging later in this episode as well.
So, now that you’ve got your drink, it’s time to jump in and start talking about how to decode the terms and measurements on your favorite liquor labels.
Liquor Bottle Sizes
Before you even begin to read a label, it helps to know what size bottle you’re dealing with, which also helps you to determine if there are benefits to buying larger or smaller sizes.
The largest liquor bottles are called “handles” and they hold 1750ml of liquid (or 1.75L), which is just shy of half a gallon. In fact, I was in the liquor store the other day, and I heard one of the old-timers there actually refer to it as a half-gallon. So there ya go.
Fifth (750 ml)
Occasionally, you’ll encounter spirits, vermouths, or liqueurs that come in 1L bottles (a noteworthy example is Carpano Antica Vermouth), but most often, the next size in line after a half-gallon is a “fifth,” or 750ml. That amounts to about 25 oz of spirits, and so in the world of cocktails, you can measure that out to roughly 12 2 oz pours.
I’ve mentioned it before on this podcast, but this is a great time to remind you that a standard 25 oz bottle of spirits is a great number to have in your head when you need to batch cocktails. Because as long as you know the number of servings you need, you can always do some quick mental math and at least know how many bottles you’ll need to pick up at the liquor store. Syrups and citrus get a bit more complicated, of course, but you’ll have your spirits squared away, and that’s a great start when you’re about to throw a party.
Next up on our way down the size chart, we’ve got a pint, which is a 375ml bottle. These are most commonly vermouths and liqueurs, but occasionally you’ll see a small version of a distilled spirit as well. A pint is useful to have if you’re looking to travel light, or if you just don’t want to commit to something larger without tasting first.
Half Pint (200ml)
Next up, we’ve got our half-pints, which are 200ml (so not TRULY half the size of our 375ml pint). And half-pints are often kept behind the counter at most liquor stores because they’re a prime target for shoplifters because they’re really easy to slip into a pocket.
Finally, at the very bottom of the size totem pole, we’ve got those little 50ml mini bottles, which are just shy of 2 oz, and are referred to as “nips” in certain parts of the country. Great for gifts, or if you need to by hyper-mobile with your cocktail setup, but these aren’t the most cocktail-friendly bottles either.
Spirits Ranked by Difficulty to Identify
So, once you’ve zeroed in on the size of your bottle, the next step is to identify what’s actually in it.
Most regulatory standards, foreign and domestic, require spirits producers to declare the contents of the bottle pretty openly on the label. In this regard, spirits are a bit easier to deal with than wine, which tends to heavily emphasize the producer and the grape varietal, but doesn’t always state - Cabernet, or Merlot, or Syrah, in many instances, unless you know exactly where to look.
But one trick to use if you run into a particularly tricky spirit bottle is to look at the bottles to the left and right of it on the shelf and see if you spot a trend. If that doesn’t work, then look for small print on the bottom of the front label or somewhere on the back label to identify what precisely you’re working with.
Now, I’m going to make an assumption that most adults who are allowed to go into a liquor store will be able to navigate themselves to the correct aisle or shelf that holds the particular spirit they’re looking for. But if you’re having trouble, of course, just ask someone who works there.
Instead of going over the characteristics of every spirit, I’m going to group various spirits from easiest to hardest in terms of how difficult it may be to identify them at first glance.
Easy: American Whiskey, Gin, Vodka
Starting with the easiest spirits to identify, we’ve got American Whiskeys, Gins of all sorts, and most vodkas. American whiskey is almost always going to specify whether it’s a bourbon or a rye, gin will almost always designate a specific “style” that gives you hints about its flavor characteristics, such as “London Dry,” “Old Tom,” “Hollands,” and others, and Vodka will almost always say something about the base grain used to distill its neutral spirit, which is one of a very few things that sets vodkas apart from one another. I can’t think of a time when I’ve had a trouble immediately identifying these spirits on the shelf.
Intermediate: Rum, Scotch & Irish Whisk(e)ys, and Brandies
Next in line, we’ve got rums, Scotch and Irish Whiskeys, and Brandies--both fruit-based, and grape-based. Rums are pretty easy to tell apart using the color of the liquid--a white rum vs. a gold rum vs. an aged rum won’t be difficult to distinguish, although telling apart a dark rum vs. an aged rum might require a more detailed consultation of the label. One of the important things to know about rums is that they’re largely divided into a British style and a French Style, which I’m not going to go into much here, but if you see the word “agricole” on your rum bottle, it’s a French style. Scotch and Irish Whiskey tend to focus mostly on the age of the spirit and the region or distillery where it was produced. So you might need to read the full label to determine exactly what you’re working with.
Brandies are a little trickier still. You’ve got regular grape brandy, much of which is produced in France, where they grow a ton of grapes. Now, if you know about wine, you know the French really like to draw very strict geographical boundaries around their production regions, such that sparkling wine made on one side of an imaginary line can be called “Champagne,” but sparkling wine produced just across the street cannot make the same label claim. Well, they do that with Brandy as well. The two regions of grape-based brandy that are important for you to know are Cognac, which is the most common, and Armagnac, which is similar, but somewhat less common. Then we’ve got the fruit brandies--most commonly apple-based. American Apple brandy is often called “Applejack,” and French apple brandy is called Calvados. The last thing we need to cover with Brandies is the way you understand the quality of what’s in the bottle, but we’re going to hold off and cover that later on when we talk about understanding the age of certain spirits.
Difficult: Agave Spirits, Liqueurs, Asian Spirits, and Eaus de Vie
One degree of difficulty deeper, we encounter agave-based spirits like tequila and mezcal, Liqueurs and Amari, Asian spirits, and Eaus de vie.
The agave spirits differ primarily based on where and how they’re produced. By law, tequila can only be made using blue agave, and there are certain geographical boundaries it must adhere to. Mezcal, on the other hand, is made using a slightly different process that involves smoking, and it’s way more flexible in terms of the varieties of agave-like plants that can be used. Both tequila and Mezcal, appropriately, tend to have Mexican or Spanish names and playful label art, which can both be barriers to identifying the spirit, so you may need to do a bit of reading to figure out if you’re dealing with tequila or mezcal. We’ll talk about how to understand the age or quality of your Tequila or Mezcal a little bit later in this episode.
Moving on to Liqueurs and Amari, there are a couple factors at play that can make reading the label a bit difficult. First off, until recently, most of these producers (based largely in Europe) didn’t care about the American market at all. During most of the 20th century, their products didn’t match our Mac n’ Cheese-ified cultural palate, and we were too caught up in our own national delicacies--like Budweiser--to care about their bitter, floral, and herbaceous products. Now, obviously, times have changed, but most liqueur and amaro producers still haven’t Anglicized their labels all that much. So, when you’re going to the store to buy a liqueur, it really helps to know exactly what you want because you’re rarely going to find a place that will let you taste test the entire shelf, and you could be there for a long time poring over labels before you get a good feel for the selection--so show up prepared.
Asian spirits like Arak and Sochu are another tricky case. Most Americans can stumble through a bit of Spanish or French on a label, but very few of us can read Chinese or Arabic. So, if you’re at a liquor store that has a decent selection of Asian spirits, it might be well worth your while to get assistance from an employee right from the get-go. Otherwise, you might end up going home with something totally unexpected, or of a different quality than you intended.
Finally, we’ve got Eaus de vie ( French for “water of life”), which is a generic term for unaged, fruit-based spirits made in the style of vodka, but possessing very different flavor qualities. Here, I’m referring to things with such foreign names as Aguardiente (from Portugal), Singani (from Bolivia), Akvavit (from Scandinavia), and Grappa (from the Mediterranean Basin), just to name a few. These spirits sit on the opposite end of the spectrum from their expensive, carefully aged, and blended counterparts, so instead of more information about where they’re made and how they’re created, you tend to get less. Eaus de vie are really fun to experiment with and compare across cultures and base fruits, but they’re definitely still more obscure than most spirits you’ll be using for your home bartending experiments--at least initially.
How Strong Is It?
Another important consideration when you’re deciding which spirits to purchase is the amount of alcohol present in the solution.
There are two main ways that information is communicated on a label--either using “proof” or “ABV,” which stands for Alcohol by Volume.
The use of “proof” goes back to the 16th century, where the strength of alcohol was measured by soaking gunpowder in the spirit and seeing if it would burn. In order for this to happen, the spirit needed to be at least 57% alcohol, and so if the gunpowder ignited, it was deemed full proof that the alcohol was strong enough.
In today’s units, 50% alcohol equates to 100 proof, so you’re working with basically a 2:1 ratio of proof to ABV.
For example, a bottle of whiskey that is “90 proof” is 45% Alcohol by Volume. And a bottle that’s 55% alcohol by volume is 110 proof.
How it Was Sourced and Distilled?
As we know from past episodes, all spirits are basically beer that is run through a device called a still, which takes a low-alcohol input and generates a high-octane spirit. The flavor profiles of most spirits are highly dependent upon the fruit or grain used to create the mash, which is that initial fermented combination of water, grain or fruit, and yeast.
Mash Bill Information
Now, there are a couple different reasons why a spirit label might contain information about the mash bill, which is the industry term for the proportions of various grains used to distill a spirit.
The most common reason is that certain spirits, by law, must contain a certain proportion of certain grains. For example, whiskey that wants to call itself “Bourbon” must be distilled from at least 51% corn to meet regulatory requirements.
Another great example of this is Scotch whisky. If a Scotch distiller wants to call his or her product a “single malt” scotch, then it can only be made using malted barley, without the addition of any other grains. Otherwise, it falls into a different category--most often, blended Scotch whisky.
Another reason why you might find information about the mash bill on the bottle is because the distiller feels that their unique ratio of base grains (or perhaps the origin of those ingredients) communicates something to the consumer.
For example, a Bourbon distilled using a healthy amount of wheat in addition to the required 51% corn is going to have a much lighter flavor profile than a Bourbon made using a heavy dose of rye. So, if the producer wants to communicate that to savvy consumers, they’ll leave a trail of breadcrumbs for you on the label.
In terms of sourcing, many craft distillers have a dedication to sourcing their grains locally, either to support local farmers, or because their particular spirits have a long tradition rooted in a certain locale. Maryland rye is a perfect example of this. It’s a state with a rich distilling tradition, and many distillers there make sure to source their rye from Maryland farmers in order to communicate and reinforce that tradition to their consumers.
How was it Aged?
First off, what does it mean when a spirit is aged? Well, it means that spirit was taken out of the still and then placed in a barrel of some sort and allowed to rest for a certain amount of time in order to gain certain of flavor characteristics from that barrel.
Unaged spirits tend to have a grassy, raw, and perhaps more herbal flavor profile, whereas aged spirits are more mellow, sweeter, and generally more nuanced.
There are basically two types of barrels that you can use to age a spirit: new charred oak barrels, or used barrels that at one point contained a different type of spirit.
For Bourbon in particular, it is legally specified that only new charred American oak barrels may be used to age the spirit. And so once a barrel is used, it’s generally sold off to some other type of whisky producer for repurposing.
When it comes to used barrels, the thinking is that you want to impart the flavor characteristics of the previous barrel dweller into the current spirit. Sherry and Port barrels are very often used for this purpose, and if you read the label on many high-end whiskeys, you shouldn’t be surprised to find that called out right on the label. In many cases, they call this process “finishing,” where the spirit is aged normally for a certain amount of years, and then transferred to a used barrel for the final portion of the maturation process until it takes on those outside flavor characteristics.
So, as you can see, aging is a very complex art, and there are as many regulations about aging and the treatment of spirit barrels as there are about base grains. Before I go deeper, I want to point you toward an episode where I get into some of the real nuances of this with Chad Robinson, who is a wealth of information about spirit aging and blending. That was in episode 20, where I talk with Chad about Infinity bottles, rum, and brandy.
Spirit Quality Designations
There’s a lot more to say about the way that aged spirits are blended, and how that affects the age statement on the label. But since this is a foundations episode, I’m going to keep things simple here and give you a quick rundown of how barrel aging results in different quality designations in certain spirits.
What do I mean by a “quality designation”?
Well, let’s say you’re a distiller and you make 100 barrels of brandy. You age 50 of those barrels for 2 years, and then you bottle it and sell it. You age another 25 barrels for a total of 4 years, and then you bottle and sell that. And you leave the final 25 barrels for 8 years, before finally bottling and selling that.
So you see how one batch that comes out of the still at the same time can be aged for different amounts of time, and that’s going to have a corresponding effect on the flavor and perceived quality of the spirit.
Generally speaking, spirits that are aged longer in the barrel tend to be smoother, more complex, and more sought after than spirits that only sat in the barrel for a short period of time. So in industries where it’s important to communicate that age, distillers and regulators have agreed on a set of terms that put spirits of different ages into “quality buckets.”
Let’s take Brandy as an example:
- V.S. (which stands for “very special”) indicates a blend in which the youngest brandy was aged for at least 2 years.
- V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) indicates a blend in which the youngest brandy was aged for at least 4 years
- X.O. (Extra Old) is a blend in which the youngest brandy was aged for at least 6 years.
Luckily, you can also use these abbreviations to cross-check the price of the spirit, with V.S. brandies being the most affordable, and XO brandies being the most expensive. And the important thing to remember here is that, with aged spirits, you’re not just paying for the extra quality you get from extended time in the barrel. You’re also paying for a portion of the distiller’s utilities during that time, the salary of the master blender, and even the cashflow inconvenience that comes from amount of time the distiller had to wait to get that bottle into circulation and finally make money off of it.
As I mentioned earlier, Agave spirits (Tequila and Mezcal) also have a shorthand that indicates their age.
- Blanco - which means “white” refers to an unaged tequila
- Joven - which means “young,” can indicate an unaged mezcal or any tequila aged less than 2 months
- Reposado - which means “rested” basically means the spirit was aged for two months to one year
- Anejo - which means “old” is any spirit aged between 1 and 3 years
Whiskeys and Rums also make a big deal about how they were aged, but there tends to be a lot more variety in aging and blending practices across various parts of the world, so they’ll simply call out an age statement on the label using the number of years the spirit was in the barrel.
Who Actually Made the Booze?
One final thing I want to mention here as we wrap up this bar cart foundations episode about how to read a spirits label is the way to determine who actually makes the liquor.
This is information that’s required to be on the label, but it’s most often found in small print or on the back of the label somewhere out of the way--so you’ve got to look for it.
This is where you can tell if your spirit is mass produced, or if it’s made by a producer that’s doing things on a smaller scale.
Why does this matter? If it tastes good and makes good cocktails, then who cares?
I think the answer is that some people take pleasure in knowing the journey their spirit goes on from grain to glass. So in this respect, having confidence in the sourcing of the grain and the human touch that guides the spirit through its life cycle might be more attractive than knowing that it came out of a distillery that made a million gallons of identical juice sourced from factory-farmed GMO corn and monitored by computers. Both spirits in these two very different scenarios might make a great cocktail, but their stories involve very different types of value.
So, there’s a very simple way to identify to what extent the distiller listed on the front of the bottle is involved with the actual production of the booze.
If you find the language “distilled and bottled by” company X. And that company is the same one that’s listed on the front label, that means exactly what it says: Distilled AND Bottled.
If you’ve got a label that simply says, “Bottled by,” then that’s a pretty good indication that they’re bottling generic spirits produced by a much larger factory producer.
Now, there are ways that certain distillers will try and sneak one past you. For example, I have a bottle at home--and I’m not going to name names here--but I know for a fact that this company does not distill their own vodka. They filter and bottle a spirit produced by someone else.
On their label, they say “produced and bottled by,” which I guess indicates that their filtration process is adding enough value to the spirit that they can claim to have produced it--even when that’s not really the case.
Kind of a strange note to end on, but I think it’s a good cautionary tale that demonstrates how important it is to check out the fine print on your labels before you part so easily with your money.