Scotch Whisky 101 — Reading the Label

In this three-part “101” series, Napa Valley Wine Academy instructor Liz Pirnat explores the world of Scotch Whisky. Napa Valley Wine Academy offers WSET Level 1 and WSET Level 2 (online) in spirits immersion courses. 

Go to any bar, restaurant, or take stock next time you’re in any retail shop and you’ll notice that the brown spirits section seems to be in constant expansion mode. Knowing how each brown spirit is produced, and where each one comes from is critical for students of wine and spirits looking to ace their exams. 

The focus of this series is on Scotch and what makes it different from other Whiskies. Follow along and you’ll breeze through questions on Scotch! 

As with most bottled spirits, the best place to start is with an actual bottle in-hand and understanding the basics of a label. If you’ve got a bottle of Scotch nearby, great—grab it. If not, pull up a few Google images and follow along.

The first thing to note is spelling—Whisky made in Scotland is spelled without the “e.” Everywhere else, it’s spelled with the “e” as in Whiskey

Additional details on the label, and back-label offer up specifics on the bottle’s cask strength, type of whisky, name of the distillery, size of the bottle, alcohol percentage, and sometimes even vintage, age, bottling date, and the number of bottles produced. 

Below, we break down some of the most important and basic details. 



Labeling Basics

Single Malt
A product from a single distillery from 100% malted barley.

Blended Whisky
A product of two or more distilleries with three permitted categories: “Blended Malt Scotch Whisky,” “Blended Grain Scotch Whisky,” and “Blended Scotch Whisky,” which is a blend of grain and malt. 

Single Grain Scotch Whisky
A product from a single distillery, made from one grain or a mix of grains that are malted or unmalted and aged for at least three years.

Age (For Example “10 Years Old”)
A Scotch that is 10 years old is the youngest component in the bottle. Sometimes, a single year is notated on the bottle and this would indicate the year the spirit was distilled. But typically, you’ll find most provide an age, and as age increases, so does the price. 

Cask Strength
This indicates that the whisky has not had the alcohol reduced with water. Most whisky is diluted with water to reduce the alcohol percent. To be clear, non-cask strength Scotch whisky is not lower in quality, it’s just lower in alcohol by volume. 

Bottled By
Independent bottlers are common in Scotland. They will buy casks from distilleries all over the country. Often, they’ll combine casks from different distilleries to produce their own proprietary blend—the Johnny Walker brand is a well-known example of this. Other times they will bottle whisky directly from one distillery. Depending on the terms of purchasing the barrel, bottlers are sometimes not permitted to list the distiller, on the label and instead will just list the region.  

So, is Scotch Whisky beginning to make sense? In our next series, we’ll look at what makes each Scotch Whisky different in terms of style. Cheers!

Napa Valley Wine Academy offers WSET Level 1 and WSET Level 2 (online) in spirits immersion courses. 

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