When was the last time you stopped to take a look at the label on your favorite bourbon? Or maybe it wasn’t your favorite, it was one that you’ve not tried but were considering giving it a go. Bourbon labels can tell you a lot about what’s in the bottle if you understand the background behind the terms that are used.
Labeling requirements for distilled spirits are defined in 27 CFR Part 5, Subpart D (sections 5.31 – 5.42). Those requirements, along with some of the standards for identity mentioned in another post, set out certain definitions which can give us a lot of information about the spirit.
Before bourbons became super popular, it was more common to find an age statement on a bourbon’s label. Once the spirit gained popularity and demand for the spirit started to outpace supply, the age statement started being dropped from the label. In many bourbon reviews you may see this discussed as NAS meaning No Age Statement. Why is that, you ask? Let’s look into it.
Bourbon does not have to be a certain age to be called bourbon. As long as it is made in the United States from a mashbill of at least 51 percent corn, is distilled no higher than 160 proof, is put into charred new oak containers at no more than 125 proof, and contains no added substances other than water, then the whiskey can be called bourbon. There is no requirement for how long it must remain in those new containers.
Now, good bourbon gets most of its flavor and all of its color from aging in the charred new oak barrel. Many will say that the minimum time in the barrel to get an acceptable flavor profile is four years. Others will argue that four years is still young for a bourbon. Some bourbons are even younger. I’ve recently seen one that stated it was aged six months.
One of the requirements for age statements, if used, is that the age stated is the minimum age for all the whiskey in the bottle. Most bourbons are a mingling of many different barrels, to create a consistent flavor profile over time. A particular bourbon may consist of barrels that have aged for two years, along with bourbon that has aged for eight years. If this were the case, the bourbon can only claim to be two years old. Rather than say the whiskey is two years old, often the age statement will be dropped all together.
While age statements are not always required, there are some things we can assume about age if there are other key phrases on the bottle, and there are some special instances where age statements are required. Let’s look at those.
If the label says Kentucky Bourbon then you can assume that the product was produced in Kentucky and aged in Kentucky for at least one year. If the label says Straight Bourbon, you can safely assume that the bourbon has been aged for a minimum of two years. Also, any straight bourbon that is aged less than four years must have an age statement on the label. Therefore we can assume that a straight bourbon with no age statement is at least four years old.
Another term that can give you some ideas of age is the designation of Bottled in Bond or BiB as you will sometimes see on a bar menu. Bottled in Bond has several specific requirements: the bourbon must be produced at a single distillery and in a single distilling season (there are two distilling seasons in a year). The bourbon must be bottled at exactly 100 proof (50 percent ABV) and must be aged for at least four years in a government-bonded warehouse. So as far as age goes, you know that bonded bourbons are at a minimum of four years old. If they are older, they will often say. I’ve seen bonded bourbons that state on the label that they are six or 10 years old. Again, remember that if they say 10 years old, that is the age of the youngest bourbon in the bottle.
Another common term you might find on a bourbon label is small batch. As I mentioned above, the practice of mingling multiple barrels in order to maintain a consistent flavor profile is common among distilleries. No one wants their product to taste different from bottle to bottle when they are building a brand. It is not uncommon for the major distilleries to mingle 80 to 100 barrels or more when bottling one of their common brands. While there is not a standard definition for small batch, it is typically in the range of 10 to 20 barrels for smaller, craft distilleries and can be upwards of 200 barrels for the major distilleries. Since the term is not federally regulated, it could be any number of barrels and almost assuredly differs from brand to brand.
One other interesting thing that you can learn from a close reading of the label is who produced the whiskey and the location. There are some producers that don’t distill their own bourbon. They may contract with another distiller to produce whiskey for them, that they then age and bottle with their label, or they may buy bourbon in bulk from a source and bottle that. These are know as non-distiller producers, or NDPs. On the label, you should be able to find distilled by or distilled in on the label. Products labeled distilled by are made by that distillery. You will also more than likely find the DSP number of the distillery that produced that bourbon. Those labeled distilled in (such as distilled in Indiana) are often made by a bulk producer and sold to the label that later bottles that bourbon.
One thing that you can know for sure is that what you see on the label is true. The labeling requirements are part of the Code of Federal Regulations and those state that there can be no untrue or misleading information on the label.