Selling The Sip: Whiskey Marketing Buzzwords And What They Really Mean

So you just arrived at your local whiskey shop (or at the website of one of our great partner stores!) and you are trying to select a new whiskey bottle to purchase. Have you ever really stopped and read everything printed on a whiskey? While there sometimes can be some factual data about where it came from and how it was produced, much of what is written on the label is nothing more than whiskey marketing buzzwords.

Although some of these buzzwords provide (or at one point had provided) relevant information about the product you are considering buying, many more of these terms are pure, meaningless, fluff. There has been a big push across the entire industry to provide greater transparency into the origins and production processes used to create your favorite whiskey, but that doesn’t stop some brands from sticking to vague terms meant only to help them sell.

So, how do you know which is which? Below are some essential whiskey marketing buzzwords and terms you should better understand, and the definitions of what they actually mean for the whiskey are you are thinking about purchasing.

Batch Size and Strength Terms

Barrel Strength, Barrel Proof, Cask Strength, Uncut

All these terms refer to alcohol by volume or ABV (commonly referred to as proof in the US) of the whiskey. Quite literally, this means the alcohol content of the whiskey in the bottle is the same as the moment when it was taken out of the barrel. Therefore, no additional water was added to the product to dilute the whiskey to a set alcohol percentage, as is common with most mass-produced whiskey.

These terms are added to this list, because although informative, there is a definite implication of quality (and therefore price tag) to barrel strength whiskey. There are some drinkers who swear by the intensity of flavor associated higher ABV drams, and others who can’t get over the burn of the higher alcohol content. While it is all a matter of preference, the one thing about whiskey is that you can always “proof down” by adding your own water, but it’s impossible to increase the alcohol content. So although the price of these bottles is always higher, the flexibility to drink it how you like and extend the life of your bottle can offset that cost.

Single Barrel, Single Cask

Not to be confused with the strength of the alcohol content, these terms only refer to the number of barrels of liquid used in the filling of a bottle of whiskey. Standard, mass production of whiskeys of all types vats together hundreds of barrels in an attempt to create a consistent tasting product every time, year-over-year. Conversely, bottles selected from single barrels attempt to highlight the subtle differences found in every barrel, even if they were filled at the exact same time from the exact same liquid.

Again, there is nothing misleading about the term single barrel. However, the proliferation of single barrel products in the market is certainly not a coincidence. These products also carry a higher price than their batch produced and blended cousins, possibly due to higher quality, but definitely due to the illusion of scarcity. Many single barrel expressions note the number of total bottles originating from the barrel. This is clearly signaling that this is your one chance to own a limited bottling, even if larger distilleries are including hundreds or thousands of barrels in their single barrel programs.

NOTE: In many instances, single barrel and barrel strength go together, but this is not always the case. It is possible to have a whiskey that is bottled from the contents of only one barrel get watered down to a standard 40-50% alcohol by volume. Likewise, a whiskey batched from many barrels can be bottled at barrel strength without any water dilution.

Store Pick, Private Selection

Taking the single barrel phenomenon to the next level comes the store pick or private selection single barrel. Today, almost every bar, liquor store, bottle shop, whiskey club, or whiskey event has their own, “handpicked” barrel bottled exclusively for them.

What likely started as some bar or store owners trying to find something unique solely for their customers has exploded in something completely different. Now, these selected bottles feature custom stickers and packaging, wax dipped tops, punny names and focus more on the presentation than the whiskey inside.

Again, what pushes this from a useful term to a whiskey marketing buzzword is the fact that whether a highly trained expert taster with years of picking experience or Joe from the Corner Liquor Store selects a barrel to be bottled, it can still carry the private selection labelling.

Small Batch

Although single barrel does carry meaning to it, the term small batch is utterly meaningless. Slapped on the label to evoke exclusivity or limited availability, there is no industry definition of what makes a batch small. Is it 5 barrels, or 500 barrels? Who cares, buy it now!

Artisan, Craft, Hand-crafted

Similar to small batch, these terms have been used so frequently that they have also lost their meaning. Much like the micro and craft brewery movement in beer over the last few decades, small distilleries and whiskey drinkers are also rebelling against the large corporate brands. At the same time, many large corporate brands have bought up “artisan, craft” distilleries, but kept the terms on the labels.

American Whiskey Marketing Buzzwords


The next few whiskey marketing buzzwords are exclusive to the American whiskey market and can be confusing to those just getting started on their Bourbon and American Rye journey. Some of these words carry meaning about the age or quality of the product, while others less so.

Straight, as in Kentucky Straight Bourbon, is a term that seems meaningless, but does convey information about the product. According to the Bourbonr Blog, “straight bourbon has a minimum aging requirement of two years. It also requires any straight bourbon aged less than 4 years to state the age of the spirit on the bottle.” Lastly, no additional coloring or flavoring can be added to the whiskey for it get the straight designation.

Bottled-in-Bond, Bonded, BiB

Similar to straight, this term does have an impact on the production of a whiskey, although a somewhat outdated one. Dating back to 1897, when there was considerable inconsistency in the quality of whiskey, and some producers were even attempting to add coloring to other lesser spirits to pass them off as bourbon, the Bottled-in-Bond Act attempted to federally guarantee the quality of certain whiskey.

As noted in this article by Rabbit Hole Distillery, to be considered “Bonded” a spirit must meet the following conditions:

  • Must undergo a distillation season at one distillery by the same distiller in the United States
  • Must also be aged in a bonded facility (controlled and inspected by a division of the US Federal Government) for a minimum of four years
  • Must also be bottled at 100 proof with a 50% ABV

So you know you are getting a bourbon or rye aged at least 4 years with an ABV of 50%. That is really all that this term, which was once a designation of the highest quality product, means in today’s market.

Prohibition Era, Pre-Prohibition Era

These are slightly odd terms that have gained popularity with many American distilleries as of late. American Prohibition was a period in US history from 1920-1933 where the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcohol was made federally illegal. Many distilleries were forced to shut down at this time, although some were able to get “medicinal whiskey” exemptions or otherwise re-opened after Prohibition’s repeal.

The Prohibition Era and “the before times” are strangely romanticized by US whiskey makers, large and small. Given the benefit of the doubt, maybe many of the whiskeys featuring this labelling truly are based on recipes for actual whiskeys from these times. Does this actually make them good, or any better than “modern recipes”? Maybe. Do whiskey brands want you to buy a bottle and find out? Yes.

Grain-to-Glass, Farm-to-Table

Americans love everything to be local, organic, and healthy these days. While that is certainly not a bad thing, clever beverage marketers tend to dance around this appeal with buzzwords like grain-to-glass or farm-to-table. The idea behind it is great; small craft distilleries leverage high quality, regional ingredients from family farms or small businesses to reduce supply chain impacts and create a higher quality product.

The problem again is in execution. How do you define these terms? How local is local? This is not knocking those brands that incorporate these business practices into what they do, but those that try to use those ideas just to market whiskey.

Barrel Aging and Production Terms


Tackling some additional whiskey marketing buzzwords around the production and aging processes, next up is “Finished”. Quite literally, this term means that after the main maturation and aging process a whiskey undergoes, it is then moved to another barrel where it “finishes” its maturation process, usually staying in that vessel for a matter of months before bottling.

Pretty straightforward, but one to watch out for when seeking out new whiskey. While a standard bourbon, fully matured in the requisite charred virgin oak may have one flavor profile, a similar bourbon from the same distillery that has been finished in sherry casks for instance, will taste completely different.

Aging and finishing in various barrels previously used to produce wine has been quite common for years in whiskey making around the world. But some of the modern, more unique finishes is where a fine line between experimentation and marketing gimmick can be crossed. Finishing a bourbon in an ex-apple cider barrel? Sounds like it could work and bring out the more apple, cinnamon, or citrus notes of the whiskey. Finishing a whiskey in barrels used to make Tabasco Hot Sauce? Makes no sense, but probably should buy a bottle just to try it even if it tastes terrible.


Not to be confused with finished whiskey, flavored whiskey is a completely different idea, and not even whiskey at all if you ask some aficionados. Finished whiskey imparts new flavors by using different types of wood barrels, or barrels that previously held another flavored liquid. Flavored whiskey on the other hand, has new, foreign flavors directly blended in. The result is often times a lower proof liquor that barely tastes like whiskey.

To their credit, most distilleries are pretty transparent about pointing out flavored whiskeys, and tend to market them less as whiskey and more like flavored vodka for mixing. Here are some popular ones with their labeling:

  • Fireball Cinnamon Whisky – 66 Proof Whisky with natural cinnamon flavor
  • Jameson Orange – Jameson Irish Whiskey with natural orange flavors
  • Jim Beam Apple – Apple liqueur infused with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
  • Screwball Peanut Butter Whiskey – Whiskey with natural flavors

Nothing wrong with any of this, and to each their own when it comes to what you want to enjoy. Just don’t expect a classic whiskey tasting experience when it comes to flavored whiskey


These numeric terms make the list because they can mean many different things, but often tend to be added to the label to make the whiskey sound more impressive. Used as an adjective preceding words like wood, barreled, cask, etc. they are generally used to account for the number of barrels used in the aging and finishing process.

Where it can get misleading is there is no indication from this term about the order of barreling. Is a triple cask scotch a blend of scotches aged for the same amount of time in 3 unique barrels? Or is it one scotch that moved sequentially from one barrel to the next? Ideally the finer details on the label will spell this out, but this is not always the case.


Although new Japanese Whisky regulations may remove this term from the buzzword category, it still applies as of today. If you purchase a bottle of whiskey that says “Japanese Whisky” you would expect it to be produced and bottled in Japan. Common sense, right?

Not so fast.

Prior to changes in above laws, the whiskey simply needed to bottled on the island to be considered Japanese. Many brands, unable to produce enough of their own stock to meet the high demand for Japanese Whisky, were shipping in barrels from Scotland to blend and bottle.

Brands all over the globe bottle whiskeys they themselves did not distill, with varying levels of transparency into who actually distilled it. But when Japanese Whisky specifically has carried such an inflated value, you really ought to know exactly what you are getting for that increased price tag.

Family Recipe, Very Old, Special, Extra, Rare, Reserve, Select

This last one is a catch-all of only the buzziest of the whiskey marketing buzzwords you can commonly find on whiskeys. They have been grouped together because all of them literally mean nothing. They attempt to generate an emotional response from a potential buyer by making a product seem more unique or premium.


At the end of the day, whiskey is a business, and for distilleries, selling more bottles for higher prices is the goal. Marketing, through whiskey bottle design and copy, is all part of that process.

The use of whiskey marketing buzzwords as part of that effort is not inherently a bad thing, as long as you are educated as a consumer and know what terms carry meaning and which are there just to sell.

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