Essential Whiskey Terms Every Enthusiast Should Be Familiar With

The terminology used to describe whiskey and its production can often be confusing, with meanings varying among different distillers. Some terms are defined by specific production methods or have strict legal requirements, while others are more colloquial and used to convey a general sense of a whiskey’s taste or history.

To provide clarity, let’s explore five commonly used whiskey terms: cask strength, expression, mash bill, single malt, and small batch. These terms are defined by experts and generally refer to the distillation, aging, or blending processes of whiskey.

Cask Strength

Cask strength refers to whiskey that is bottled directly from the barrel without being diluted with water.

Most whiskey is typically diluted with water to achieve an alcohol by volume (abv) of 40% or 80 proof. However, some distillers may add less water or dilute the whiskey according to their preference. Whiskeys labeled as “cask strength” are usually bottled at 50% abv (100 proof) or higher.

If desired, you can always add water or ice to your glass to adjust the dilution according to your taste.


“Expression” does not have a legal definition but is a term commonly used by whiskey makers.

Many distilleries produce multiple types of whiskey, each with variations in grain ratio, fermentation or distillation process, aging duration, or the types of barrels used. Each new variation is referred to as an “expression,” representing how flavors are expressed, conveyed, or released in a particular whiskey.

This allows whiskey makers and distilleries to express their individuality and distinguish themselves.

Mash Bill

The mash bill refers to the grain recipe used in the distillation process of whiskey. Grains are cooked and fermented to initiate whiskey-making.

Specifically, the mash bill or recipe denotes the types and varying percentages of grains used in making whiskey. The four most common grains used are barley, corn, rye, and wheat. Other grains such as oats, millet, or rice are occasionally employed as well.

The term “mash bill” is commonly used when discussing American whiskey. Some types of whiskey have strict regulations regarding their mash bill. For example, bourbon must have a mash bill consisting of at least 51% corn, while rye whiskey must contain at least 51% rye grain. The remaining 49% can consist of any other grain, bringing different flavors to the final product.

Single Malt

To understand this term, let’s break it down into two parts: “single” refers to one distillery, while “malt” pertains to the whiskey-making process.

Malt whiskey is made from 100% malted barley. Malting involves soaking barley grains in water until they germinate. Once sprouted, the barley is dried and distilled.

A single malt means that all the whiskey comes from a single distillery.

It’s important to note that a single malt doesn’t necessarily mean it’s from a single cask. It could be a blend of malt whiskey from 400 casks of the same distillery.

While many people associate single malt with Scotch, single malts can be produced in Ireland, the US, Japan, or any other country.

Small Batch

How small is a “small batch” whiskey? The term is not regulated or specifically defined, leading to ambiguity.

Primarily used in American whiskey, “small batch” generally indicates the blending of a smaller number of barrels than usual to create a unique expression from a distiller. However, without clear parameters for what constitutes “small,” the term can be meaningless.

Although our batches typically consist of 11 barrels or less (the largest we’ve ever done), it’s important to recognize that what is considered small batch to us may not hold the same meaning for heritage distillers.

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