American Still Life
Volume 8.

Coming to Terms

By F. Paul Pacult
Member Bourbon Hall of Fame

Like all industries, America's whiskey business has its own lexicon, its own unique list of terms that helps one member communicate with another member of the whiskey trade. In learning about bourbon, America's native spirit, I've found that the education process is significantly accelerated when the student becomes comfortable with the terminology. To that end, our next couple of articles will focus on the special language of American whiskey.

When you hear the terms "alcohol by volume" or its shortened version "AbV", it signifies the percentage of alcohol included in a particular whiskey. For example, the overwhelming majority of bourbons are 40 to 45 percent alcohol by volume, meaning that the actual liquid is that percentage of grain-based alcohol. Some special, limited edition bourbons, though, are purposely bottled at higher AbVs. Knob Creek, for example, is bottled at 50% and Baker's Bourbon is bottled at 53.5%. Sometimes the higher alcohol levels bring out particularly good characteristics in some whiskeys.

"Sour mash" or "backset". These technical terms each refer to the same thing: the soupy alcoholic liquid that's held back after the first distillation and that's added to the next batch for distillation. Dr. James Crow, a bourbon distiller in Kentucky in the mid-19th century, developed this process. This groundbreaking process promotes consistency from batch to batch of bourbon and is still utilized today by virtually every distiller of American whisky.

"Beer" is the fermented grain mash (typically around 7 to 8 percent alcohol) that is distilled in the "beer still".

"Straight whiskey" is a whiskey comprised of a minimum of 51 percent of one variety of grain (corn, wheat, rye, or barley); is not distilled at more than 80 percent alcohol; and is not matured at higher than 62.5 percent alcohol in oak barrels for at least 24 months. So then, "straight bourbon" is legally defined as a whiskey that is made up of at least 51 percent corn; is not distilled at more than 80 percent alcohol; is matured at no higher than 62.5 percent alcohol; is matured in new, charred oak barrels for no less than 2 years; and is bottled at a minimum of 40 percent alcohol by volume.

"Proof" is the measure of alcohol in a liquid. In America, proof is defined as being twice the AbV. For instance, a straight bourbon that is labeled as "40% alcohol" is considered to be 80-proof. This is, in fact, considered an archaic term in 2004 and an old-fashioned way of describing the alcohol strength of a whisky.

"Rackhouse" is the word for the warehouses in Kentucky in which whiskey is aged. It is basically synonymous with "warehouse".


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