You can acquire the most sought-after spirits in the world, but if you can’t describe what you’re drinking and why it’s so impressive, then you are doing both yourself and your prized tipple a disservice. Being a dedicated spirits enthusiast requires genuine knowledge about the liquid that’s in the glass, including how it’s made, why it tastes the way it tastes, and where it comes from. And that means being able to speak the language using words beyond the ambiguous, insignificant descriptor that is “smooth.” While we won’t be giving you a deep dive into tasting notes and flavor in this article, we will make sure that you can talk the talk when ordering at a bar or distillery and know certain production terms to better understand the spirit-making process. Here is a top-line list of expert terms that every spirits enthusiast should know.
Terms Used When Describing Spirits
Proof: In America, proof is a standard for measuring the alcohol content of a distilled spirit or liqueur. It’s expressed as double the percentage of alcohol (e.g. 45 percent ABV equals 90 proof).
ABV: Refers to the “alcohol by volume” of an alcoholic beverage. It’s a standard measure of how much alcohol is contained in a given volume of a spirit and is expressed as a percentage.
Expression: The term used to describe variations in a given spirit recipe—often used in relation to whiskey and rum (i.e. if a brand has multiple bourbon releases with variances, each could be described as a different expression).
Body: It is a nuanced term, but it’s basically used to describe the way a spirit feels in your mouth. Spirits can be light, full, or medium-bodied; a light-bodied spirit would often apply to unaged spirits, whereas medium and full-bodied is typically applied to aged spirits.
Legs: A term related to the viscosity of a spirit. A more viscous spirit will stick to the side of the glass with thick “legs,” while this tends to be the opposite with lighter spirits. Sugar content also plays a role here.
Cask-strength: Most commonly used when referring to whiskey and rum, cask-strength means that a spirit is bottled at the proof in which it comes out of the cask (i.e. undiluted, or not “proofed down”).
Peated: Refers to a whiskey that’s been made with grain dried by peat bogs—and possibly another heat source—and is known to lend a smoky character to the spirit.
Spirit Production Terms
Fermented: As it relates to alcohol, this is the process before distillation where the raw materials—let’s say corn and rye, for example—are converted from carbohydrates (sugar) to alcohol and CO2 by yeasts or bacteria. Essentially, a mixture of water, a sugar source, and yeast interact to create a beer-like wash which is then distilled into a spirit. It’s a vital part of the production process and this stage heavily influences the flavor of the spirit.
Distilled: The process of separating alcoholic liquid from its fermented solids—sometimes called a wash, or wine, depending on the fermentation—by using boiling and condensation via a still.
Wild (ambient) yeast: A buzzword in both wine and spirits in the modern day, wild yeast is the naturally existing yeast in the air or on the raw materials. It is occasionally used instead of, or in addition to, a cultured yeast strain that delivers desired and consistent flavors in a ferment. As terroir in spirits is increasingly talked about, this will be a term that you’ll see pop up more frequently.
Terroir: The environment’s effect on an agricultural product. This means how the climate, the soil, and the hands of the maker influence a spirit’s character.
Chill filtered: A term that’s most commonly referred to in the context of whiskey, chill filtration is a refining process typically performed to remove chemical compounds, like fatty acids, that can clump together at low temperatures, creating a cloudiness or haze in the whiskey. Essentially, it’s done for aesthetic purposes and can affect the mouthfeel and flavor of a whiskey (commonly considered to be a negative quality).
Non-chill filtered: Typically found on the labels of whiskey bottles, this means that the whiskey was not chill filtered (see “chill filtered” above).
Congeners: Chemical substances—such as methanol and other alcohols, acetone, acetaldehyde, esters, tannins, and aldehydes—that are produced during fermentation and are responsible for unique flavor and textural characteristics in a distilled spirit.
Maceration: A technique commonly used in the production of gin and liqueurs where barks, fruits, herbs, spices, and other ingredients are steeped in alcohol as a way to extract flavor.
Botanicals: Commonly referenced as it relates to gin, vodka, and amari (i.e. bitter liqueurs), botanicals are plants and plant parts that are used for flavor and aromas. For example, juniper berry is the defining botanical in gin).
Angel's share: The amount of a spirit that’s evaporated during the maturation process (i.e. the amount of a spirit lost while aging in a barrel). Angel’s share is almost strictly applicable to barrel-aged spirits.
Mash: A combination of malted (germinated and dried) and/or milled grains that are soaked in warm water where enzymes turn the starches into fermentable sugar. (Commonly referred to in the context of whiskey.
Wort: The residual sugary liquid of the mash before the yeast is added to start the fermentation. (Commonly referred to in the context of whiskey.)
Wash: The cooled wort to which yeast has been added, and then fermented. (Commonly referred to in the context of whiskey.)
Column still: Also known as the continuous still, this style of still didn’t become sophisticated and frequently utilized until 1830. The wash enters near the top of the still and flows downward, continuously being added without disruption to make the distillation process as efficient as possible. Once the wash is heated enough to evaporate, the vapor rises up through a series of plates, or stripping plates, where the distillate is cleaned of heavier compounds and congeners. Many spirits are produced via the column still—such as vodka, gin, some rums, whiskey, etc.—but column-distilled spirits lack the flavor and body that pot distilled spirits yield.
Pot still: An older style of still, typically made with copper, that operates on a batch distillation basis. The wash is added at the base of the still, which is heated directly by steam, or natural gas in order to evaporate and condense the alcoholic ferment. It’s often associated with spirits that retain more flavor and body (i.e. single malt scotches, some rums, Cognac, and bourbons). It’s not as efficient as the continuous (column) still in terms of product yield, nor can it distill to a high alcohol as is needed for vodka, but it is often considered superior in the flavor department. (Note: many distilleries now employ hybrid stills which use a kettle-like base with a column(s) attached.)
Maturation: The final phase of spirits production before proofing and bottling where the distillate is rested in a vessel for aging. Depending on the spirit, the vessel and time aged can vary (e.g. bourbon must be aged in new, charred American Oak for at least two years to be considered straight bourbon).
Terms Used When Ordering Spirits
On the rocks: A spirit served on ice.
Nightcap: A spirit, or liqueur, perfect to end the night with.
Finger: An arbitrary term used when ordering a specific volume—one finger is approximately one ounce—of a spirit. It originated in old Western American saloons back in the 1830s where imbibers would order a drink—typically whiskey—by the width of the barman's finger. Because a finger is not a standard measurement, most bartenders will take this as a one-ounce pour.
Dram: Typically used to describe Scotch whisky, the word dram derives from the Gaelic word meaning “drink.” Originally, a dram meant a liquid measurement of 1/8 of an ounce, but has been adapted to mean a small pour of alcohol.