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By John Elmes
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Do you know your XOs from your VSOPs? Your single malt from your blended Scotch? Labels on spirits can be as confusing as wine bottles. Navigating the intricate world of spirit labelling is tricky for beginners.
I’ll begin with brandy because it’s made from grapes – which is fitting for a predominantly wine-focused course.
Cognac and Armagnac are the two types of which many are familiar. Ageing is where labelling has its significance in brandy. Minimum ageing lengths for Cognac and Armagnac are set in law, and the labelling terms reflects the length of time. VS bottles – the VS stands for ‘very special’ – are the youngest of the brandy family and have aged for two years in oak casks. ‘Very Superior Old Pale’ (VSOP) brandies have undergone four years of oak ageing. The premium varieties are those that bear the legend XO (‘extra old’), but can also be called ‘Napoléon’ – why, I am yet to discover! XO/Napoléon types are aged for six years, but this will change later this year to 10 years, meaning I’m about to live some brandy law history; incredible. At this point, I should point out something Jim told us in our lesson.
‘If you have a barrel-aged spirit, you usually have some colour,’ he said. Brandy is golden, so reflects this. It seems prudent to talk now about Rum labelling, because colour is a major aspect of it.
White Rum is a neutral un-aged spirit. Jim says you could call it vodka if you want. Golden Rums are coloured as such from oak ageing, while Spiced Rum are Golden varieties with – surprise, surprise – added spice flavourings. Simple. Dark Rums get their deep, treacly colour from added caramel, but the best will undergo oak ageing to smooth out the taste.
Tequila also gains colour from oak ageing. If you buy a ‘silver’ or ‘blanco’ Tequila, it’s un-aged. Many believe the vegetal and spicy flavours, redolent of the agave from which it’s made, mean blanco Tequila is the most authentic expression of the spirit. Therefore, any person saying ‘gold’, ‘oro’ or ‘joven’ is better than blanco is talking rubbish and probably projecting humans’ ingrained belief that ‘gold’ is more valuable than ‘silver’. This preconception is bogus because ‘oro’ styles are also un-aged and get their colour from caramel. ‘I’ll never be duped into spending 3-4 more pounds on golden tequila when I could use food colouring at home,’ Jim declared.
‘Reposado’ labels indicate oak ageing. Jim tells us ‘reposado’ means ‘rested’, so ‘a rested tequila has extracted a lot of the oaky character [from barrels].’ ‘Anejo’ Tequilas have had just a little bit of resting in the barrel.
Describing whisk(e)y labelling can be a bit of a headache. Firstly, you’ll have noticed the parenthesised ‘e’. Spelling of whisk(e)y is oft debated but for simplicity, Scotch whisky is spelt thus, while Irish and North American whiskey is spelt thus.
If your bottle says ‘Scotch’, it must have been distilled and oak-aged in Scotland for at least three years. Add ‘Malt’ to your Scotch-labelled bottle and the whisky will have been made using malted barley as its base ingredient.
Continuing this fun adding game, a ‘Single’ + Malt + Scotch whisky is all of the above, but has come from a sole distillery. Single Malt Scotch can also be mixed with grain whisky to create ‘Blended’ Scotch Whisky. Though quality may vary in blends, it is an important whisky, so don’t simply dismiss it. I really like some blended Scotch. Irish whiskey is usually a mixture of malted and unmalted barley, and other grains, though you can get a Single Malt Irish Whiskey.
The two key states for US whiskey labelling are Kentucky and Tennessee. Bourbon is arguably the best-known US whiskey. It has to be 51 per cent corn to be called ‘Bourbon’. Moreover, I was completely bowled over to discover you can make Bourbon anywhere in the US. I was convinced you could only call it ‘Bourbon’ if it came from Kentucky (where Bourbon is everywhere). My confusion stemmed from the fact Tennessee whiskey, which is similar in production to Bourbon, can only be made in Tennessee.
Vodka and Gin
As Vodka is a neutral spirit and can be made from any base material, it seems to me a quite boringly labelled spirit. Ironically, if it has any discernible flavour during production, it cannot legally be called ‘Vodka’. ‘If someone says, “this Vodka tastes of xyz, it has so much flavour,” it’s legally not then allowed to be called vodka,’ Jim warns.
It can be flavoured however, to jazz it up. Flavoured spirits are very popular. Gin is perhaps the flavoured spirit with the most notable labels. Essentially, it’s vodka flavoured with botanicals, but to be called ‘gin’ in the first instance it must have juniper as its main flavouring. If your label is plastered with ‘London Dry Gin’ the spirit has had to be flavoured using the re-distillation process – the neutral spirit has been distilled with juniper and other botanicals.
‘Distilled Gin’ is made in a similar way to London Dry but the flavours can be added after re-distillation. Liqueurs are spirits that are both flavoured and sweetened. To be deemed a ‘liqueur’, they have to have a minimum level of sweetness, by law. The level varies depending on the country of production.
Spirit labelling is tough, but it does follow formulas. You just need to be mathematically attuned.
John Elmes Biography – WSET, UK Based Journalist
Spirit labelling terms – WSET level 2
France, Germany and Italy – Sweet Wines – WSET Level 2
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Sparkling Wines – Most Important Countries and Labelling – WSET Level 2
Spain, Portugal, USA – Common Labelling Terms that show Quality – WSET Level 2