Reading Labels – The Basics

by Jim McCoy

Product labels are among the many critical items in the distillery start-up process, and they are just as important in the growth of the distiller’s product line in the marketplace. Whether simple and direct, or complex and wordy, the label reflects the art of the distiller. It can be a catalyst for a product to be successfully positioned, or a dragging anchor that impedes market success. Irrespective of the quality of the art or of the product itself, the label is required to present certain information about the content of the bottle, its origins, it’s nature, and in some respects its technical composition. Reading a label requires background knowledge about the standards and variations permissible to fall within one of the standards that identify a product class or type.

The Federal regulations which are concerned with alcohol beverage labels are found in Title 27 of the Code of Federal regulations (CFR), specific requirements being in Part 5, Part 16, and Part 19 for domestic distilled spirits. Specific Federal requirements and guidance materials may be found on the internet at by selecting the labeling pages or searching the website for keywords related to the specific label issue that you are working on. The agency which regulates alcohol beverage labeling is the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB), through its Alcohol Labeling and Formulation Division (ALFD).

Beverage alcohol product labeling may be viewed as being within three distinct spheres, yet these are ultimately intertwined as products are made which involve “cross pollination” to generate new areas of taste. Sphere one is whisky, two is comprised of the other “standard” defined products (vodka, rum, brandy, gin, etc.) and three is the sphere of flavored, imitation and specialty products – typically those requiring formulas.

Focusing on whisky, the basic principle is that whisky is made from a grain mash, and among the distilled whiskies only corn whisky is not required to be set in a barrel. Spirit whisky is a formula whisky made using a blend of neutral spirits and whisky. Blends of whisky are a sub-category. A whisky label will tell the consumer, who may or may not be aware of what the label statements mean, which type of whisky is in the bottle.

“Whisky” is distilled at less than 190 proof from a grain mash, stored in oak containers and bottled at not less than 80 proof (40% ABV). “Bourbon,” is whisky which is distilled at no more than 160 proof from a grain mash comprised of at least 51% of a specific type of grain (corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, malt or malted rye). The type of grain may be reflected in the label, such as “rye whisky.” Bourbon is stored at not more than 125 proof in charred new oak containers.

A “Corn Whisky” is distilled at not more than 160 proof from a mash of at least 80% corn, and may be stored (though not required to be) at no more than 125 proof in new uncharred oak barrels, or used barrels; it cannot be treated with charred wood.

Either Bourbon or Corn whisky may be labeled as a “straight” whisky (such as “Straight Bourbon Whisky”) if it is stored in the specified type of barrels for at least two years. If this aged whisky is not conforming either to the standard for Bourbon or Corn whisky, it is labeled as “Straight Whisky.”
A whisky label is required to show the State in which it was distilled, unless the product is distilled in the state shown in the required name and address on the label. If the whisky is less than 4 years old it is required to show on the label an age statement, reflecting the age of the “youngest” whisky in the batch from which the container is bottled. An unaged corn whiskey will reflect that fact on its label.

If my whisky bottle says it is “Ohio Straight Wheat Whisky” and it shows “Aged 3 years” then I will know the product was distilled at from a mash of not less than 51% wheat, at not more than 160 proof, in Ohio, and aged in a new charred oak barrel for at least 3 years. If the label says Distilled and Bottled by” along with the name and address (city, state) of the distiller, I will know that the product was crafted entirely by and bottled by the named distiller.

Let’s take a quick look at the second sphere of products, using Vodka as an example. If alcohol is distilled at 190 degrees proof or above (that’s 95% Alcohol By Volume (ABV)) it is designated as neutral spirits, followed by a statement identifying the commodity from which it was distilled. For example, neutral spirits made from grains, such as corn, rye or wheat, is “Neutral Spirits – Grain” – NSG; also commonly referred to as “Grain Neutral Spirits” – GNS. You might also encountered neutral spirits made from cane or sugar products, from fruits, or other commodities such as potatoes or beets.
Question: Why is “neutral spirits – cane” not classed as Rum? The standards identify “Rum” to be defined as spirits made from cane distilled below 190 degrees proof. Note that the distillate must also have the “…taste, aroma and other characteristics generally attributable to rum…” for it to be classed as rum. A neutral cane derived spirit distilled above 190 cannot be classed as rum, and if redistilled, cannot be converted into rum.

Now that it is mentioned, “redistillation” is a whole separate issue to consider in labeling of products, and we can address it in general, but it has nuances and complexities requiring its own discussion in regard to class and type and origins of products made from redistilled alcohols.
To produce Vodka, we have decided to use the traditional NSG (GNS, if you prefer) as the distilled spirits base for our vodka. Vodka is simply NSG blended with water, charcoal filtered and cut to not less than 80 proof for bottling. What about flavored vodka? That is a different type of spirits, requiring a formula to be approved before it can be produced and labeled. Our vodka is required to have the following on its label:

Brand Name – “XXX Brand”
Class/Type – “Vodka”
Commodity statement, as it is made from neutral spirits “Distilled from 100% Grain” or “Produced from 100% Neutral Grain Spirits”

Name and address of the distiller, producer. Or bottler, as might be applicable – “Distilled and Bottled by XXX Company LLC, Cincinnati, OH”

Net contents – “750 ml”
ABV (proof is optional) “40% alcohol by volume”
Government Warning Statement (see Part 16 for this requirement – specific language, normally on the “back” label)

  • Where do these bits of information belong on our label?
  • How large should the type be?
  • Do they have to be in English?
  • Do they have to be legible?
  • Are there any rules about colors or designs?
  • What else can I say on my label to help sell my product without violating a government rule?

Those questions are answered in the regulations and related guidance provided by TTB. See their website for specifics, especially the Beverage Alcohol Manual, which is useful in making determinations concerning how to label a product.

Reading a label may reveal only the basic required information about a product, or it may tell the complete story about it. Either way, there are specific rules which are applied to help the distiller and bottler classify and properly prepare labels, and which ensure that the informed and interested consumer can compare and select products from similar brands within a given class or type of distilled spirits. A fun exercise might be to visit a whisky department at a store and begin to compare and understand what the statements on the label really represent.