From "alligator char," to "angel's share," we break down the strange and humorous lingo of whiskey-loving enthusiasts."
Brands of whiskey are often named after historical personalities who have since passed away, and their labels are often made to look like archival documents. The whiskey veterans' lingo is just as ingrained in the past as the drink itself, with terminology like "alligator char," "mash bills," and "rickhouses" that sound like they were plucked straight from a Wild West saloon.
These expressions capture both the hard work and the wonderful alchemy that goes into the fermentation and distilling process through a unique blend of blue-collar jargon and poetic mysticism. When whiskey is spilled on the floor of the rickhouse, the mess is called "slop," and the whiskey that evaporates is not wasted but rather the "angel's portion."
Collectors of the present whiskey boom have coined their own jargon to describe the bottles they seek out, such as "HAZMATs" from "honey holes," "LEs" from "private barrels," and "unicorns" that are "still in the wild." Whether you're a seasoned pro or just getting your feet wet in the whiskey industry, learning the lingo will help you appreciate the history and culture of this time-honored field.
Whiskey is aged in oak barrels, the interiors of which are charred to varying degrees depending on the barrel maker or distillery. The first four levels are the most popular ones. The most severe form of charring is called "alligator char," after the rough, glossy appearance of the charred oak wood staves on the inside.
A percentage of whiskey evaporates during the maturing process in oak barrels. This missing quantity is often referred to as the "angel's share" because it is believed that the heavenly hosts enjoy it.
An "anorak" is someone who is deeply immersed in a niche interest and is considered an expert in their field.
Pot ale, a byproduct of whiskey distillation, is occasionally put to the fermenter or the cooker to enrich the spirit with nutrients. The water needed for mashing and the amount of liquid left behind are both cut down using this method. On the other hand, it may also be a source of bacteria.
Whiskey makers refer to the appearance of the mash on the first day of fermentation as the "brain look" because it resembles a brain.
The bung or bung hole is the orifice in the top of a whiskey barrel through which the spirit is poured into and removed.
A bung flogger, or just flogger, is a mallet used to start the bung on a cask or barrel.
The term "butt" refers to a 500-liter oak cask that was originally used to store sherry.
Clocking barrels refers to the practice of rolling 100-pound barrels of whiskey into the rickhouse and standing them with the bung hole towards 12 o'clock to avoid any leakage.
The cut point is when the still operator makes the transition between the head, heart, and tail fractions.
Fake tan is slang for whiskey that has been dyed artificially.
Farmy malt has an earthy, sometimes unpleasant flavor and aroma.
Whiskey drinkers have developed the term "HAZMAT" to refer to bottles of whiskey with a proof higher than 140, as these are not permitted on flights.
Distillation results in three distinct phases of alcohol: heads (or foreshots), hearts, and tails (or feints). Heads are removed from the still because they contain excessive amounts of undesirable highly volatile flavor components. While the heart is reserved for bottling and maturing, the tail is recycled to the next distillation in order to recover the substantial alcohol content.
High wine, a sort of liquor with a high alcohol content, is the product of a second distillation.
A hogshead is a big cask, typically recreated from American bourbon barrels by adding staves and enlarging the heads, with a volume of about 246 liters (54 gallons).
A honey hole is an off-the-beaten-path business that consistently provides rare bottles for a whiskey connoisseur, but is reluctant to tell other collectors about his good fortune.
In the wild:
It is exceedingly unusual for unique products to be shown openly in stores, therefore bottles of whiskey are said to be "on display" when they are.
A whiskey with a high alcohol content.
Low wine is the first liquid to be distilled and typically contains between 25 and 35% alcohol. After that, it's distilled again in a different still.
The mash bill for a typical whiskey can include 70% corn, 20% rye, and 10% malted barley, all of which are needed in the fermentation and distillation processes.
The yeast is activated with a nest egg, which is a mixture of warm water and dried yeast.
Refers to a whiskey that has a strong flavor of peat smoke.
A form of homemade Irish whiskey that uses fermented potatoes in place of malted barley in the pot still.
Often called "spent lees," is the liquid that remains in the still after alcohol has been distilled.
Sometimes known as barrel selects or store selects, are full whiskey barrels purchased exclusively by a bar, store, or individual.
Refers to the condensed distillate that flows back down to the pot during batch distillation.
This is the place where whiskey is aged, usually in wooden barrels but sometimes in other materials like cement or brick.
The charred interior surfaces of directly fired stills can be scraped clean with a rummager.
A whiskey with a strong, sherried flavor and a high proof is known as a sherry bomb.
Is the liquid that drips onto the rickhouse floor as it ages.
Whiskey can be sampled right from the rickhouse in a sugar barrel.
A unique and coveted bottle of whiskey.
Is the whiskey distillery's fermenting trough.
A repurposed cow feed slurry consisting primarily of particles.
Alcohol distillers employ the discarded beer's liquid leftovers, known as "thin," as a setback in the fermentation process.
Named after the resounding thump it creates when it heats up, the small pot still known as a "Thumper" is used for a secondary distillation pass.
Is the remaining mash after the liquid has been extracted.
Short for whiskey sampler, is an instrument for taking small samples of whiskey from an aging barrel.
Is a term for newly distilled whiskey that has not yet been matured in oak barrels.
Learning the whiskey language, or any other new ability, can be a rewarding experience for those who pursue it with enthusiasm and dedication. Learning the nuances of whiskey jargon is a great way to deepen your appreciation for the spirit and improve your ability to talk shop with other connoisseurs. Anyone, even in the ever-changing world of whiskey, can become an acknowledged expert with enough time, effort, and dedication.