Whiskey is an industry still steeped in, if not legitimate history, then a certain ersatz old-timey-ness. Brands are usually named after long-dead folks who may or may not have ever even been associated with the “historic” recipes we’re currently drinking. Labels often have a font and layout more appropriate for crinkly documents written by the founding fathers. And the master distillers still making these products have seemingly been in the industry so long, they may very well have once broken bread with Pappy Van Winkle himself. So it’s no surprise that much of the industry’s slang is also rooted in an era before many of us were born.
Talk to grizzled ol’ whiskey veterans and their language will be peppered with terms that probably wouldn’t have seemed too out of place in a Wild West saloon. “Alligator char.” “Mash bills” and “rickhouses.” “Bungs” and “brains.”
One part blue-collar lingo, another part lyrical mysticism, these terms come from folks who depend not just on their muscle, but on the magic that is the fermentation and distillation process. Their argot informs both of those things. That means you don’t just have spilt whiskey on the floor of your rickhouse, you have “slop.” While whiskey doesn’t just evaporate during the aging process, it floats to the heavens to be part of the “angel’s share.”
The modern whiskey boom has likewise led to many enthusiasts, or “anoraks” as some distillers call them, developing their own terminologies for the bottles they collect. “HAZMATs” found at “honey holes.” “LEs” and “private barrels.” And don’t you dare forget those “unicorns” that are still “in the wild.”
To help understand this unique industry vernacular, we reached out to a handful of distillers for help:
- Alex Chasko, master distiller at Teeling Whiskey Co.
- Brian McKenzie, owner of Finger Lakes Distilling
- Eddie Russell, co-master distiller at Wild Turkey
- Harlen Wheatley, master distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery