Unlike in the wine world, modern bourbon circles rarely dwell on the merits of what’s in their glass. “Good” or “bad” is typically a sufficient descriptor when assessing a pour, or perhaps “swill” if the liquid in question is particularly undrinkable, or “god tier” if it falls on the other end of the spectrum. The specifics of aroma and flavor are seldom broken down into a unique lexicon—no “rustic,” “mousey” or “funky” notes here. The evolving vernacular hinges, instead, on the machinations that go into acquiring bottles, more than the subtleties of the liquid therein.
For this reason, it’s more common to encounter a bourbon enthusiast excitedly posting on Instagram about their “haul”—displaying a lineup of just-purchased “soldiers”—than to see an assessment of the newly-open bottle (that is, if the poster ever actually opens the bottle).
Even so, it’s hard to yearn for the days when stuffy whiskey drinkers, mostly in the single malt Scotch realm, would wax poetic about their “wee drams,” discussing “butts,” “hogsheads” and “age statements,” citing tasting notes of marzipan and treacle, before clinking Glencairns with another “Sláinte” (the Gailic word for “health” and a popular toast in Scotland and Ireland). There was surely a reason why whiskey was less populist at the end of the 20th century.
In accordance with this century’s bourbon boom, which now sees Kentucky filling 2.5 million barrels per year and Pappy Van Winkle elevated to a household name, most of the burgeoning terminology is being generated by the collector class of the industry, in particular by a faction of collectors known as “taters,” characterized by their overzealous buying behavior. Taken as a whole, this broadening glossary reflects a subculture as nerdy and complex as that of Trekkers or the Marvel universe.
Here, a non-exhaustive guide to the modern bourbon lexicon.
Allocated: A limited-release run, like the Van Winkle line, which is doled out to on- and off-premises in small quantities. The term is more popular with retailers than collectors, who are more likely to employ the term “LE” (Limited Edition) or even “unicorn” when referring to such bottles.
Backup(s): Duplicate bottles for your collection. Usually, but not always, these are rare or allocated bottles. Though, the avaricious tater has also been known to stockpile bottles he assumes might eventually become hard to find.
Berbin: An intentional misspelling of bourbon, exclusively used online, deployed to mock the community and scene in a self-aware way.
BIN: An acronym for “buy it now.” In the online secondary market, the first user to post “BIN” in the comments section after a bottle is listed for sale has dibs on purchasing the lot at the stated cost. More frequently, though, the acronym is used jokingly after a post portraying a bottle the user has no plans of selling, like an extremely rare dusty, or something unworthy of reselling.
BTAC: The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (pronounced “bee-tack”)—consisting of George T. Stagg (GTS), William Larue Weller (WLW), Thomas H. Handy (THH), Sazerac Rye 18- Year-Old (Saz 18), and Eagle Rare 17 Year-Old (ER17)—which is one of the most coveted annual limited releases among collectors.
Bundle: When a store requires its customers to purchase undesired “shelf turds,” such as Wheatley Vodka, to also acquire an LE.
Bunker: A tater’s bottle collection, often referring exclusively to backups not currently on display in their living room. Usage: “Added a few backups of Seagrass to my bunker just in case.”
Daily drinker: A lower-tier, easily accessible whiskey. Certain bourbon enthusiasts may flaunt their wealth, or profligacy by virtue of what they label their “daily drinker.”
Drain pour: An unappetizing whiskey, so named because one would rather pour it down the sink than drink it or display it on the shelf.
Dump date: The date that a single barrel was dumped for bottling. While most private picks will list this information, Blanton’s is one of the few commercial releases to do so, contributing to its “unicorn” status, as the dates make the whiskey a sought-after commemoration of anniversaries, birthdays and so on.
Dusties: Vintage whiskey. The term originally referred to the fact that these vintage bottles would be coated in a layer of dust after years of sitting on store shelves unnoticed.
Dusty hunting: Searching for vintage whiskey. Just a decade ago, this wasn’t hard to do with a little dedication and willingness to visit lightly trafficked liquor stores in far-flung places. Modern dusty hunters, however, have been forced to find new ways to locate old bottles, such as scouring estate sales and even traveling to foreign countries.
Finish/finished: A whiskey that spent its final aging cycle in a secondary barrel different from its initial maturation vessel. This once strictly denoted a sherry barrel; increasingly, however, distilleries have turned to everything from Armagnac to apricot brandy to Tabasco barrels for finishing. Some connoisseurs believe the over-reliance on finishing is merely a strategy for disguising lesser-quality liquid.
Fresh crack: A just-opened bottle.
Flipper: A person who buys a bottle for the express purpose of immediately selling it for a higher price on the secondary market.
God tier: Upper-echelon whiskey in terms of flavor profile.
Gouge/gouging: The notion that any person selling a bottle at a higher price than a distillery’s MSRP is a shameless swindler.
HAZMAT: Standing for “hazardous materials”—though never used in full—and referring to whiskeys checking in at 140 proof or higher, as, according to FAA regulation 49 CFR 175.10(a)(4), one is legally not allowed to take such bottles onto commercial aircraft.
Haul: A quantity of whiskey acquired during a single hunt.
Honey barrel: A top-notch barrel of whiskey, often spoken of in mythical terms and sometimes known as a “sugar barrel.”
Honey hole: A secret location—typically a retail store, but sometimes a bar or restaurant—that reliably stocks rare bottles at below-market prices.
The Hunt: The act of scouring store shelves in the deliberate search for specific bottles. Just like ducks or deer, bourbon has a hunting season, typically in the late fall, when many LEs are released for the year.
Infinity bottle: A continuous blend that many whiskey fans maintain to streamline their collections by collating the final few ounces of any given bottle into a single decanter. Though the term has moved from the underground to the commercial mainstream in the past few years, true connoisseurs have come to see the trend as a total tater move.
In the wild: On store shelves. Increasingly, LEs and other allocated whiskeys are more likely to be kept behind the register or in the back, reserved for top customers or to be used in store lotteries.
Juice: A much-derided slang term for whiskey, sometimes employed when referring to the liquid before bottling, i.e. “I know Sweetens Cove doesn’t have a still—where are they getting their juice?”
Kill: To finish a bottle.
LEs: Limited-edition whiskeys released just once a year, such as Parker’s Heritage Collection, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and Wild Turkey Master’s Keep.
Museum: A liquor store that prices its allocated whiskey so high that no one ever purchases the bottles and they effectively become display items to gawk at.
NCF: “Non-chill filtered.” A technical term referring to spirits that have had their fatty acids removed by freezing. While many enthusiasts claim to prefer NCF whiskeys for their oily mouthfeel and increased esters count, much debate surrounds whether it actually tastes better. “NCF” will often appear on labels as a minor form of “tater bait.”
NDP: Non-distiller producer, i.e. a brand that bottles whiskey that they did not actually distill. Certain NDPs, such as Smoke Wagon and Barrell Craft Spirits, are highly sought-after.
Neck pour: The initial pour from a fresh crack. Some collectors believe that these first few ounces, having theoretically been exposed to oxygen while residing in the neck of the bottle, are not indicative of the quality of the rest of the bottle.
Outdrinks: A superlative bestowed on bottles that punch above their weight. Usage: “Everyone always talks about Blanton’s, but I think Rock Hill Farms outdrinks it.”
Pick: Single-barrel bottlings that have been selected by a retailer, bar or restaurant, or private individual or whiskey group. As legitimate unicorns become harder to find, “picks” have become sought-after collectibles.
Profiteer: Someone who buys allocated bottles simply to flip them for profit.
Proof whore: A fan of higher-ABV whiskeys, especially those that are barrel proof (see: HAZMAT).
Secondary market: Where allocated and unicorn whiskey is bought, sold and traded—almost exclusively online—after leaving the store shelves.
Shelfie: A photograph of one’s own whiskey collection, meant to be shared as a flex.
Shelf turd: A standard bottle of whiskey that is reliably found on store shelves. Despite the derisive term, it’s not necessarily indicative of quality, just a lack of rarity.
Sourced: Juice that has been acquired from an outside producer. NDPs’ whiskey is inherently sourced.
Tater: A neophyte collector susceptible to embarrassing behavior, like grossly overpaying for Weller Special Reserve and displaying Blanton’s horse toppers in their home. A shortening of “potato,” this term began appearing in the last decade, though no one recalls the term’s origins.
Tater bait: Whiskey releases designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator buyers, such as LEs altered through toasted barrel finishes or other buzzy production methods, often sold in flashy packaging with MSRPs to match.
Tater sticker: The cartoonish decals that adorn most picks, especially those from private whiskey groups. These stickers, added post-bottling, will often feature puerile, IP-infringing imagery, usually citing an in-joke from the group or industry at large. Of late, distilleries such as Buffalo Trace have taken steps to eliminate the practice.
Toasted: Whiskey that was aged in a barrel that was gently toasted as opposed to heavily charred. The category and terminology were first used by Michter’s with its 2014 release of US*1 Toasted Barrel Bourbon. Today, most toasted whiskey is considered tater bait by serious collectors who see the term as nothing more than marketing.
Unicorn: A bottle rarely seen “in the wild” due to its rarity, such as the Van Winkle or BTAC lines. As the bourbon boom continues however, many unicorns go extinct, while former shelf turds like Eagle Rare are elevated to low-level unicorn, much to more veteran drinkers’ consternation and mockery.
Wheater: A bourbon in which the secondary grain is wheat as opposed to the more typical rye, which many believe creates a sweeter, more approachable whiskey. Many popular LEs, including the entire Van Winkle and Weller lines, are wheaters.