Whiskey bottle with label.

Tips and Guidelines for Great Whiskey Labels

With some reports estimating the market will grow by 50% over the next 5 years, there’s never been a better time to get into the whiskey business. This growth is spread over a range of categories, but most of the focus is on premium and novelty spirits. To meet this demand, large distilleries are offering better products to non-distiller producers. This gives small companies a chance to make new blends without spending years building a production facility. However, even the best whiskey will have trouble selling if the label doesn’t attract customers. What are whiskey buyers looking for when they see the label, and how do you balance their expectations against legal requirements?

What am I Required to Have on My Whiskey Labels?

United States whiskey labeling requirements state that all spirit labels must have a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Details on what should be on the label are covered in the Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM)

You must get a new COLA if you make major label changes unless you’re making updates that don’t change the meaning of the label. This includes new contact addresses, UPC codes, trademarks, copyright information, and bottle deposit information. Holiday graphics can be added, as can social media icons, awards, lot numbers, and expiration dates without a new COLA. 

Required Label Information

  • The brand name or trade name of the whiskey.
  • The class and type of whiskey. 
  • The Alcohol By Volume (ABV). This is the alcohol content of your whiskey. 
  • The net contents in metric units. 
  • The name and address of the manufacturer or importer. 
  • The country of origin, including both the manufacturing location and the bottler
  • The commodity statement, which includes the grains used and the type of distillation. 

All alcoholic beverages must include a standard government health warning, worded exactly as it is printed in the BAM.

For the most part, these regulations are the same as any other spirit. The exception is categorization. The terms that you use on your labels are heavily regulated and can get confusing.

Classes and Types: What You Can and Can’t Call Your Product

Classes and types of whisky are covered by the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits and the BAM. The regulations use the spelling “whisky,” but “whisky” and “whiskey” are both acceptable terms for labeling.

There are three main categories that whiskeys and related spirits fall under. 

Neutral Spirits

Also referred to as rectified spirits, neutral spirits are distilled to at least 95% ABV (190 proof). 

Grain Spirits

Grain spirit is a legal classification for any neutral spirit distilled from a fermented mash grain and stored in oak containers


Spirits with “the taste, aroma, and characteristics attributed to whiskey,” including whiskeys that don’t fall into specific categories. 

Some appellation laws for labeling American whiskeys are enforced at the Federal level. American whiskey varieties can’t be distilled to higher than 80% ABV (160 proof.) These varieties must be placed in a charred new oak container for two years’ maturation at no higher than 62.5% ABV (125 proof.) The mash must be 51% of the following grains for each category:

  • Bourbon whiskey – corn
  • Rye whiskey – rye
  • Wheat whiskey – wheat
  • Malt whiskymalted barley
  • Rye malt whiskey – malted rye

Any appellation labeling can only be applied to whiskeys made in that region. Bourbon and American whiskey must be made in the United States, but there’s no requirement for Bourbon to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. The term “style” can be used to suggest your product is similar to what you would find from a specific region. For example, you could call a charred oak barrel-aged whiskey “bourbon style whiskey.”

A statement of age is required on whiskeys less than four years old but optional on older whiskeys. This age is measured by their stay in oak barrels or casks. For whiskeys requiring charred new barrels as part of the aging process, only the time in those barrels counts. Finishing in other wood containers, like used brandy barrels, does not count toward the spirit’s age. The age must always be stated for the youngest whiskey in blends, no matter the percentage.

Another designation of American whiskey is “bottled in bond.” To earn this designation, the product must be the result of one distillation season by one distiller at one distillery. It must have been aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years and bottled at 100 (U.S.) proof (50% alcohol by volume). The bottled product’s label must identify the distillery where it was distilled and the bottling site. This only applies to spirits produced in the United States. Many whiskey producers see it as a mark of quality, similar to a single malt whiskey. 

Most regional spirits have their own appellation requirements, with one noticeable exception: Japan. The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association is finally remedying this with new labeling guidelines. While not required by law, this can be considered best practices due to widespread adherence across the country’s whisky industry. The changes come into effect on April 1, 2022, but current products don’t need to comply until March 31, 2024.

While moonshine is generally understood to be a distilled mash that hasn’t been aged, this term has no specific legal regulations. It can use any base and almost any type of flavoring.

Creating a Label to Keep Up with Trends

Industry magazine Beverage Dynamics recently released their whiskey trends predictions for the coming year. Here’s how you can approach these trends with your labeling.

If there’s one overarching trend in recent years, it’s novelty. Whiskey drinkers are looking for new types of whiskey, which is spurring growth in new markets. From barrel finishing to new proofs, we’ve seen an explosion in product categories. This also goes for the packaging. Makers are turning to new bottle shapes and label styles to help their products stand out on the shelves.

Whiskey connoisseurs are driving the market, especially around high-end products. Thanks to websites, Youtube reviewers, podcasts, and other new sources of information, buyers are more educated than ever. This makes any information you add to the label useful to more buyers. If you don’t want to cram the label full of text describing flavor, aging, and other manufacturing information, you may want to add a QR code to your labels that go to your website or social media accounts. This gives prospective buyers a way to get in-depth information about your product.

“Sourced” isn’t a dirty word anymore. In the past, sourcing whiskey usually meant the seller was buying their product from a large distiller and passing it off as a craft or specialty spirit. These distilleries are moving upmarket, while small brands are being more transparent about their sources. Buyers understand that niche brands use a reliable sourced whiskey as a base so they can get new and inventive products on the market. Don’t be afraid to mention your sourcing on the label.

How do you get your whiskey labels onto your bottles? Our vertical trunnion roller labeling system was originally designed at the request of a bourbon bottle manufacturer. The rollers support the bottle during label application, all but eliminating skewing issues (even with long wrap-around labels). This machine can be configured to apply up to five labels on each bottle, including front, back, wrap and neck labels. It also handles a variety of bottle sizes, so you can label multiple products with one machine.

Make Your Labels Look as Good as Your Whiskey Tastes

CTM Labeling Systems designs labeling systems that meet the demands of our customers, whether they’re shipping boxes, bottles, or odd-shaped containers. Contact us and we’ll put you in touch with your local distributor. They can work with you to design a labeling system that fits your containers and your production system.