I'm owner/operator of a liquor store, am overwhelmed by lies & deception of liquor labels, AMA
Liquor Label Red Flags: Empty Words and Phrases Likely to Create a False Impression:
“Small Batch”: Basically meaningless. Just says the bottler didn’t automatically bottle every last ounce of spirit that was made available to him/her. Claim holds up even if all they did was avoid the barrel covered in the bird shit.
“Produced by”: tells you nothing more than the corporate name of the entity that commissioned the production. Anyone can email MGP Ingredients or some other supplier anytime and have them physically produce you your own line of spirits, but on the label you’d still get to say it was “Produced by” you. Pro tip- anyone can put the word “distillery” in their company name. So “Produced by [LocalName] Distillery” could still represent nothing more than someone, somewhere, with an LLC and a checkbook.
“Hand bottled”: clearly meant to convey small scale production, but not quantifiable. This doesn’t mean anything more than there was human involvement in the bottling line. Even the smallest micro distilleries use various bottling machines (necessary to meet strict volume standards).
“Premium” & “[adjective] Premium”: Utterly meaningless, there’s no actual standard here. The marketer thinks the customers of that product are chumps (or to be charitable, just felt resigned to use the word. But it cannot be said in earnest.)
Reading Between The Lines: Who’s Doing What? Here’s an example of language that sounds good, but could just as easily be written by a marketer placing an order with a bulk spirits provider: “We create small batch spirits from the finest ingredients. Each bottle is handcrafted from spirit that flows out of the artisan pot still. Bottles and batch numbers are handwritten on each label. We only use whole ingredients to create our spirits.”
These aren’t red flag words, here we’re trying to separate the distillers from those just allocating capital. Look for specific action verbs (e.g. mash, ferment, distill) following first-person pronouns (“we”, “I”).
“Create”: Like “produced”, “create” doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than “commissioned”.
“Ingredients”: the problem here is that bulk spirits sourced from others can still be called an “ingredient”. Look for something more specific, e.g. “we distill red wheat grain, etc.”
TL;DR: Most liquor we drink is actually distilled at companies you’ve never heard of, like MGP Ingredients (think about the condiments scene at Madrigal Electromotive from Breaking Bad). These companies sell their bulk spirits to major labels, but also to upstart marketers who think they see a marketing niche, usually playing off something local. These are known as “private label” brands. Liquor marketing has always been shameless, but the heights of BS we’ve reached are historically unprecedented, IMO. Look for “Distilled & Bottled By” for the truthiest statement.