B is for Bottling Strength
It’s time to continue with our analysis of how we come to find the gems on the shelves of our whisky retailers. My last article mentioned the age statement and what it means for us whisky buyers. Now we turn our attention to the strength of our alcohol.
In Europe, we measure our alcohol by the percentage alcohol by volume (ABV). This is a test that measures the amount of alcohol (ethanol) in an alcoholic beverage and is expressed as a percentage. The US still also use the proof method which is double the ABV.
Why does strength matter?
Around 70% of a whiskies taste will be developed by the cask, but that means around a third of it will be spirit driven. The less spirit, there is a corresponding loss of taste. However it would be foolish to say that maximum spirit means more taste, as you then will just be obliterating your taste buds with alcohol, therefore there is a sweet spot to achieve in a bottling.
To give you an idea of the alcohol strength in the malt whisky process, here is a rough guide;
After mashing (Wort) 0%
After fermentation (Wash) 8-12%
After first distillation (Low Wines) 16-22%
After second distillation (Spirit) 68% – 75%
What happens after distillation will vary. As far as I know, some distilleries will proof the whisky while vatting prior to loading into casks. This means that they will dilute the spirit slightly before casking. This is because a higher strength means more evaporation, faster ageing and possibly making a poorer spirit. The spirit will effectively ‘eat’ the cask. Want to know what I mean? Try putting a bottle of whisky on its side for a while and see how long the cork lasts. (Please don’t, Trust me)
By the end of the maturation period, the whisky will have dropped in volume and alcoholic strength. It is now ready for bottling, after being mechanically filtered to remove sediment left over from the cask. And here is why strength matters. If we bottle it at cask strength, we are getting the full flavour of what came out of the cask.
Why would you want to dilute Cask Strength?
The truth is that cask strength varies and can be quite strong. I have a cask strength whisky at 70%, and some as low as 50%. Even at 40%, whisky is still a strong spirit, therefore to bring out the flavours more, the whisky will be re-proofed and brought down to a more drinker friendly alcohol volume. But by doing this, they are reducing the amount of spirit in our dram.
There are two other reasons a distillery may do this – more water = less spirit in a bottle, so a batch of spirit that is diluted will make more bottles = more profit. The next reason is to hit a price point. Spirit made in the UK is taxed when it is bottled. At the time of writing (Nov 2019) this tax is £28.74 per litre of pure alcohol. Now it is geek time and we need to get our maths head on.
For one litre of 40% whisky tax alone is:-
28.74 x 0.40 = £11.50.
For a 70cl bottle = 11.5 x 0.7 = £8.04
Compare this to a cask strength whisky of 62%
For 1 litre = £17.81
For 70 cl = £12.47
That’s a massive increase of duty close to £4.50. Add the cost of bottling and production, and it becomes a bit clearer on why the distilleries will dilute during bottling to hit a price point or to increase the output from a vatting.
So, does this really make a difference to our dram?
Yes and no. Some whiskies do actually need to be watered down to allow the whiskies to open up, to help release aromas and flavours. And each of us have our own palates and tolerance to alcohol, and therefore the abv sweet point for any whisky will be different for all of us. Roy from Aqvavitae.com did say in his original presentation that once you really get into whisky and start trying stronger spirits, that the softer abv’s will leave you wanting something more. This doesn’t mean that you will desert whiskies of below 46% (this is a magic number for more than one reason; it’ll be clear in the next article), but means with a cask strength you have the choice to add as much water as you want, drop by drop, until you find where you want to drink it.
I have to agree with Roy. I do like whiskies of all strengths, but get more from the cask strength. I used to doubt this, but my epiphany came this year when visiting the Oban distillery. We were given a 9 year old cask sample of 58.1% straight from the cask, then an Oban 14 at 43%. The cask strength knocked the 14 year old sample out of the water and I would happily buy it, but not so the 14 year old. A pleasant enough whisky, but boring compared to the stronger sample.
This wasn’t a one off. One of my favourite whiskies is Benrinnes 15 Flora and Fauna. When visiting Robertson’s Of Pitlochry, I had a sample of their own independent bottling of a 9 year old Benrinnes cask strength. On that one sampling I immediately bought a bottle, it was great! Pity I didn’t buy two, as the one I have is in storage.
One benefit of a higher ABV is you avoid whiskies that have been chill filtered, but that is a subject for the next article.
In our quest to select bottles that might be worth trying, ABV is a good way to calculate the value of a bottle. More percentage will mean more cost, especially with older releases, but you are more likely to get more engagement with a bottle of a higher percentage.
Don’t write off the less potent whiskies. Older drams will have less ABV due to evaporation. Some spirits just don’t taste good at higher strengths, and these are things the bottler will have taken into account. Let your palate be your guide. At least a cask strength whisky will give you the flexibility to experiment with the point you are happy with the ABV.
My final point will be not to judge on only one or two drams. Evaluate over the life of the bottle in your drinks cabinet. After the cork has been removed and oxygen gets into your bottle, a process starts that allows the whisky to develop. Think of it as a meaningful relationship rather than a one night hook up.
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The Hitman Hart – John Cenation. Used under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 3.0
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