When it comes to whisky, there are a lot of different factors during the production process that can affect the final taste. One very important (and often overlooked) factor is the alcohol by volume, or ABV. In this blog post, we'll break down the key things you need to know about whisky ABV so that you can make the best choices for your next dram.
What is ABV?
ABV stands for Alcohol By Volume, and is simply a measure of the amount of ethanol (pure alcohol) in a given drink. ABV is expressed as a percentage of the total volume of the liquid, meaning that if a spirit has an ABV of 50%, for every 100ml of spirit, there must be at least 50ml of ethanol.
What ABV is Whisky?
In order to be called whisky, it must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of 3 years and be bottled at a minimum ABV of at least 40%. Following distillation, the new make spirit will be around 60-70% ABV when it is put in to a cask to mature. After maturation, water is normally added to bring the whisky down to the desired ABV that helps to capture and emphasise the desired characteristics.
Did Someone Say Angel's?
The Angel's Share is a term used in the whisky industry to refer to the amount of spirit that is lost to evaporation during the maturation process. On average, anywhere from 2-4% of volume is lost each year, depending on the type of cask being used for maturation and the local climate. Although, in some hotter climates that can rise to nearly 40%! Whether the loss to the Angel's is water or alcohol depends on the level of humidity, with higher humidity reducing alcohol content, whilst lower humidity will reduce the water content and increase the ABV. Either way, the Angel's share has a significant impact on the maturing whisky, the intensity of flavours and the final ABV.
What is Cask Strength Whisky?
As the name suggests, cask strength whisky has been bottled straight from the cask, without being diluted with water. As a result, cask strength whiskies tend to have a higher ABV than other types of whisky. While this may sound like a recipe for disaster, cask strength whiskies can actually be quite delicious - albeit intense! The high ABV helps to bring out the flavour and aroma, resulting in a richer and more complex tasting experience. Of course, cask strength whiskies are not for everyone, but they're definitely worth seeking out!
How does ABV affect taste?
The higher the ABV, the more intense the flavours will be. This is because whiskies with a higher ABV have less water, which means that the flavours from the grain and barrel remain more concentrated. As a result, these whiskies tend to be more full-bodied and complex. However, that's not to say that whiskies with a lower ABV are inferior, they can just be more approachable, particularly for many new whisky drinkers. It all comes down to a personal preference in the end.
This is a process that helps to remove impurities from the spirit and involves chilling the whisky to a very low temperature, several degrees below freezing, and then filtering it through a series of filters. These filters trap the larger compounds and impurities that includes small pieces of coagulated protein, which can give the whisky a cloudy appearance. As a result, chill-filtered whisky will have a longer shelf life than non-chill-filtered whisky. However, some consumers believe that chill filtration strips away some of the flavour and character. This process is not required for whiskies with an ABV over 46%, so many producers aim for this magic number, so thy can be sold as "non-chill filtered."
Now that you know a little bit more about whisky ABV, you can consider the ABV of your next dram and make more informed choices. Keep in mind that whiskies with a higher ABV tend to be more intense, while lower ABV options are generally more approachable, especially for those newer to drinking whisky. Ultimately, it's all about exploring the many different options available and finding your own way to to enjoy this marvellous malt. Let us know your favourite drams and the ways you like to drink them... Cheers!