The amount of alcohol in a whiskey
bottle is indicated as ABV - meaning
‘Alcohol By Volume’. The so-called
‘cask strength’ whisky (with an ABV
of up to 70%) is diluted with water to
a more palatable proof. For Scotch
whisky, the legal minimum is 40%.
So, now the whiskey is distilled and matured - can you taste it yet?
Not quite, unless you're prepared to suck whisky straight from a cask.
In fact, whiskey needs to be bottled first for convenient consumption.
Drinking whiskey from a bottle is better than from a cask, if only for the
reduced spillage. (Some people even use whisky glasses these days.)
Glass bottles were invented a long time ago, but they
were not affordable for most people as long as those
bottles had to be produced by hand, one at a time.
Fortunately, in the 19th century somebody invented
the mass production of whisky bottles in bottle plants.
Most of the malt whisky that is distilled in Scotland
is still used 'by the cask' by the industry for blending,
but a growing number of the casks are bottled
for human consumption these days - either by the
distillery owners or by ‘independent bottlers’.
Those shouldn’t be confused with bottling plants where bottles are filled.
Some distilleries still bottle their whiskey ‘on site’, or even allow visitors to fill their very own bottle.
However, the days that distillery workers got paid (partly) in whiskey are gone - and Scotsmen
can no longer simply bring any old jug along to have it filled straight from the cask at the distillery.
During the 1990s, less than 2% of all the Scotch
malt whisky that was produced was being bottled as
a (single) malt whisky, but around the year 2010
that percentige had already risen to +/- 10%.
In order to make the best possible decisions when choosing your first whiskies
and/or whiskeys, it is useful to know how to ‘read the label’ of a whiskey bottle.
But look at me gettig all ahead of myself again...
We’ll get to whisky shopping shortly. First, I’d like to dedicate the last part of this
sixth chapter of this Beginner’s Guide to Malt Whiskey to the latest stage of the
bottling proces: the labeling and packaging of a particular batch of whisky.
The WHISKY LABEL INSPECTOR is
meant to help (relative) beginners in
the world of whisky make sense of
the (mis)information on the labels.
The Whisky Label Inspector will
point out some useful details on
what certain phrases really mean.
For example, some absolute beginners might think
that the Glen Garioch label above indicates that the
whisky was distilled (or bottled) in 1797 - but it wasn’t.
If you have been paying attention during the previous
chapters, you should be able to make some sense of
the many whisky labels that you’ll be comparing during
your whisky shopping sprees and tasting sessions.
But make sure to remain vigilant; one of the tricks of
the whisky trade is ‘suggesting’ stuff that isn’t factual.
The ‘brand’ of a single malt whisky
depends on the bottling type. For the
official bottlings, the brand is usually
the name of the distillery, the brand of
independent bottlings is the name of
the bottler or a particular whisky range.
For bastard malts it’s all speculation.
Whisky collectors tend to prefer official bottlings over independent
releases, which means that OB’s are usually more expensive than IB’s.
So, the quality-price ratio of independent bottlings is often better.
It’s a matter of provenance - and that goes for ‘bastard bottlings’ too.
Those are (supposedly) single malt whiskies, but the distillery where the
whisky inside the bottle was produced is not identified anywhere on the
label or packaging. For example, independent bottler A.D. Rattray sells
the ‘Stronachie’ single malt whisky, but there’s no distillery by that name.
Or at least not anymore, since the Stronachie distillery closed in 1928.
There are some issues with this ‘angels share’ if you
think about it, but let’s not do that right now. If you are
a (relative) novice to the whiskey world, at this point the
most important question is: at which proof or ABV do
you like your whiskey? Most of the blended Scotches
are bottled at 40% ABV, but many malts are bottled at
43%, 46% or even higher ‘cask strengths’ up to 70%.
Between the moment the fresh spirit is put in its first
cask and the time the (more or less) mature whisky is
poured from its last cask, some of the alcohol is lost.
If you’ve wondered how the whiskey
makers manage to get all their bottles
bottled at nice, round percentages like
40% or 43%, I have to commend you
on your inquisitive nature. Bottlers add
water, and sometimes the contents of
casks that dropped below 40% ABV.
When you’ve purchased a cask strength
whiskey, you can decide for yourself if you
want to add water to your whiskey - and
how much. Just add a few drops whenever
you feel like it - and let the magic happen.
Also, you can be nitpicky and use spring water or even distilled water - if you want to.
Furthermore, you (and the environment) won’t have to pay for transporting a lot of tap
water from the bottling plant in Scotland to your location. (And as long as the ABV is at
46% or higher, your whisky won’t turn cloudy when you add water to it...)
In fact, cask strength whiskey with an ABV above 50% is SO strong that it’s actually bad for your health if you drink too much of it. Nevertheless, it’s smart to BUY your whiskey at cask strength.
The 'standard' bottle size of 70cl was
introduced in the European Union in
1993 to end the chaos of the multitude
of bottle sizes that were used before.
70cl is a EU 'standard', along with
100cl litre bottles and 5cl miniatures.
The standard size in the USA is 75cl.
So, how many whisky bottles can be drawn from a cask?
That depends on the size of the cask. The average (let’s
say 200 litres) bourbon barrel that was filled with fresh
spirit at 63% ABV, will have around 175 litres of whisky
left inside after 12 years of maturation.
For example, wine and sherry casks are usually much larger than
bourbon barrels. This means that you can draw more bottles from them.
The angel’s share varies greatly between casks - and the ABV of casks
that have been laying around for three decades or more could very well
have dropped to something close to the legal minimum of 40%.
Typically, the ABV (or ‘proof’) of the whisky will have
dropped to around 55-60% by then. Diluting the whisky
to 40% or 43% alcohol before bottling would produce
around 250 70cl bottles. So, the typical ‘bottling run’
of single (bourbon) cask bottlings is between 150 & 250.
However, there are many other factors at play...
Some casks even drop below 40% ABV over
time, in which case a bottler has to blend it
with ‘stronger’ whisky to sell it as ‘Scotch’...
So, those are not ‘single cask’ whiskies any more.
This is actually true for the vast majority of single malt Scotch whiskies; if a bottle is not
specifically labelled as a ‘single cask’ bottling, you can be pretty sure that it isn’t one.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you! I may be against blending malt whisky
with the inferior grain whisky, but vatting different casks of malt whisky together can
produce fantastic results. This is true for virtually all popular single malt expressions
from big brands like Glenfiddich and Macallan, but also for ‘bottom shelf’ vatted malts.
By the time the (malt) whisky has been bottled, it falls into one of three categories.
An official bottling or ‘owners bottling’ (OB) is bottled by or for the company that owns
the distillery, while an independent bottling (IB) is bottled by an independent bottler
like Blackadder or Gordon & MacPhail. They (usually) don’t own a distillery themselves.
So far, we’ve only scratched the surface of the bottling of whisky bottles.
For example, many bottlings are filtered or chill-filtered these days, and
some people feel that this affects the structure, bouquet and taste of a whisky.
Also, while chapter 8 deals with the topic of water and whiskey in relation to
the tasting of whiskey there’s also more to water than meets the eye...
The Advanced Beginner’s Guide will delve deeper into the issue.
As you can see at the left, not all whisky ‘bottles’ are made of glass.
Because ceramics containers are slightly porous, they are not suitable for
the long time storage of whisky. Nevertheless, collectors seem to love them.
These days, over 99% of Scotch whisky is bottled in glass - and since adding
caramel to Scotch whisky became legal (as ‘colouring’), more and more of that
glass is transparent or ‘light’ glass. In the past, more whiskies were bottled in
dark glass - often dark brown or green. This disguised the actual colour of
the whisky, but on the other hand it was better for long time whisky storage.
The overview of Scotch whisky bottlers will tell you which bottlers are currently active in Scotland.