What Does Cask Strength Mean?

When I first started enjoying scotch, I was like every novice, I thought that more was better. The older the bottling, the better the scotch, right? The higher the alcohol by volume, the better the scotch, right? But like many things, older doesn’t mean better and neither does more.

When whisky is made, it’s stored in casks, or barrels, for many years. This new make whisky, as it’s called, can have an alcohol content anywhere from 60%-75%, depending on distillation. It’s potent stuff. As it matures, it loses some of its potency, known as the angel’s share. When it’s removed, depending on how old it is, it can still have a fairly high percentage of alcohol.

Normally distilled water is added to normalize the alcohol content to the standard bottling levels, however sometimes they normalize it at a might higher alcohol content for cask strength bottlings. For example, The Macallan Cask Strength, which has no age statement, has an alcohol by volume of 58.5%.

Is cask strength better? That’s debatable. At 58.5%, the burn of alcohol overpowers many of the subtle flavors in scotch. However, some people like the idea that you can get a taste of what it’s like straight out of the barrel, before water is added to bring it down to more pedestrian alcohol by volume levels. You can adjust it to your liking, instead of accepting the more standard levels of 43% or 40%.

I think it’s worth a try but unless you like your nose hairs singed off, I’d avoid getting a whole bottle.

About Jim

Jim is the founder of Scotch Addict and one of the many fans of whisky in all its forms. Connect with me on Google+.
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5 Responses to What Does Cask Strength Mean?

  1. Camille says:

    You mentioned that the angel’s share is a loss of potency, but everywhere I’ve read has said that it’s a loss of volume, which doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of potency and can actually mean an increase in alcohol percentage (depending on what’s being “shared,” kind of like when people boil water thinking it’s getting rid of chemicals, when the steam being let off really just means the water now has a higher percentage of chemicals.)
    Do you mind clearing this up for me?

  2. Julio A says:

    Camille, the angels share refers to volume lost to evaporation. It goes up in the air hence the name. The overwhelming majority of the evaporate is alcohol, since alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. Therefore the evaporation will reduce potency as well as volume, since the volume lost was of a higher alcohol content than the rest of the barrel.

  3. Ol' Jas says:

    Camile’s question is better than Julio’s answer. He’s got the right idea but he over-generalizes.

    During maturation, a bunch of everything does indeed evaporate. In a climate like Scotland’s, the alcohol does indeed evaporate in a greater degree than the other stuff, so the barrel’s ABV typically decreases. In other climates — like the American South, I believe — the alcohol evaporate in a LESSER degree than the other stuff, so the barrel’s ABV increases.

  4. Digger Dave says:

    During the Napoleonic Wars, the British Navy dipped barrels of Rum in pitch (what we now would call Tar) to prevent loss of Rum by evaporation and also to make it harder for opportunist sailors to steal the contents. The term “Nelson’s Blood” originated when his body was shipped home after Trafalgar in a cask of rum & much of the (liquid) contents were drunk by sailors .
    My question is, has any distillery tried coating their oak casks in tar to avoid evaporation loss but still permit maturation to occur? If this could be done, it would make a marked financial improvement to the profitability of distilleries, given that whisky goes into the oak at over 90% and comes out in the high 60’s. If tar has been shown to have a pervasive flavour/taste/aroma that detracts from the natural qualities of whisky, the question remains as to whether certain products of modern chemistry might well seal a cask without intruding foreign properties.

    • Jim says:

      Wow I’d never heard of this before… I wonder if the tar could potentially have an impact? The barrel would be porous both ways…

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