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  • Writer's pictureGenevieve

All about ABV

When choosing a whisky there are various factors to consider: what distillery or region a whisky comes from, its age, the style of whisky, not to mention the price. We've looked at these factors in great detail at our previous whisky tastings. But the alcoholic strength of a whisky can also be important – it can influence the flavour of a whisky, and our overall experience of the whisky we enjoy. At our latest whisky tasting which took place on Thursday last week, our focus was on ABV and why it is an interesting and important factor to take note of when thinking about your whisky.


The ABV of any particular bottle of whisky can be pre-determined by a distillery, and reached by diluting the whisky with the required amount of water when it’s removed from the cask (the legal minimum ABV for whisky in South Africa is 43% – in most other countries around the world it’s 40%). Alternatively, as is the case with cask strength whisky (where no water is added after maturation), the ABV will depend on the alcoholic strength the whisky reaches as a consequence of the ageing process.


The term “the angel's share” refers to the portion of whisky that evaporates from the wooden casks during the maturation process – and this can lead to changes in the ABV of the spirit that went into the cask… the longer the maturation period, the greater the angel’s share. So when a distillery decides to bottle a whisky at cask strength, they never know beforehand exactly what the ABV of that whisky will end up being. In Scotland and South Africa, a whisky must mature in a cask for a minimum of three years in order to be classified as a whisky – but it often spends a much longer time maturing (10 or 12 years is not an uncommon age statement to see on a bottle of whisky).


So when it comes to whisky, what’s the best ABV? I don’t think there is an answer to this question. Essentially, whatever you like best will depend upon your personal tastes and preferences. Whiskies with a lower ABV are generally regarded as less harsh and more palatable. Whiskies that are diluted down to a specific ABV will also be more consistent in flavour than whiskies that are bottled at cask strength, and from the perspective of the consumer it can be nice to know exactly what you’re getting – especially if you’ve enjoyed a particular bottle of whisky before. It is very uncommon, on the other hand, to find continuously available cask strength whiskies that are not released in batches – and there can be some variation in flavour from batch to batch. With a high ABV, cask strength whiskies can also pack a very hefty punch, and this can be overwhelming for many. Yet one particularly interesting thing about a cask strength whisky is that it can offer consumers flexibility and a greater degree of customisation than other whiskies. One can add however much water one likes to a cask strength whisky, without immediately feeling like the whisky has become too watered down. Adding water gradually to cask strength whisky can reveal different layers of flavours and aromas at various dilution points, making the tasting process more interesting and engaging.


For our whisky tasting we tasted a range of whiskies of varying ABV levels:

  • Copper Dog (40% ABV): We managed to get this whisky from the UK, and it’s bottled at the legal minimum ABV for a whisky in the UK.

  • The Glenlivet 12 (43% ABV):  Bottled at the legal minimum ABV for a whisky in South Africa. Interestingly you’ll find The Glenlivet 12 with an ABV of 40% in places like the UK.

  • Benriach 12 (46% ABV): This has recently become a key bottling strength, as it is considered the lowest strength at which a whisky can be bottled without the need for chill-filtration, a process that removes oily compounds that make whisky cloudy when water or ice is added.

  • Wolfburn Morven (also 46% ABV): Another excellent whisky at this popular bottling strength.

  • Glenfarclas 105 (60% ABV): A cask strength release. The name “105” comes from its British proof, equivalent to 60% ABV.

  • Ardbeg Uigeadail (54.2% ABV): Not strictly speaking cask strength, but bottled at high strength. This particular whisky is one of my favourites.


We were fortunate enough to finish off our whisky tasting with a wonderful dinner – complete with whisky infused cake for dessert! – provided by our amazing and generous host, Moira, who also kindly shared her lovely home with us for the event.




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