Where’s the Proof?

ABV Explained

Whisky is one of those drinks where the percentage of alcohol differs vastly between different brands, releases and bottlings. But one thing all whiskies have in common is that (legally) they must contain at least 40% alcohol by volume (ABV). In the states they don’t use ABV though, they use proof. And the proof of a whisky is twice the ABV.

A quick example of how high it can go?
Belgian Owl makes a 12-year-old whisky that is bottled at a baffling 78,7%! (157,4 Proof)

The rules

I found myself wondering if you can still call something with that high an abv whisky, and found out the simple answer is yes. However, my pondering was not as misplaced as I thought. The ABV rules really depend on where the whisky is from, what style it is, and if the distiller wants to mark it as either one of those.

Let’s take bourbon as an example. Bourbon has one of the strictest sets of rules out there, that a distillery must follow if it wants to market their drink as such. The rules apply to the following: origin (it can only be made in the U.S.), mash bill (made with at least 51% corn); ageing process (only new charred oak barrels may be used); and proof.

So, what is proof?

A quick sidestep: Proof is another definition of ABV, one used mainly in the United States. To calculate the proof the Americans use, just multiply the ABV by two and poof… there’s your proof. Now the British also used proof in the past, before switching over to ABV in 1989. Some bottlings still use proof on their bottles though, mainly out of nostalgia. If you happen to encounter such a bottle it’s good to remember that the British used a different system of proof than the American. Their math comes down to 1,75 times the ABV. The origin of the name “proof” is a very interesting one, that I will share with you some other day.

Back to bourbon.

I took bourbon as an example of ABV limitations because of its clear set of rules. Like any whisky, bourbon has to be bottled at a minimum of 40%. The distillate that comes off the still cannot exceed 95%. And the “new make” that goes in the barrel cannot go over 62,5%. This (basically) means the new make needs to be watered down before it can be barreled. Finally, you can’t bottle bourbon with an ABV above 80%. Going back to the Belgian Owl, we can now conclude that the ABV at which it’s bottle could still have it fall into that category. But it’s unlikely, because it probably went in the barrel at much too high a proof.

That last statement is an interesting one, that may even look a little weird to some. How can something that’s barrelled at 62,5% even come close to 80% when it’s bottled? For those more accustomed to the Scottish ageing process those numbers might look even more bizarre. Scotch loses some of its ABV every year it spends in the barrel. For some very old whisky’s this means that it can’t age any longer because the ABV is at risk of dropping below 40%, and thus it wouldn’t be whisky anymore.

And then there was climate

However, the reason that this happens has everything to do with climate. In wet climates with (relatively) low temperatures, the whisky ages slowly and loses ABV over time. In certain dry climates with a high temperature, whisky ages faster and ABV can increase because the barrels lose water more rapidly than alcohol. Bourbon from the southern states is susceptible to this and can thus end up with a higher ABV than when it was first barrelled. Funny enough this means that where the Scots need to worry about the ABV getting to low, it’s possible that some bourbon makers need to worry about it getting too high.

Can’t we stop it with the rules?

Now to really explain why these rules are in place, we would have to delve much deeper into the history of whisky. And since I’m a history buff I will most definitely do just that, but I will leave it for another time and another blog. For now, the short explanation is that these rules are in place to serve as quality control. Consumers should be happy with this though, as it guarantees them a base quality of the product. Producers are happy with it too though, because even though they might have to deal with those limitations, it also means their beloved drink’s name cannot be as easily defiled by some new kid on the block looking to make a quick buck.

How proof affects flavour

Aside from the legal requirements of ABV in whisky there’s also other factors that come into play. As you may imagine the alcoholpercentage has a big impact on the flavour of your dram. It all starts with what goes in the barrel, because it’s not coincidental that with bourbon there’s a limit for the ABV of the spirit that goes in a barrel. In fact, most distillers barrel their whisky around the same ABV. Regardless of whether they’re allowed to use a higher ABV. It’s quite simply the percentage that’s most efficient in pulling out the “good” flavours from the barrel, while leaving most of the “undesirable” flavours out.

But even after it comes out of the barrel, the percentage of alcohol still has a great effect on the flavour of a whisky. In most cases, the blenders proof the whisky down. So they can achieve the ABV level, that they think suits your dram best. There are exceptions though, best known as either “cask strength”, “barrel strength” or “barrel proof”. These are whiskies that have not been proofed down… after the ageing process. Note the “after the ageing process” part. Because it’s a very important detail. Because the spirit itself (before it became whisky) most likely HAS been diluted before it was barrelled. Most often, when you find these bottlings, they’ll have an ABV between 55 and 65 percent.

Is it all about the money?

Aside from the cask strength whiskies, there is another exception to the rule that master blenders pick the most optimal ABV. And that exception is… money! Making the whisky and storing it for many years, it all costs a lot of money. Water, however, does not. So, if you can get more whisky on the cheap by simply adding more water to your stock, it’s not hard to imagine this being a very tempting idea for a business. Therefore, personally, I try to steer clear from the 40% ABV whiskies. Don’t get me wrong, it does not mean that 40% whisky is bad.

Take Laphroaig 10 as an example. I love the dram, but in Europe it’s bottled at only 40%. (I’m casting my envious looks at you Americans!). The reason I try to steer clear from the lowest percentage is because to me it (in most cases) shows a lack of creativity. It’s not about getting the best flavour out of that bottle; it’s about getting the most profit out of it. And from a business perspective I totally get it, but seeing whisky as an art form… I just prefer to search for something else. Take Nikka from the Barrel, they bottled it at 51,4%. Because after much consideration they came to the agreement that the whisky tasted best at that level. Choosing quality over profit? Now that I love! And I think it shows their dedication to their art.

DIY with Cask Strength

Coming back to the cask strength whiskies though, you might think this then also shows a lack of imagination from the distiller. Then why are these some of the most sought-after bottles? Well, the beauty of the cask strength whisky is that they leave finding the best flavours up to you! You can drink it straight, or water it down to your desired level. But you have the cards in hand. With a 40 percent whisky you can only wonder what it will taste like at 45. With a 60 percent whisky you can find out!

To get the most out of your bottle though, with a cask strength it does take some effort on your part.
Want to leave it up to the professionals? Just buy a bottle of a brand you love, with a less than standard ABV. You’ll then get to experience the tale of the whisky that the artist (the master blender) wants you to know.

So, look a little closer to those ABV’s for your next bottle, pick a whisky with an ABV that speaks to you, pour a glass, sit back, and listen to its story.

Or you could just look for another story on my blog 😉 I will leave that up to you!

Dramble on!

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