Greedy Angels!!
May 6, 2013
Bull Run
May 20, 2013

CASK Strength and ABV

Whisky’s ABV?  Alcohol by volume? Cask Strength??

Let’s do the Google thing……& bingo!  “Alcohol by volume (abbreviated as ABV, abv, or alc/vol) is a standard measure of how much alcohol (ethanol) is contained in an alcoholic beverage (expressed as a percentage of total volume).[1][2][3] The ABV standard is used worldwide”

Well, so that’s that. So if you see a bottle of whisky with 43% ABV mentioned it means that the content of Ethanol that the beverage has as against the other ingredients (which is largely water) is at 43%?

Not quite! The term "43% alcohol by volume" refers to a mixture of 43 volume units of ethanol with enough water to make a final volume of 100 units, rather than a mixture of 43 units of ethanol with 57 units of water.

How does that matter? Well in the case of Single malts it is one of the definitive factors for selection of your poison! The ABV in single malts can range from the usual 40% to a high of 63%. The ones which have a very high ABV close to or above the 48-50% mark are usually “Cask Strength” whiskies. Now cask strength whiskies are a different breed altogether! They are straight from the barrel and not blended to meet the norm of 40-43%.

Till very recently I was under the assumption that Cask strength whiskies are tougher to produce or sell. The factors that supported my assumption were

  1. Firstly the volume will be lower as it is not diluted (so does not make too much of sense to the distiller).
  2. Having such high alcohol content can make the drink “rough” if that can be the term used.
  3. Lastly it faces a number of legal hurdles, such as in India it is illegal to produce any alcoholic spirits/ beverages above the 43% (Amrut is an exception here with 46% ABV on the Amrut Fusion sold in India*)

But after sampling a few cask strength whiskies I can tell you that “rough” is what we drink here in India! The Glenfarclas 105 NAS which is a cask strength bottle at 60% ABV is divine! The whisky is so palatable that it does not need a drop of water. So the notion that higher the ABV the nastier the whisky gets, is just that…a notion. In fact if you look at most of the highly rated whiskies of the single malt fraternity most of them will have the ABV higher than the usual 43%. The legal rule however remains and in India Cask Strength Whiskies can only be imported and sold, the rule around selling of these whiskies is a little hazy at the moment, so while it lasts you can attempt these beauties.

Other available cask strength whiskies that are available in India at select retail outlets are Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin. I do recommend any one of these whiskies for a better understanding of cask strength and how a higher ABV can be used to an advantage. Please do note the Laphroaig and Lagavulin are not everyone’s cup of tea, there has to be a bit of other malt tasting done before you can take on these peaty and pungent monsters. The Glenfarclas 105 however is truly a beginner drink and will be an excellent choice for first attempt at cask strength whiskies. Readers must bear in mind is to drink responsibly, cask strength whiskies can be tough to handle especially when the whisky does not let the tongue know about the potency!

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