What is the Angels' share?
The Angels’ share is the romantic term for the annual rate of whisky lost during cask maturation due to evaporation. As the liquid would evaporate into the heavens, it was dubbed the angels’ share. From a scientific point of view, however, it is the volume of the liquid that turns into gas and then leaves the barrel.
The amount lost in Scotland amounts to only 1-2%, in contrast with considerably warmer climates such as India or Australia where evaporation can reach as high as 12%. Regardless even in Scotland that adds up quickly.
Ewann Gunn, Keeper of the Quaich and one of DIAGEO’s Global Whiskey Masters, estimates there are currently around 22 million barrels of whiskey mature in Scotland. Most of these are hogsheads with a capacity of ~250 liters. If you assume that around 2 percent of the content of the cask lost as Angels’ share, this corresponds to around 110,000,000 liters of whisky disappearing annually. Phrased another way 440,000 casks, enough to fill 44 olympic sized swimming pools!
The angels share also goes a long way to explaining the incredible prices attached to much older whisky, beyond merely accounting for the storage costs they also factor in rarity. While a 10 year old cask may have lost only 18-20% of its volume, in contrast a 25 year old cask typically loses around 40% abv.
A Complicated Process
While on paper this sounds like a devestating financial loss that should be halted at any cost, which led to some amusing confusions regarding Diageo and clingfilm, the Angels’ share is not a one-way street.
The gap left by evaporating whisky is filled by air from the environment. This penetrates through the pores of the oak staves into the barrel and reacts with the chemical compounds of the whisky. This process is how distilleries eliminate unwanted flavours, allow stronger sulphurous notes to disipate and of course allow the ABV to drop gradually over time. The Angels’ share is a prerequisite for this.
External Influences On The Angels’ Share
How much whisky actually has to be shared with the angels depends heavily on external influences. While no distillery has complete control over the Angels Share there are a number of factors which can reduce, or increase the rate of evaporation:
- Barrel Storage
- Air pressure
- Cask Size
- Cask fill level
No distillery has any influence on the climatic conditions of the country in which it produces but it can control the climatic conditions within its own warehouses. Heating systems are not uncommon, ensuring that the temperature is not too subject to the fluctuations of the seasons. The Angels’ share and thus the oxidative maturation ceases to be a roller coaster ride as tempereatures rise and fall, but a constant process.
In addition, the following applies: the warmer the temperature inside the warehouse, the faster the whiskey matures. The chemical basis for this is provided by the Van’t Hoff rule, according to which the speed of chemical reactions is at very least doubled as soon as the temperature rises by only 10°C.
Under predominantly humid climatic conditions, such as those found in Scotland at an average humidity of 88% the air that surrounds the barrel is already saturated with water. The pressure of the Angels’ share, with which it pushes gases out of the barrel, is too weak to counteract the ambient air. The result is that more alcohol evaporates than water, so that over time the alcohol content of the spirit decreases.
In predominantly dry climatic conditions, such as in Kentucky, however, more water evaporates than alcohol in the oak barrels. The result is that alcohol to water ratio actually increases during maturation and the whiskey leaves the barrel stronger than it was poured into it.
The iconic dunnage warehouses with barrels slowly maturing in dark stone buildings are the best for consistency. Racked or palletised warehouses are vast metal structures in which the barrels are stacked dozens of meters into the sky and huge ranges in temperature are found between the casks. Those in the warmest areas, typically closer to the roof mature more rapidly.
Air pressure, Cask Size and Fill Level
The list of factors that influence the angel’s share could go on and on, from air pressure, to the size of the cask and the volume of whisky in it. Every little change to the cask can change the angels’ share with some significant effects on the quality of your whiskey. Amazingly even moving a whisky cask can increase the Angels’ share by 1-2%.
The Film Angels’ Share
The Angels’ Share is also a the name of a comedy drama directed by Ken Loach in 2012. The film which derives its name from this process, is happily centred around a whisky distillery and fictional cask of Islay’s Malt Mill. Young Robbie is given community service after a crime. During an excursion with his supervisor, they visit a distillery, where Robbie’s special tasting talent comes to the fore. When he learns that one of the most expensive whiskey barrels is about to be auctioned off comedy ensues.
Fungas and Angels
It’s not only the angels that enjoy the evaporating whisky however. The black stuff in the picture above is Baudoinia Compniacensis, better known as the whisky fungus, a fungus that consumes airbourne alcohol and are heavily found in the vicinity of distilleries. Baudoinia Compniacensis is also millions of years older than humans.
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