Highfern Portfolio

Highfern Portfolio

Sunday, 18 November 2018

What is the Angels' Share?

We say Angels’ Nectar Blended Malt Scotch Whisky is inspired by the Angels’ share, but what exactly is the Angels’ share? My preferred definition is ‘the traditional name given to the whisky lost to evaporation, during maturation’. 
Expanding on that, by law Scotch whisky must be matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks in Scotland. The casks are full when they are rolled into the maturation warehouses. Three years later, probably the earliest time they are checked, they are not full, some of the whisky is missing. Due to the porous nature of the oak, some of the spirit has evaporated, the cask losing both bulk volume and alcoholic strength. Traditionally the missing part has been termed the Angels’ share. It’s a wonderful description and at the heart of Scotch whisky folklore. One wonders who first termed the phrase, but that is lost in the mists of time. 
Lovely story, but the impact of the Angels’ share on the Scotch whisky production and the trade is real. The loss will vary between casks from the same parcel filled on the same day, but as a rough guide assume a loss of 2% volume per year, and a drop in alcoholic strength from 63.5% to approximately 60% over ten years. The rate of evaporation is affected by various factors, including the age of the whisky (the Angels prefer a younger dram), the size of the cask (in a smaller cask proportionally more of the spirit is in contact with the oak, so faster), and the climate (hot and dry faster than cold and damp), so it could be more or less than the frequently quoted 2%. More is un-lucky, less probably means the whisky is maturing more slowly. The Angels’ share is an inevitable part of maturation, so it stands to reason that trying to reduce the rate of evaporation, for example wrapping the cask in shrink wrap, would lengthen the maturation time required.  
The Angels’ share is a variable, or risk, the Scotch whisky trade works with. It is a numbers game though, the more casks you have the less significant the impact of a cask loosing more than 2%. If you only have one cask and it looses 5% a year, that’s a disaster, have 50000 casks and one cask looses 5% per year, that’s not part of the plan, but insignificant in the greater scheme of things. 
Casks are commonly traded based on their OLA, that’s Original Litres of Alcohol. With a price quoted in OLA the buyer pays an agreed price per litre of alcohol originally filled into the cask. The volume they receive won’t be the OLA, thus the buyer has to estimate what the Angels’ share on the cask has been since it was filled, and judge if the price quoted is fair for what they expect to receive. It is possible to have the cask ‘re-guaged’, but the buyer pays a higher price for this privilege. This is to cover the cost of the warehouse staff moving casks to gain access to the cask in question, dipping the cask, and then estimating the current litres of alcohol involved. So part of the fun, particularly with a single cask, is that you never know exactly how many bottles the cask will deliver, until the cask is bottled.
The Angels of course never pay for their share. Hence part of the reason for the four figure plus prices for bottles of 50 year old whisky, is that for every bottle enjoyed by the whisky lover, the Angels have devoured the equivalent of at least two bottles. 
It should be noted that the Angels’ share is not unique to Scotch. Angels appreciate all maturing spirits. In France the Interprofession du Cognac host an annual charity auction of rare cognac, appropriately called ‘La Part des Anges’. The Angels also have a taste for Bourbon. Curiously, whilst in Scotland the strength of the spirit declines during maturation, due to the Angels’ share and the hotter and drier climate, the strength of the barrels in Kentucky can go up. For more on this check out Malt Maniac Nabil Mailloux’s excellent e-pistle. This macro scale difference between Scotch and Bourbon reminds us that at the micro scale the impact of the Angels’ share will be different in different areas of the same warehouse.
In 2012 the Angels’ share was introduced to cinema audiences around the world with the release of Ken Loach’s ‘The Angels’ Share’ film. If you have not already seen it, do check out this entertaining tale of a group of young Glaswegians escaping a life of petty crime via the unlikely medium of malt whisky. And whilst we are in plugging mode, do also check out our friends at Angels’ Share Glass and their wonderful Angel themed handmade glassware. 
To some new to whisky it must seem extraordinary that the industry accepts that 2% of the stock will disappear each year.  Out with spirits, what other industry would put up with that? I was once told that the spirit lost to the Angels’ share each year is worth more than the value of the gold in the Bank of England. Whether or not that’s true, one thing is for sure, the Angels’ thirst is relentless. The Angels must love Scotland. 


Angels enjoying the Angels' Share

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