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Does Cask Strength Really Mean Cask Strength?

The recent revelation that single cask whiskies aren’t always exactly single cask whiskies, got me thinking. How do we  know for sure that cask strength whiskies are actually bottled at cask strength? The term cask strength should be pretty self-explanatory, but the same can be said for single cask, and obviously we were wrong about that one. So it’s high time to do some quick research.

Since a percentage of the alcohol content vaporizes every year a spirit is in the cask (the Angels’ share), cask strength can mean anything from way under 50 per cent abv in older whiskies to above 65 per cent abv in younger ones. There is no exact way of knowing at what strength a whisky of a certain age should be, because how much of its strength the spirit loses depends on a lot of variables, like the cask it’s been maturing in or the weather conditions. There’s just no way to tell if the alcohol percentage on a bottle is actually cask strength. And that is exactly where I think the danger lies.

It is easy for a distillery to bottle a 12 year old whisky at 53,7 per cent, and slap the label cask strength on it. There’s no reason for us, the consumers, to question it, because it is  plausible for a whisky to drop to that percentage in 12 years. But what if it was actually higher than the 53,7 per cent and the distillery decided to just water it down a bit, to be able to fill some more bottles? Would we ever find out?

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Just as with the term single cask, there is no mention of cask strength in the Scotch Whisky Regulations. That doesn’t bode well. Luckily the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) do have a definition for cask strength in their Technical File For Scotch Whisky:

Only water as defined in section (6) of Annex I to Regulation (EC) No 110/2008 can be used to adjust the alcoholic strength. Adjustments to alcoholic strength prior to maturation, and prior to bottling, are by the addition of potable water, which may be purified, for example by distillation, demineralisation, or reverse osmosis. The alcoholic strength of “cask strength” Scotch Whisky must not be adjusted after maturation.

Especially that last part is a relief. Cask strength appears to be exactly what it says. But there is still one thing that I think needed explaining. How is it possible to release different batches of a cask strength expression at the same alcohol percentage year after year, without using water to get to that percentage? Think about the Glenfarclas 105: a wonderful whisky that is always at exactly 60 per cent and proudly states on its label the words ‘cask strength’.

Last week I was at the distillery, so I had the chance to get my question answered by marketing executive Ian McWilliam. He came up with a simple and logical explanation. “We blend casks of different strengths to get to the percentage of alcohol we want. We are allowed a variation of 0,3 percent so that makes it a little bit easier for us.”

That was enough for me to take away that last bit of doubt. I now know for certain that when I buy a cask strength whisky, I’m not being duped. Assuming that DEFRA do their job and make sure their rules are being followed, that is.

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