I try not to think about that heartbreaking moment. That moment when a distiller opens the barrel of whisky they’ve been diligently ageing for the last two years only to find that - mysteriously - a load of it has gone missing.
I imagine the distiller’s eyes narrowing. They turn slowly from the barrel, bung clenched in their fist. They glare about their distillery, searching for the culprit - a dishevelled drunkard carrying a used straw and a whisky smile.
But the room is empty, much like the top part of the barrel.
So where has so much spirit gone?
The distiller raises the bung to the heavens, praying, beseeching, begging. Appealing to a higher power for answers.
Little does this distiller know: they’re actually on the right track.
The Angels’ Share
The Angels’ Share is the bane of distillers’ lives. And it’s not just whisky that suffers this loss. It’s any alcohol that’s stored and aged in wooden barrels for a length of time. And to add insult to injury, there are laws about the minimum amount of time some spirits need to stay ‘on wood’.
So in a way, distilleries are obligated to give the angels their share.
But distillers age their spirits in barrels for more reasons than simply legislation. Contact with wood gives rum, whisky and even some gins a lot of the character you taste in the finished product.
As temperature and humidity fluctuate, the barrels ‘breathe’, sucking liquid into their fibres as they expand, pushing it out as they contract. This brings colour and flavour into the spirit.
But with that process, a lot of spirit evaporates or is absorbed into the wood. This is the angels’ share, and these drunken deities cost distilleries a huge amount of product and profit every year.
How much do the angels take a year?
The amount of spirits going to the angels depends a lot on the temperature and humidity where barrels are stored. Unfortunately, Australia having generally high levels of both heat and humidity means the angels’ share is huge. A lot more than somewhere like Scotland.
In other parts of the world, a distillery can expect to lose between 2-7% a year from each barrel.
In Australia, you’re talking more like 6-10% per annum.
So by the end of just the minimum ageing for rum and whisky, an Aussie distiller may well have lost 20% of their spirit to those greedy angels. Like I said: heartbreaking.
It surprises me that there’s anything left at all in those 18-year-old or 25-year-old barrels.
So next time you’re enjoying a glass of superbly crafted Australian whisky, rum or barrel-aged gin, raise a glass to all the spirit that’s ascended with the angels and that we’ll never get to drink.