Although very much about the loss of whiskey into thin air, there’s actually more to the Angel’s share concept than that. The term refers to the process of ethanol evaporation which occurs while the whiskey is stored in barrels, for ageing. The loss is called the Angel’s share because of the popular belief that guardian angels watch over the drink, as it matures. Angel’s share also occurs during wine or ale storage.
Barrels have been used for centuries for the storage and transportation of liquids, from water and olive oil to beer, wine and distilled spirits. But, aside from the technical advantages, that they were more resistant than clay pots and more easily carried over longer distances, quality benefits also came into play. It became obvious that the different types of wood improved the taste for many of the alcoholic drinks, such as beer, wine and spirits. The same story goes for the beginnings of using oak barrels for transporting moonshine. The distillate became mellower, rounder, richer in flavor and more complex after a longer contact with the wood. We now know that there are reasons behind every type of wood used for whiskey barrels: the new oak lets the moonshine soak up different aromas of vanilla, tobacco, spicy and nutty hints, while the charring generates sweetness, through a layer of caramelized sugars. The method used in making the barrel is also relevant to the flavoring and maturing process, whether it was sawn, hand-split, whether the staves were kiln or air-dried and bent through the use of steam, natural gas or wood fire.
Regardless of the type of wood or method used in putting it together, all barrels are porous. Oxidation is essential for the whiskey’s flavor, its acquired color and its final complex character. The angels take their share thanks to the nature of the material that lets the barrel breathe.
Barrels of whiskey get stacked in commercial warehouses for several years. Conditions also affect the produced distillate and the quantity of the angel’s share as storage is usually done at 60% humidity or higher. If it is a low-humidity area, more water will evaporate, making the liquor stronger. If the area has a higher-humidity level, then more alcohol will evaporate, lowering the proof. So, the process is not just about loss: as proof lowers, the whiskey can mellow and leave the barrel at a more enjoyable alcohol level, after having also allowed the more subtle sweet, spicy or nutty flavors of the wood to emerge.
The exact amount that is lost depends very much on conditions, as well as materials and methods used for making the barrels. This is why the process develops differently also depending on region: in America, especially in the South, where temperatures are higher but humidity lower, compared to Scotland or Ireland, where it’s colder but humidity higher. Producers estimate the angel’s share around an annual 2% loss per barrel. This means that a distilled whiskey which is maturing in a new charred oak barrel for 5 years, can lose up to 10% of its alcohol content to the angels.
In humid climates, the loss of ethanol is also what causes the growth of the dark fungus which can be easily noticed in areas where whiskey is distilled and stored. Especially around distilleries which have been around for a long time, the exterior of houses, trees, vegetation and anything located in the neighborhood are all visibly covered in the dark mold, also called Whiskey Fungus or Angel’s Share Fungus. During the Tennessee Whiskey Trail we were also told that this was a good way for revenuers to find illegal moonshiners during Prohibition, as the mold would give away areas in which whiskey and moonshine had been distilled and stored.
The market has referenced the Angel’s share theme in a series of products. Jim Beam launched a Bourbon called Devil’s Cut a couple of years back. They said it reclaimed the whiskey that had been soaked up by the wood in the barrels and then blend this pulled out whiskey with a 6 year aged bourbon. There’s also the Angel’s Envy Kentucky Bourbon, while Lost Abbey produces a strong ale called Angel’s Share which spends a year in freshly emptied bourbon and brandy barrels after having been brewed.
A recent Scottish movie also called Angel’s Share has been quite popular in Europe; it follows a young delinquent in his discovery of Scotch and the Angel’s share, which is about to change his life from hopeless to rich and refined.
Posted by Jason Stone on