[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/70040202″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
During the process of making wine or whiskey, producers often use oak barrels to store their drink products; when alcohol is stored at 60 percent humidity or higher, for long periods of time, some of it will evaporate out of the barrel. The evaporating alcohol is called the angel’s share, alluding to the belief that guardian angels watch over the product as it ages. The beverage’s alcoholic level can be determined in part by how much alcohol evaporates out of the oak barrels. The angel’s share is also the name of a popular bar in New York City and an ale made by a company called the Lost Abbey, based in California; both of these uses of the name are derived from the process of evaporating alcohol.
How the Angel’s Share Occurs
Many distilled spirits and wines are virtually undrinkable after their sugar content has fermented into alcohol. In the case of distilled spirits, the alcoholic content of a “fresh” batch may be nearly 190 proof or better, and the flavor of the beverage would not be very appealing. To reduce the percentage of alcohol and to intensify the subtle flavors of the wine or distilled spirit, producers often store their products in oak barrels. In the case of distilled spirits, such as whiskey, the staves of the oak barrels are often heavily charred before assembly to give the drink a distinct taste.
Over time, some of the alcohol seeps through the grain of the oak staves and evaporates into the open air, and the evaporating alcohol becomes the angel’s share. Barrels of wine or distilled spirits may remain stacked in large warehouses for years, each one rendering its own angel’s share over time. If the barrels are stored in a low-humidity area, more water will evaporate out of the barrel, giving the beverage higher alcoholic content; if the barrels are stored in higher-humidity areas, then more alcohol will evaporate out, leaving the beverage less alcoholic.
Amount of Evaporation
Although much depends on the materials and methods used for barrel-making, many wine and distilled spirit producers estimate that the angel’s share of alcohol lost annually is around two percent per barrel. This means that a distilled whiskey stored in an oak barrel for seven years could be expected to lose 14 percent of its total alcohol content. As a result of the angel’s share, a formerly undrinkable, pure-grain alcohol can mellow to a more palatable 86 proof over time. Wines aged in oak barrels may not require nearly as much storage time, but the Angel’s Share phenomenon can reduce the amount of alcohol enough to allow the wine’s more subtle flavors and textures to emerge.
What should a quality Bourbon taste like? A good bourbon should combine a variety of tastes and aromas, and should open itself up as you drink it. Vanilla, leather, parchment, citrus…a good bourbon has a variety of flavors to tempt your palate. Here are some tips for tasting so you can make an educated critique of your favorite small-batch bourbon.
1. LOOK IT OVER — Pour yourself a drink and take some time to study the color. A darker color tends to mean longer storage time, higher proof or some combination of the two, Dalton said.
2. GIVE IT A TWIRL — Get a firm grip on the glass and swish the bourbon around, a move called aerating. “Bourbon whiskey is robust stuff,” Dalton said. “You’re not going to hurt it.” What you will do is allow the drink to breathe a bit, which makes for a better tasting experience.
3. TAKE A DEEP BREATH — Part your lips, place your nose deep into the glass, and give the brew a sniff. By opening your mouth slightly while inhaling, you can avoid being overpowered by the alcohol, Dalton said. The smell gives a preview to the taste.
4. TAKE A DRINK — To get a complete flavor profile, take a large sip from the glass and work it around to coat the inside of your mouth, a “Kentucky chew,” Dalton said. This allows the mix to hit different parts of the tongue, from the sweet-sensing tip to the sour-sensing sides.
5. OK, NOW SWALLOW — Pay careful attention to the flavors as the brew slides down your throat. Be on the lookout for an exceptional “finish,” a test of how long those flavors linger. For quality bourbon, the taste should hang around for 15 or 20 seconds.
6. WATER IT DOWN — Imagine the flavor of undiluted bourbon as a closed fist. Adding in a dose of water to your mix will help you customize the flavor, Dalton said, like opening the fingers of the hand. That means more intense flavors than drinking the mix uncut.
7. ON THE ROCKS — Try pouring the bourbon over ice. “The first drink is almost neat,” or undiluted, Dalton said. As you slowly sip the beverage, the ice begins to melt, a move akin to slowly adding water. This gentle movement allows the drinker to slowly experience a full range of the bourbon’s flavor.
Charbay Winery and Distillery in Napa has a great copper still in the Alambic style. Here is a great page on distilling in small batches.
Buffalo Trace is very proud of their bourbon and rightly so. Here are 8 videos detailing the process of bourbon making from distilling to aging.
Bourbon and Branch is offering a series of spirit-based classes including Bourbon and American Whiskey! Come see why American craft distillers are making a comeback.