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Lesson 10: What is “Angel’s Share” and “Devil’s Cut”?

“Angel’s share” and “Devil’s Cut” are two fun terms that are being used a lot in the whiskey industry. You may have heard about Angel’s Share – but maybe Devil’s Cut is new to you. Both terms refer to loss of whiskey between entering and exiting the barrels – but have very different explanations.

Angel’s Share

When whiskey ages inside the barrels, there will be some evaporation. You would think that it is the alcohol evaporating, but in many cases, it is primarily water. This is counterintuitive, as alcohol has a lower boiling point than water – and thus should evaporate first.

The situation is, however, that most barrels are made of white oak, which has an incredibly dense molecule structure. So dense, in fact, that the alcohol (ethanol) molecules are too large to effectively penetrate the wood. The much smaller water molecules still have difficulties, but not nearly to the extend ethanol has. Some ethanol will evaporate, of course.

The evaporation varies from warehouse to warehouse – and very much depending on where in the warehouse the barrel is stored. I will explain all of this in an upcoming post.

In general, most manufacturers report an evaporation of 10% the first year – and 4% every following year. This is based on a standard 53-gallon barrel placed in the middle of the warehouse in a climate like Kentucky with hot summers and cold winters. This is quite a lot and if you do the math, you will find out that HALF of content in the barrel is gone after around 15 years. This also very much explains why older whiskey is more expensive than just to compensate for the storage and investment costs.

This evaporation is also called “Angel’s Share”. The term got its name, because the manufacturers lovingly thought, that the evaporation went to the angels and that they therefore got their share of the action.

Example of Angel’s Share, as time goes on. Courtesy Bushmills Distillery

And a little bonus info related to Angel’s Share: If you have ever been on a distillery tour, you may have noticed that their warehouses (unless they are new) look a little dirty on the outside, almost like some black moss or fungus is growing on them. It is in fact a fungus named “Baudoinia compniacensis” a.k.a. “Distillery Fungus” or “Angel’s Share Fungus” (since the other name is difficult to remember). It lives off ethanol and is therefore attracted to distilleries. It is (almost) completely harmless, so the distilleries just let it grow. If they do decide to clean it off the buildings, it will just grow back.

Baudoinia compniacensis growing on a warehouse (Heaven Hill)

Devil’s Cut

As I will explain in more details in an upcoming post, the whiskey will start penetrating the wood, as the pressure in the barrel increases when the outside temperature rises. Especially during the height of summer, the pressure can be significant. And when the pressure increases, the whiskey is being pushed into the wood (it is trying to escape, to level the pressure).

When the ageing period has ended and it is time to empty the barrels (this is called “dumping”), you roll the bottle over a dumping trough, open the bung hole (sorry, this is actually what it is called) – and simply let the whiskey flow into the trough until the very last drop.

When this is done, you can probably imagine that the barrels are quite wet on the inside. Not only will the barrels be wet, but there is a significant amount of whiskey still “trapped” inside the wood. For a 53-gallon barrel it can be as much as 2 gallons and sometimes even more! The whiskey still trapped inside the barrel is referred to as the “Devil’s Cut”.

Since aged whiskey is precious, some manufacturers go through a process of extracting that whiskey. There are different techniques, but a common one is to fill the barrel about one third with water – rotate the barrels frequently over a few days – and then dump the liquid in a trough again. The taste profile is very different from the first dump (as there are more tannins in the trapped whiskey, stemming from the wood) – and the proof is obviously much lower, given all the added water.

This second dumping of the Devil’s Cut can now be used for blending with the whiskey from the first dump – or for other purposes.  Jim Beam has trademarked one of their products “Jim Beam Devil’s Cut”, where they blend the whiskey from the two dumps.

Jim Beam’s Devil Cut

As you may know, used Bourbon barrels are sold to whiskey manufacturers around the world for ageing purposes. Especially in Scotland, they use a lot of used Bourbon barrels. If you sell the used barrels, you typically do not do a second dumping on those, as the buyers prefer barrels that still have some Bourbon in them.

So, there you have it: “Angel’s Share” is the nickname for the whiskey that evaporates during the ageing process – and “Devil’s Cut” is the nickname for the whiskey still trapped inside the wood in the barrels.

And that concludes this lesson.

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