Why is whiskey bottled with at least 40% alcohol?
If you order any Scotch in a bar, you will often receive a spirit in the glass that has exactly 40% alcohol. This minimum strength is required for Scotch whiskey.
That was not always the case: at the beginning of the 20th century, the alcohol content of whiskey was usually between 44.6% and 48.6%, i.e. significantly higher. The somewhat crooked numbers resulted from the fact that the British gave the values in proof and thus in their own unit of measurement.
When Britain entered World War I, so did pressure on Scottish whiskey distillers. Because if you drink a lot of whiskey, you don't work well - and reliable workers were needed to manufacture weapons and other war goods.
How it came about that whiskey has to be stored for at least three years
The British Treasury Secretary David Lloyd George was a staunch abstainer and open opponent of alcohol. He made repeated efforts to curb the widespread consumption of alcohol.
Curiously, this involuntarily introduced the minimum storage period of three years for Scotch whiskey, which is still valid today.
Here's how it happened: In 1915, David Lloyd George wanted to double taxes on alcohol. The influential whiskey manufacturers were able to prevent this, however, with the assurance that they would store their Scotch whiskey in oak barrels for at least three years in the future. In this way, the amount of available whiskey should be reduced in the short term. The mandatory minimum alcohol content of whiskey was set at 37.2% in the hope that the distilleries would now also sell less bottled qualities.
It is interesting that the minimum storage period for whiskey, which is still valid today, has little to do with quality assurance, but can be traced back to this political horse-trading, even if many whiskey distilleries like to present it differently today.
Ultimately, however, the introduction of the minimum storage period led to Scottish whiskey establishing itself as a premium spirit worldwide and increasing its quality. Because before that time whiskey was not necessarily a quality product - it was often not stored or sold in wooden casks after a few months of maturation.
Why whiskey must have at least 40% alcohol today
But Lloyd George did not give up and tried again and again to lower the alcohol content of the whiskey. Under his leadership as Prime Minister, he enforced in 1917 that whiskey was only allowed to have between 28.6% and 40% alcohol.
After another tax hike in 1920, manufacturers were banned from adding taxes to the whiskey price. Bottling and selling whiskey above 40% alcohol became uneconomical for a few years. After the war, manufacturers and consumers got used to this new lower limit for filling strength.
In the Scotch Whiskey Act of 1988, the usual 40% alcohol for Scotch whiskey was legally required as a minimum content. The old defacto upper limit had become a new lower limit.
This was also done in contrast to other spirits such as rum or gin, which only need to be bottled with at least 37.5%.
How does alcohol content affect whiskey taste?
Alcohol is a flavor carrier and plays a role in whiskey that should not be underestimated: It is not for nothing that Cask Strength whiskeys are enjoying growing popularity. Anyone who tastes single malts with 46% or more will find that these stronger whiskeys often have a more complex and distinctive taste.
Therefore, there tend to be whiskeys for beginners, which are bottled at 40%. The current minimum alcohol content is a good compromise which helps to ensure the quality of whiskey. Historically, it could have been worse for us whiskey connoisseurs with 28.6% as the minimum value.
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