Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Give me strength

Once it has emerged from the still, Scotch whisky is put into oak casks to mature for a minimum of three years, often much more. When it is ready for bottling, it has an alcoholic strength of around 60% ABV, but is typically watered down to 40% (sometimes a little higher) for public sale. Occasionally, limited edition bottlings are made of undiluted whiskies at cask strength, which are obviously much more expensive than the standard product, and are much prized by connoisseurs.

I recently spotted that Jennings had sneakily reduced the strength of bottled Cumberland Ale from 4.7% to 4.0%, to bring it into line with the cask version, and now describe it on the bottle as “cask strength”. Likewise, bottled Marston’s Pedigree, from the same brewing group, which was increased from 4.5% to 5.0% and then reduced again, has “Brewed to cask strength” on the label. While this isn’t untrue as such, it comes across as distinctly disingenuous, given that a cask strength whisky is much stronger than the norm, but a cask strength bottled beer seems to be one that is weaker than it used to be.

Needless to say, there’s no price reduction, even though there’s a saving of about 8p per bottle duty plus VAT on duty. Given that this seems to be happening with more and more beers, isn’t it perhaps time for a two-tier pricing structure to be brought in for premium bottled ales? There’s nothing wrong as such with beers of 4.0% or less, but at present there tends to be no benefit in choosing one in preference to one of 5.0% or more. I would also say that, subjectively, sub-4% beers often taste a bit watery in bottle whereas they are fine on cask, which is maybe a reason why the bottled versions were made a bit stronger in the first place.

I wonder if we’ll see the same happening with other beers like Bombardier, London Pride and Spitfire where the bottled version is currently significantly stronger than the cask.


  1. Oh noes!!!! Did you not read the labels and got stung trying to buy wife beater and ended up with piss water? Scheiße, Scheiße, Scheiße.

    Still, that'll learn ya.

  2. Well yes, I'll have to check the ABV of every bottle I pick off the shelves to make sure it hasn't been stealthily watered down.

    Of course, those who praise beer as "a low-strength drink" will welcome this trend.

  3. They call this sort of thing “streamlining”, and unfortunately companies do it all the time; particularly large ones. I have often wondered whether the bottled beers you mention are actually brewed to a stronger recipe than their cask equivalents, or whether the cask variants are just watered down versions of the higher strength bottled brews.

    I’m not condoning the practice of standardising strengths between cask and bottled variants; particularly when the breweries concerned don’t offer the appropriate reduction in price, but from a logistical and economical point of view I suppose it makes sense.


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