Whisky Tasting: The Colour

If you attend a whisky tasting, or buy a malt whisky online the first part of any review is generally focussed on the colour of the whisky. Unfortunately while the colour can tell us a lot about the age, and the barrel used whisky colouring is often altered using e150a (caramel) food colouring.

What Gives a Whisky Its Colour?

The colour of a whisky is a result of contact with the oak barrel the whisky matured in, so the size and condition of the barrel, it’s previous content and maturation all affect the colour of your whisky. The older the whisky the darker you can expect it to be, though this can’t be said in reverse a dark whisky is not always indicative of an older age statement.

Melanoidins From the Oak Barrel

When whisky, technically called new make spirit until its at least three years old, is first distilled it is crystal clear with no trace of colour when it arrives in the spirit safe. The whiskies colour is primarily the consequence of melanoidins (high molecular weight heterogeneous polymers) which are created during the breakdown of cellulose. The longer a whisky has been aged the darker the spirit generally is.

Condition of the Barrel

American law requires that any bourbons must be matured exclusively in new oak barrels, Scotch, and most other whiskies have no such restrictions. As a consequence bourbon’s are typically much darker than other whiskies of comparable ages. It’s not unknown for Scotch distillers to re-use barrels three or even four times before these are scraped and re-charred, a process referred to as rejuvenation, each subsequent use means results in a lighter spirit than would have been achieved during the previous maturation. For this reason first fill whiskies, whiskies matured after these have been used for bourbon, are often prized above others

Barrel Size

Smaller barrels by virtue of having a lower wood surface to spirit ratio, and of course less whisky, result in a much darker hue than would be achieved by a larger barrel. A quarter cask with an 80 litre capacity or American bourbon barrels with a 190-200 litre capacity for example will result in a far darker whisky than could be achieved with a 250 litre Hogshead. While American bourbon barrels are by far the most common source of staves used to produce scotch it’s not uncommon for these to be turned into considerably larger barrels when reassembled by the cooper.

The Previous Content

The history of the barrel has a huge impact on not just the flavour profile but also the colour, whisky matured in American oak barrels (Quercus alba) from the American bourbon industry will result in a golden yellow or honey colouring, whisky matured in European oak (Quercus robur) sherry buts will result in a much darker amber hue. While the below list is not exhaustive it gives a useful overview of the impact the previous resident can have on a whisky colour profile;
Predecessor Type of liquid Resultant Colour Change
Bourbon whiskey golden
Burgundy wine dark red
Madeira fortified wine dark, amber
Port (sweet) fortified wine red
Port (semi-dry) fortified wine red
Port (dry) fortified wine red
Oloroso sherry red, amber
Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry amber
Fino sherry bright
Manzanilla sherry bright
Amontillado sherry amber
Palo Cortado sherry brown
Sauternes wine bright to amber
Bordeaux (red) wine red
Tokaji wine bright to amber
Ruby Port fortified wine red
Barolo wine red
Chardonnay wine bright
Moscatel (white) wine bright
Moscatel sherry amber
Rum (white) spirit bright
Rum (dark) spirit amber
Amarone wine red
Marsala fortified wine dark red

E150a Caramel Colouring

One of the most controversial and divisive decisions in the whisky making community is over the use of caramel food colouring to manipulate the colour profile of whisky. While a full explanation of this process the motivations and the reactions will be the subject of another article for now I’ll focus on the impact this has on the colour. whisky colouring Created by caramalising sugar E150a is a dark bitter brown liquid which in only very small quantities has a profound darkening effect on the colour of any liquid it’s added to. Caramel colouring is used for two reasons:

Colour harmonising Malt Whisky

While distilleries release age statements and signature lines these cannot remain perfectly consistent from run to run. Each single malt is created by blending together the single malts, of no younger age than the age statement, from the distillery to produce a balanced and consistent whisky however these have aged in different barrels, generally experienced different temperatures and may not look comparable. Knowing that colour is often associated with quality and fearing that consumers will perceive a lighter version of their whisky less favourable distilleries often add caramel colouring, in addition to making other cosmetic changes such as chill filtration to ensure consistent colour and look.

Darkening Young Whiskies

Cheapt colourless whiskyAs whiskies darken with age conversely incredibly young whiskies lack almost any colouring, Glenmorangie original for example is an incredibly light straw like yellow which is achieved by adding E150a caramel colouring! If you’ve ever encountered an incredibly cheap whisky such as the Tesco Everyday Value Blended Scotch Whisky shown to the right you’ll know that these lack any suggestion of age, beyond their colour. Producing a whisky is incredibly expensive compared to other spirits, the cost of the wood alone can add as much as 15% on to the price, then it must be aged for at least three years. Producing a whisky in older, and thus less valuable barrels, for only a period of three years will result in a whisky that more closely resembles vodka. Given that this is less likely to sell the producers understandably add colouring. Similarly younger whiskies can be given a darker hue by adding only a few drops of caramel, making them far more attractive to consumers.

Does Whisky Colour Matter?

While some distilleries refuse to play the caramel game with their younger whiskies, something which is unlikely to change with the growing number of No Age Statement whiskies on offer, they are for the moment at least in the minority. The colour of your whisky only matters if it’s unadulterated, that is not to say sight can’t still teach you a thing or two about your whisky such as its ABV, the addition of caramel might be to bring consistency, or even to colour to expectation but it makes the colour somewhat meaningless as an indicator of its age or the barrel.