Colour of the whisky says a lot about the age and maturation of the whisky. Whisky is usually golden to dark brown, but the question is how does whiskey achieve its dark complexion? Does that happen naturally?
The assumption is that the longer a spirit is aged the browner it will appear. The colour of whisky, however, is determined by several factors that include the length of time the spirit remains in the cask, the level of char in the cask, and the type of cask used e.g. reused bourbon, sherry, or virgin oak.
The challenge for the distillers is that re-used casks do not generate the same consistency in colour. One cask may impart a slightly different hue from another. This is where many distilleries compensate the color inconsistencies by adding, sadly, caramel coloring.
For whiskey, caramel coloring is a product of burning sugars like fructose and glucose until they have turned into a dark syrup known as E150a (E stands for European). E150a (plain caramel), unlike E150b (caustic sulfite caramel), E150c (ammonia caramel), E150d (sulfite-ammonia caramel), is free of harmful chemicals or residue such as sulfates or ammonium and only a relatively small percentage is used for color, not for flavor.
In the world of whiskies, Scotch whisky makes the most use of this additive. In fact, the Scotch Whiskey Act of 2009 stipulates that the only ingredients that can be added to the spirit are water and caramel coloring. However, the amount of E150a used cannot affect the overall flavor.
Is caramel coloring a bad thing? Some in the industry claim it is only harmful when it comes to consumer perception. The Scotch whisky industry thinks that adding food coloring improves the look and hence the value. The question is – as single malt Scotch whisky continues its upward trajectory in the market is this an opportunity to make it known to the distillers and others that additives, such as caramel coloring, for whatever reason, are both unneeded and unacceptable. Maybe its time to pair a dram with a touch of activism to enhance the overall experience.