Is There Sugar in Scotch Whisky?

The short answer about whether there is sugar in Scotch Whisky is “no”, there should not be – due to what distillation entails. However, as you will see below, some nominal quantities of sugar do creep in during ageing and more importantly, during the finishing process when many, if not most, Scotches have caramel colouring adding.

Even with all of that, the sugar content in whisky is negligible – as it is in other highly distilled spirits. You are more at danger of having many times more sugar ingested through mixers such as colas or orange juice than if you were to sip a glass of pure Scotch.

As mentioned above, distilled spirits such as Scotch will have nominal quantities of sugar – and usually designated as “0 grams of sugar”. There should be no traces really after distillation, though a quantity may be added back later as we will see below.

Do Fermentation and Distillation Affect Sugar Levels?

Fermentation and Distillation are the main reasons that sugars tend to disappear from highly distilled alcohol. The process of fermentation is carried out by yeast “eating” the sugars in the barley and grains to produce (“excrete”) ethanol and other congeners – essentially, all sucrose is consumed though some residual xylose and glucose may creep back in later (see under ageing below). The consumed yeast, and what remains of the barley/grains, are mostly left-back in the “wort”. The little amounts of residual sugar do not evaporate, so they too sink in the residual mush left at the bottom of the pot still and do not go over to the whisky still.

Successive rounds of distillation tend to remove any impurities that have carried through to the “low wine” or “feint” – since the cut of alcohol taken out to the whisky still typically excludes the congeners boiling at temperatures significantly lower than ethanol, as well as those that will boil at significantly higher temperatures.

For these reasons, well-distilled spirits come out with as close to zero sugar as possible.

During Ageing

It has been scientifically proven that during the toasting and charring process that oak casks go through when they are being prepared to hold the newly distilled ethanol, the hemicellulose in the wood “degrades” or is made alive and reactive to a degree, causing the release of xylose or glucose along with the “furan” that is desired. So, while ageing adds flavour, texture and mouthfeel, along with vanilla flavour that distillers talk about, a small amount of sugar is also imparted from the wood to the spirit held within the casks.

One thing to note that the “life” inside the oak casks is stronger in the early days – which is why bourbon or sherry hold more sugar than the average Scotch. However, since a bourbon or sherry cask is rejuvenated by toasting and charring prior to being used to hold Scotch, a certain amount of sugars may still creep in as the ethanol reacts with the wood.

Bourbon Barrel Stack

Does Bourbon Contain Sugar?

The ageing process, and sugar added therein, is one of the reasons that Bourbon has more sugar in it than the average Scotch. The new casks, after being posted and charred, simply have more “juice” in them, imparting more sugars to the alcohol.

There are some other reasons that Bourbon may consider more sugar than the average Scotch. Some types of Bourbons (this is true of some other varieties of whiskeys, as mentioned below) will add some flavour to the end product by adding in the sour mash produced during the fermentation – essentially the wort produced is added back into the distillate (a second, related method is called “wort souring”). Doing this does impart a distinctive sour flavour that many Kentucky and other whiskey distillers in the US swear by – but it also has the effect of picking up some of the residual sugar in the mash.

In spite of the above, the amount of sugar in Bourbon is still negligible – it’s just that it’s higher than the average Scotch. One reason for this is the ruling by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in the US that for a bourbon to be considered regular (aged below two years) or “straight” (aged a minimum of two years) – it cannot have anything, but water, missed in. So, Bourbon gets its colour from the barrel and not from any other additives. Similarly, rye, corn and wheat whiskeys manufactured in the US, if labelled “straight”, cannot contain caramel colouring.

This is different with Scotch and some other American whiskeys as mentioned below.

Other Whiskies that Contain Sugar

There are, however, a number of whiskies that do contain sugar. There are a number of possible reasons, but in most cases, it has nothing to do with the distilled ethanol – that still has little or no sugar. But cheaper varieties of many alcohols, including types of whiskeys, will add flavouring and even sugars to make the harsher tastes more palatable to the average consumer.

Examples of such “sweet” of “flavoured” whiskeys are Sortilege (Canadian Rye Whiskey with Maple Syrup) and Drambuie (Scotch & Honey) among the well-established, higher-end brands, and Fireball, Red Stage or any number of cheaper whiskeys on the US market especially.

In conclusion, it is unlikely that good quality Scotch, Bourbon, Rye or Irish Whiskeys would contain much sugar. Certain other whiskeys (not regular bourbon or any whiskey labelled as “straight”) are allowed to add up to 2.5% of caramel colouring, so some other sugar may find its way into them.

Caramel Coloring Makes a Small Difference

A little-known fact, which has been known to cause some consternation to purists, is that it’s very common to have caramel colouring added to Scotch whisky. The normal reasoning is simply brand consistency. While ageing in bourbon or sherry casks is what is theoretically supposed to produce a Scotch whisky’s colouration, the truth of the matter is that even 12+ years of ageing, the libation will rarely acquire more than a light hay colour.

As a result, most Scotches do use caramel colored water, as is expressly allowed under the Scotch Whisky Act of 2009 – the stipulation being that the only ingredients that can be added to the distilled spirit are water and caramel colouring. Scotch distillers take advantage of this rule to produce darker coloured whisky, since such a colouration is typically associated by their customers as proof of adequate ageing.

So, what does caramel colouring do in terms of adding some sugar content? For the answer, let’s consider how caramel colouring is produced.

Caramel colouring is made by burning sugars like fructose and glucose until it turns into a beautiful, dark syrup. The most common version of caramel colouring is E150 (a European nomenclature) or Class 1 (an American nomenclature). The colours range from golden yellow to dark brown. The most commonly used variation is E150a, since it doesn’t have any harmful chemicals or other residue such as sulfates or ammonium.

Given the above, it’s impossible for caramel colouring to not add some sugar to the finished whisky – but the amount is negligible. Despite protestations from purists, distillers use very little caramel coloured water in the finished product – so it’s unlikely that the Scotch you drink will contain a lot of sugar.

Assorted Spirits

Sugar in a Shot of Whisky in Comparison with the Average Spirit

In general, distilled drinks do not have much sugar. While dessert wines may have as much as 8 grams of sugar per serving, white wine has about 2-4 grams and red wine has less than 1 gram. Beer will typically never have as much sugar as white wine, unless it’s flavoured.

In terms of distilled spirits, none of them contains much sugar in them due to the distillation – vodka (which can be distilled five times on a regular basis) and tequila have possibly the least amount of sugar. Rum, gin and whisky also have negligible traces, unless sugars are mixed in on occasion as described above.

The picture is different with the following types of alcohol:

1. Spiced Drinks – Anytime a libation is “spiced”, such as spiced rum or whisky, there are decent chances that sugary substances have been added.

2. Liqueurs – Many liqueurs have much higher sugar content than liquor, up to 10 grams per shot. Liqueurs are defined as flavoured and sweetened distilled liquor, which consist of taking a fruity base, such as brandy and sweetening the mix with the addition of a sugar syrup consisting of more than 2.5% by volume.

3. Brandies, Plum Wines, Cognac – Talking of flavoured drinks, many types of brandies, cognac etc. have some sugar added – but not in substantial amounts, typically less than 2 grams of sugar per litre.

4. Certain Brands of American whiskies, even certain batches of well-known houses such as Jack Daniels, have added sugar due to the TTB 2.5% rule.

The Main Culprits

As mentioned towards the beginning of this article, the major culprits are sugary additives – mixers such as colas, orange juices etc. Two popular examples will illustrate this point. Vodka and cranberry juice, a very popular cocktail, contains 60% of your daily sugar intake. Gin and tonic, often considered safe, is anything but – since a standard serving will have up to four teaspoons of sugar. Margaritas, Bloody Mary’s – the list goes on.

The Verdict

If you are looking to cut down on sugars, choose distilled liquors and not sugar-infused concoctions. Also, avoid mixers or cocktails that add substantial amounts of sweet stuff into your drink. Overall, your whisky (either Scotch or “straight” Bourbon or similar drinks) will have little or no sugar. So, while you do have to watch the calories and alcohol content, you don’t need to worry about sucrose.