This may come as a shock, but most Scotch whiskies are artificially colored with “spirit caramel”. Whisky post distillation is colorless. Scotch is then aged in charred oak barrels, which imparts color, but it rarely gets darker than a translucent gold. Many distilleries then add artificial caramel coloring to turn the whisky into an appropriate shade of amber. 

So Why is Whisky Brown?

There are dark spirits, such as whisky, and clear spirits, such as vodka or gin. What’s the difference?

The flavors, aroma etc. of the spirit that comes out after the fermentation and distillation may vary slightly based on a number of factors, including the number of times the liquid has been distilled, the nature of the cut taken, the type of grains and yeast used, the quality of the water and the metal in the pot stills used. However, there is a uniform feature – the liquid will always be colorless given that it is a mix of ethyl alcohol and water produced in various concentrations.

A Major Source of Color is Aging

Differences in color arise in the steps post the distillation. The simple difference between Scotch whisky and clear spirits (like gin or vodka) is aging. By law, Scotch whisky must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum period of three years. As a practical matter, most higher end Scotches, especially single malt whiskies, are aged in pre-used barrels (bourbon or sherry being common choices) for periods that often exceed 10 years. By contrast, vodka or gin is not aged (though some expressions may be “finished” in a barrel for a couple of months) – so they remain clear in color.

The wood of the barrels, which has been toasted and charred to release wood sugars from the inner surface, interacts with the alcohol during aging. Certain flavors are imparted along the way – the longer the liquid stays within the barrel, the more balanced the mix between the original distillate flavors/aromas and the subsequent compounds released from the wood. Vanilla and chocolatey flavors, plus other undercurrents such as fruity aromas and mouthfeel, add to the final product.

One of the major elements that comes through is color. The longer the whisky stays in the barrel, the more golden or light amber it tends to become. This is one of the reasons behind the consumer preference for aged whisky – the assumption being that darker coloration can be equated to more enhanced flavor, aroma and mouthfeel due to a longer time spent in the barrel.

As we mentioned at the outset, though, the color imparted through aging is only part of the story.

Whisky Colours

Is Whisky Artificially Colored? And Why?

At the risk of offending purists who say that Single Malt Scotch should not have any artificial elements in it, the amber coloration end consumers see is often produced by E150a caramel coloring (more on this below). So, why do many, if not most, brands mix in caramel coloring?

The main reason bottlers and marketers may add caramel coloring before they release their finished bottles of Scotch whisky is to create an appropriately dark hue, consistent with what the perceived expectation would be. While there are some who feel that artificial caramel coloring can also produce certain hints of flavor and taste (such as a subtle chocolatey flavor) that add to what has been naturally produced during distillation and aging, there is not much scientific evidence to support this position. Instead, most end bottlers seek to ensure consistency across different batches produced – an effect that would be much harder to accomplish without the addition of artificial caramel coloring.

Some of the specifics of how spirit caramel coloring adds to the final Scotch Whisky product are discussed in further detail below. 

What is Spirit Caramel and Why is it Added to Whisky?

Spirit caramel refers to caramel coloring that is created by burning sugars (e.g. fructose and glucose) to produce a range of colored syrups that range from golden to dark brown. The Scotch Whisky Act of 2009 stipulates that the only ingredients that may be added to spirits are water and caramel coloring – a provision that many distilleries utilize to produce a uniform amber coloration for their marketed product. The common coloring used in Scotch is classified as E150 in Europe and Class 1 in the US. There are four different classes – A through D.

The most common variety of caramel coloring used as an artificial additive in Scotch whisky is E150a, which is typically flavor neutral and does not contain any harmful or noxious chemicals or residues such as sulphates or ammonium.

The laws are different in the US. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau allows some American whiskeys to add up to 2.5% of caramel coloring. E150b is also used as artificial coloring in the US, along with E150a. The only exception is “straight” bourbon, whose only source of color can be what is imparted from the barrel. In general, there are two factors – aging in a new barrel and the ability to add significant caramel coloring – that tend to produce American whiskies that appear darker in color than Scotches.

The flip side of this statement is important to consider: Scotch whisky is aged in used (bourbon, sherry etc.) barrels. Even though the wood is livened up (re-charred etc.) prior to use, a used barrel is not going to impart as much color as a new oak barrel would. This means that the average Scotch cask will likely produce less coloration through aging than the average Bourbon cask. So, some spirit caramel may aid in darkening the hue appropriately.

Is Darker Whisky Better?

A common sight at tastings and/or during introduction of new expressions is for a glass of whisky to be held up to the light in order to let the audience appreciate the ‘rich, dark color’. This commonly held perception perpetuates an enduring myth that darker whisky is better.

This is unlikely to be the case in reality, given that a majority of brands and expressions choose to add E150a coloring – a class of caramel coloring chosen precisely because it does not change the flavor in any significant way. In other words, the underlying quality of the libation is rarely different, it’s only the appearance of the Scotch that gets altered through coloring. The skillful and proportionate addition of caramel coloring can add to the colors imparted through aging in wood barrels, pleasing the eye with an acceptable shade of amber.

As a case in point of how darker is not better, there are many well-known, prime whiskeys that do quite well among their connoisseurs without adding caramel coloring. Among them is the oldest whisky in the world (the Glenavon Special Liqueur Whisky, bottled between 1851 and 1858), which is described as a pale gold liquid. There are many such examples to be found.

Does Caramel Affect the Flavor?

There are competing viewpoints on this. Despite some people believing that caramel coloring imparts some flavor and aroma to the end product, most studies and taste tests have found that not to be the case. The minute amounts of additives (in most Scotches, its 0.1% by volume) and the nature of the variant chosen (E150a) both make it unlikely that anything beyond the color of the bottled Scotch whisky will be impacted.

By contrast, Bourbon can add up to 25 times the amount of caramel coloring (2.5% by volume) compared to Scotch and may add in E150b, so there is a greater chance of there being a difference in flavor with the use of spirit caramels in that case.

List of Distilleries/Brands that Do Not Add Artificial Coloring

While it’s common to add caramel coloring to maintain consistency in look and feel, there are a number of distilleries who shy away from this practice – either across all their brands or for selected ones. This is especially true for independent distillers and bottlers. The trend among the larger houses with international distribution networks has often been to opt for consistency across a batch and use coloring. There are exceptions, though, such as Macallan. Below is a list of distilleries (with specific brands or expressions mentioned in parenthesis in a number of cases) that do not use artificial coloring in their final product(s):
  1. Ardbeg (10-year, Corryvrecken, Uigeadail)
  2. Arran
  3. Balblair
  4. BenRiach (Albariza 18 Years, Dunder 18 Years and Latada 18 Years)
  5. Benromach (Organic)
  6. Bladnoch
  7. Bruichladdich (Hart Brothers 20 years)
  8. Bunnahabhain (12- and 18-Years)
  9. Deanston (12-Years)
  10. Edradour (10-Years)
  11. Glencadam (10-, 15- and 21-years)
  12. GlenDronach (Hielan 8-Years, 12-Years, Allardice 18-Years, Tawny Port 18-Years, Parliament 21-Years and Peated)
  13. Glenfarclas (15- and 17-Years)
  14. Glenglassaugh (Evolution, Revival, Torfa)
  15. Glengoyne (12-Years)
  16. Glenrothes (Sherry Cask Reserve)
  17. Glen Scotia (10-, 12-, 16- and 21-years)
  18. Hazelburn
  19. Highland Park
  20. Inchmurrin
  21. Kilchoman
  22. Kilkerran
  23. Ledaig
  24. Longrow
  25. Macallan (ALL Vintages)
  26. Octomore
  27. Port Charlotte
  28. Springbank (15-Years)
  29. Talisker (Skye)
  30. Tobermory (15-Years)
  31. Tullibardine
The list above has been collected from multiple sources – it keeps changing as different distilleries decide to follow their own instincts and feedback from the market.

The Final Verdict on Color

The list above shows that 30+ of the 120+ Scottish distilleries do not use artificial coloring in some or most of their different brands or expressions. Extrapolating from that, we can posit that around 25% of the distilleries are not using caramel coloring, while 75% do so. The debate will continue to rage on between the purists who abhor the use of caramel coloring, and those who do not care whether there is a tiny bit of artificial coloring added to their favorite brand.

On the whole, though, it’s safe to say that spirit caramel additives are a helpful tool for many Scotch marketers and will continue to be used.