Spirit Caramel (E150A) whisky

Most Scotch, and many Irish whiskies are coloured with the addition of E150A food coloring (commonly known as spirit caramel). That this is not only the case with blends, but also with most single malts which is the reason few topics, outwith No Age Statement whiskies and chill-filtration are as controvertial among whiskey connoisseurs.

Why are Whiskies Coloured?

Whiskies are coloured for cosmetic reasons, in part because darker whiskies are percieved as as older, and in part to ensure consistency between the various casks.

Colouring For Normalisation

Casks used for maturation, such as ex-bourbon barrels and Sherry butts, will impart different colouring depending on how often they have been used, and in relation to the length of maturation. First-fill casks naturally give off more colour, than second, third or fourth fills (so-called refill casks). If a master blender is creating a whisky with their focus on flavour then natural variation of colour may result in the final product. To prevent consumers being put off by colour differences between respective vattings a small amount of spirit caramel is added. This is generally known as harmonising or normalisation.

Colouring For Darkening Young Whiskies

A positive side effect, for the producer, of the whiskey colouring is that darker whiskies look older. In the case of younger Scotch whiskies, No Age Statements(NAS) and blends in particular, the manufacturers often give use considerably more colouring. Often to the point that NAS whiskies, almost certainly containing younger whiskies, are darker than age statement whiskies from the same distillery. In these cases the real reason for tinting the whisky with spirit caramel is the promotional value of darker whiskey.

What is Spirit Caramel (E150A)?

Spirit Caramel refers to high molecular weight, brown compounds that are formed when sugar (sucrose or glucose) is heated in the presence of certain tanning accelerators. The chemical reaction that takes place is the so-called Maillard reaction, which takes place during baking and is responsible for the natural color of bread crusts.

Depending on the tanning accelerator used, caramel has a different E number (E150a, E150b, E150c, E150d). E150A, which mainly contains acetic or citric acid as a tanning accelerator, is used to coloring products with a high alcohol content.

Picture of morton refridgerator at Edradour distillery.jpg

Under European legislation E150A can be used without restriction in foods such as cola, and whisky. Unfortuantely while no legal requirement to declare caramel content exists within the United Kingdom by law if E150 is contained within whiskey, this must be declared in a few European countries, Germany included. Thus it is possible for us to know in the main what whiskies are, and are not coloured by caramel.

Does Every Country Colour Whisky?

This practice is generally limited to Scotland and Ireland, happily a number of countries, America included have prohibited the practice entirely. More recently a handful of distilleries in Scotland have commited to a natural production process. The following distilleries now completely dispense with colouring, producing whiskies without adulteration:

  • Arran
  • Balblair
  • Benriach
  • Bruichladdich
  • Edradour
  • Glenallachie
  • Glendronach
  • Glenfarclas
  • Glenglassaugh
  • Glengoyne
  • Glengyle
  • Glen Scotia
  • Highland Park
  • Kilchoman
  • Macallan
  • Springbank
  • Tamdhu

Several independent bottlers such as Signatory and Gordon & MacPhail also offer whisky without coloring as standard.

Can you taste caramel in whiskey?

Spirit caramel cannot be discerned as a taste within whisky however a number of taste tests have concluded that it is possible to discern a change in the taste of a whisky. Put simply there is not a caramel taste that is recognisable among whiskies, instead repeated tests have demonstrated that it is possible to identify a whisky which caramel from a line up of otherwise identical drams

How Does Spirit Caramel Taste?

While the name suggests sweetness in reality spirit caramel is bitter very bitter. The addition of caramel color however does not make whisky sweeter, nor even more bitter but has a rounding effect on the spirit.

Is E150 Safe?

E150A caramel is considered harmless and is permitted for all foods that may contain additives without maximum quantity restrictions. Exposure to the caramel components THI (2-acetyl-4-tetrahydroxybutylimidazole), 4-MEI (4-methylimidazole) and SO2 are considered harmless. For 5-HMF (5-hydroxymethylfurfural) and Furan, the specifications require limitation in future limit. Ammonium sulphite caramel (E150D) is known to cramp and lowers the number of white blood cells in high concentrations.

The Controversy of Coloured Whisky

In the past whiskies were by no means colored, but sold as they came out of the barrel. However any argument to past process is inherently misguided as the whisky drunk today differs significantly from those laid down in decades past. It can be taken as granted that consumers expect their whisky to be brown, regardless whisky colouring for the blended market is an understandable though still objectionable practice if that exceeds normalisation. If that practice continues to whiskies as a promotion of quality it is certainly far worse.

The Deception of Whisky Colouring

Ultimately the criticism of whisky colouration with caramel color is entirely unjustified while the distilleries themselves continue to promote the colour of their whisky as an indicator of quality. If the colouring of whisky is an admitted cosmetic change then to tell consumers to evaluate the whisky based on coloured is to actively decieve them. Do away with the color evaluation and the practice, although dishonest remains disengenous.

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