Smooth, firm and with a great finish. Sounds like the perfect partner right? Well, in a sense it is. But alas, no, it’s not your latest Tinder match, it’s whiskey. The universal spirit that appeals to both sexes (despite Willie Nelson’s belief that “beer is for horses, but whiskey is for men”), whiskey is sexy, classy and possibly the greatest invention since fire. Nothing says an intelligent drinker more than a tumbler of deep amber, single malt in hand. And that depth of colour is important - while clear spirits such as gin might scream party time, golden brown whiskey is all about understated elegance.
While most people’s concern with the water of life is taste, we couldn’t help wondering where does that gorgeous colouring come from?
In short, what gives whiskey its colour is the way and length of time it is aged. Traditionally, whiskey is aged for a minimum of three years in wooden casks. Because whiskey’s natural colour after distillation is clear, the pigments in the wood seep into the spirit, causing the amber colouring that makes whiskey’s colour so distinctive. The longer the whiskey remains in its barrel, the darker it becomes. Thus, darker whiskeys are older whiskeys that have spent far longer in their cask - think up to 50 years in some cases. Right? Erm… Wrong.
Like whiskey itself, there are quite a few mouth-watering layers of information that need to be peeled off before you get your answer.
Does the colour of Whiskey influence its taste?There are many different types of cask used to finish whiskey, depending on what definition of final taste the producer is looking for. Irish whiskey for example (for reasons we won’t go into here) is allowed to age in any type of wood, while scotch whisky must be aged in oak in order to carry the name. Some modern distillers of Irish prefer to use oak anyway, in order to keep the traditional whiskey taste that has made the Emerald Isle’s product so superior to the rest of the world’s. These barrels are made from two types of wood - American and European oak.
However, new oak barrels are expensive and can lack depth and character.
So the Irish whiskey distillers started looking for other, more pocket friendly options to age their whiskey. Enter the bourbon cask. By law, all bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, which gives it its almost mahogany colour. After that, the barrel is worthless to a bourdon distiller, but priceless to a whiskey one. Using a second-hand cask was not only cheaper, but whiskey finished in ex-bourbon casks gave intriguing results (and wowed the US market, thus opening up an additional export channel). It also gave the product a naturally darker colour.
Building on the success of the bourbon experiment, producers began using barrels that once contained other alcohols. These included wine barrels which gave a phenomenal taste range and varied depending on which wine had been previously stored in the barrel. Barrels that had held Bordeaux for example gave flavours of red fruit, cherry and plum to the whiskey, while white wine barrels such as Sauternes led with notes of fresh bread, tarte au citron and crème caramel. This process has now become far more widespread; ex-sherry casks from Jerez in Spain are used for their tertiary finishes of dates and nuts, while the ex-port casks give the contents a more fruity finish. There are great whiskey colour charts out there that help the budding enthusiast decipher how each taste is defined by its colour.
Can you tell the age of a whiskey by its colour?As mentioned, for the most part older whiskeys lean towards darker hues, while those that have only aged for the minimum of three years tend to be paler in colour. However, as barrels lose their colouring power over time, an old whiskey is often (not always) much lighter than a new bourbon, despite having been aged for longer in the cask.
Because of the popular belief that dark whiskeys are higher quality, less traditional producers have begun adding caramel colouring to their product. This is not strictly cheating; the whiskey industry permits the use of colouring in certain blends as long as it doesn't add flavour. For example, it is forbidden in bourbon (look for the word “straight” on the label to be sure), but permitted in Scotch whiskey, other American whiskeys and Canadian whiskey. The additive E150a, known also as “spirit caramel”, is the same colouring used in cookie-type biscuits and, alarmingly, pet food. There are six E150 colourings, each one getting progressively darker in colour.
There is a sentiment that darker whiskeys are older, more flavoursome and thus better quality. The fact that colouring is allowed in whiskey and notably Scotch might come as a bit of a disappointment to some, especially when you think of the romance and rigour that surrounds the Scottish whiskey industry. The addition of E150a in your whisky is only allowed as the additive does not change the taste of your drink; E150a is basically a fancy food colouring to enhance your whiskey’s visual aspect. The other Es - b to d - add taste and there the industry draws the line. Yes, it’s ok to make it look better than it should, but change the taste? That’s a no all round.
While there is no actual damage done by adding spirit caramel to whiskey and whiskies, there is a rising emergence of hardcore whiskey drinkers who want to stop the use of the additive. As we move towards a more natural way of consumption, this does make sense. We don’t want E numbers in our kids’ sweets, so why would we want it in our evening tipple? However, when you buy a bottle of expensive (ergo, dark) whiskey, you are placing as much emphasis on what it represents as well as the taste inside the bottle. And that perception might take some time before it changes.