Natural Color

Natural color

Color in whisky is very difficult to determine. In my studies for wine sommelier at WSET, we looked at red and white wines and determine the grape, viscosity and legs and tears. This because in wine you can determine a lot by looking at the color of the wine, before you even have smelled or taste the wine.  This said, with whisky this is more difficult. This because the whisky industry may add spirit caramel (E150a). I will explain more about that further in my blog.  So first we need to know if color is added to the whisky otherwise is pointless to determine anything.  If the bottle of whisky states no added color or coloring added. you can start looking at you whisky with a whisky coloring chart or a quay cup.  You can then slowly swirl your whisky glass and determine the viscosity by looking at the tears/legs running down your glass. 

new make spirit

In most modern distilleries the new-make spirit emerges from the stills is crystal clear. it gets most of its color from being stored in oak casks /barrels.  The flavor of the new-make spirit is strongly present and the rest of its color and flavors will be added by the use of oak Cask / Barrels.  Want to read more about the use of casks and barrels  Click here

Adding color 

For decades the industry is using caramel coloring for the consistency of their whisky. The use of E150a also known as spirit caramel. this spirit caramel has no taste it only effects the color of the whisky.  A lot of Scottish and other distilleries around the world use E150a for give a consistency to their whisky/whiskey.  It is barred from use in US Bourbon and Rye whiskey’s.  Some distilleries will add the coloring on their bottles or note that they didn’t color their whisky.  If the distillery didn’t add color to their whisky you can determine more from the age and used cask. 


E150a (plain caramel) is “prepared by the controlled heat treatment of carbohydrates (commercially available food-grade nutritive sweeteners which are the monomers glucose and fructose and/or polymers thereof, e.g., glucose syrups, sucrose, and/or invert syrups, and dextrose)” In short, They heat up Carbohydrates, A process called caramelization. Whisky fact: “Today barley is grown in many countries in the temperate zone. For a long time now, the Scottish barley production hasn’t been able to meet the demand for whisky. That’s why Scotland imports parts of their barley but also finished barley malt from other countries such as for example Germany.” Livingbythedram Whisky Blogger

Tears and legs 

Maybe if you are a wine conorsoure you already know about legs and tears. These tears and legs that stick on your glass after tasting will determine the viscosity and the alcohol content of the whisky in your glass.  Tears that run down your glas slowly will properly determine that the alcohol content in your glas is higher.  It can also tell you the thickness / viscosity of your whisky. for example the use of bourbon barrels or the use of PX cask. The viscosity of the whisky can be higher. But keep note that the difference is minimal.  Be aware that this tells you nothing about the quality of the product. 

Color Range 

The color range of a whisky/whiskey (if they didn’t add E150a) can be determine by a color chart like here below. With this color chart you can give give the whisky in your glass and its color a name and determine dept and possibly age. Know that it isn’t the same as with wine but you can see the difference between a young (NAS) whisky in bourbon cask or a old aged whisky matured in Oloroso cask.  Bourbon barrels give an more golden and amber color Sherry/ Wine casks give a more darker color like ruby or tawny   The longer a whisky is matured in a cask of barrel the darker the color will be. But keep in mind that it will also depends if its a 1st Fill or 2nd Fill cask/ barrel is. The cask/ barrel will lose its maturation effect with every time it is used, and how long it is used for maturing whisky.  wanne read more about this ? Click here
Whisky color chart

So does it matter ?

My personal opinion is that the whisky that I drink must be as pure as it can be. This means:
  • No adding color,
  • Non chill filtered
  • Cask strength.
But this being said, I understand why the whisky brands add these E150a to their whiskies. The consumer looks for the dark color and thinks its better.  This will means that you are likely to buy the darker colored whisky then the lighter colored whisky. You think it taste better, is matured longer and is better in quality. The problem is that if its not noted on the bottle you don’t know if E150a is added too your whisky.  Their have been experiments and reports that professionals and whisky expert can’t taste the difference between a natural color whisky and a whisky with E150a added too them. In blind tasting these experts and professionals havent found the whisky with E150a added. So this will let us know its just for our sight and not for our taste.  I like looking at the natural color of the whisky the same way I like to analyze my wines. Looking at your natural colored whisky can reveal a couple of things: 
  • Age of the whisky
  • Cask maturation 
  • Alcohol strength
I think a lighter colored whisky doesn’t say anything on how its will taste or how long its been aged or matured. If the whisky is matured in a virgin oak cask, it will always be less colored than a whisky being matured in a 1st fill sherry cask. Its just what flavors you prefer in your whisky. 
The Macallan Color wall at The Macallan distillery
The Color wall at the Glengoyne distillery
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