“A warming spring sunrise on a barley field”
“Deep burnished copper”
“The tanned leather of your father’s favourite boat shoes”
There’s a lot of variety in the world of whisky colours, and an even longer list of evocative, descriptive terms for the amber liquid. But what does colour actually mean for your dram? And where does it come from?
If we ignore the massive elephant in the room for now, the simple answer is casks. New make spirit (the stuff that comes straight off the still) is water clear before we put it into oak, and this time spent maturing is where whisky gets its colour. There’s a whole host of variables that can influence this colour, and they all point to the type, condition and past life of the casks used to age the spirit. Whilst only oak casks are permitted for Scotch whisky nowadays, there’s still plenty of variety to be found:
There’s hundreds of different oak types, but the three commonly used for whisky are Quercus Alba (American White Oak), Quercus Robur (European Oak) and Quercus Mongolica (Japanese Oak). Each of these effects flavour differently, and we could write a whole blog just about that, they also produce slightly different colours in a whisky. Warmer hues for the American and Japanese, brighter hues for the European.
Casks are used multiple times in their life cycle, and subsequent fills will change in both intensity and colour. Think of the cask as a good tea, the first infusion can leave a big impression, then subsequent infusions can allow other elements to shine. As for colour development in whisky, you’ll get less intensity the more times a cask has been used.
Very few (and I mean a truly tiny percentage) of oak casks used in Scotland are “virgin”, i.e. never been used before. Most casks will have been used to age a different product before hand, or otherwise been “seasoned” with another liquid first, which is preferable to most single malt producers. Ex-Bourbon casks are the most prevalent, usually producing light amber tones, followed by ex-Sherry casks which produce a richer, more auburn colour. There’s also red wine and port casks, producing everything from deep reds to subtle pinks, and a whole host of others, like beer casks, that can produce a very wide palette of colours indeed.
Before use, casks will be toasted and/or charred, which seasons the oak and alters the flavours it will produce in a whisky. Charred casks are quite literally burnt inside, producing a layer of charcoal that acts like a filter for the spirit, often removing unwanted flavours and, alter the level of colour entering the spirit. This is especially noticeable in STR-red wine casks that we use. These casks start life aging red wine for 5/6 years, before we Shave a layer of wood from the inside, Toast the cask, basically caramelising the inside, then Re-char them ready to use. These casks produce rich spice and chewy fruit flavours, along with deep mahogany hues.
A fairly obvious point, and quite like the tea brewing analogy before, the longer you leave it the darker it’ll get. Time in cask is often the biggest influence on colour intensity.
NOW, ABOUT THAT ELEPHANT...
In Scotland, whisky makers have the option of partaking in the controversial practise (read “evil dark art”) of adding E150 caramel colouring before bottling. Regulations permit the addition of plain caramel colouring to Scotch whisky for the purpose of “consistency”. The argument being that different batches of the same whisky can be slightly different colours due to cask variations. Buyers might be put off by these variances, so a tiny amount of E150 is added to keep the colour in line.
Whilst these drams might look more consistent, everything that we could have discerned by looking before is thrown out the window. Less than helpful. There’s also something rather misleading about artificially making a whisky darker, when we know that time in cask is an enormous influence on colour. Whilst it’s not an outright lie about the spirits age printed on the side of the bottle, it does at the very least muddy the waters (pun very much intended).
Not only that, but within the context of the extremely stringent regulations governing Scotch’s production and labelling (i.e, no tree other than oak to be used for casks, each cask must be no larger than 700 litres and no age other than the youngest age of the whisky in the bottle can be mentioned), this seems like an anomaly in an otherwise natural and traditional product.
But the most important question here is “does it affect taste?”. E150, if you’ve ever had the displeasure of tasting it by itself, is an intensely bitter and very unenjoyable substance. Whilst the amount used in an offending bottle is often tiny, to say it has no effect on flavour would be a stretch. On top of this, the old chef’s adage, “we taste with our eyes first” is very true, and your own perception of a whisky can be heavily influenced by its appearance.
You might have guessed by now, but we’re not fans of artificially colouring whisky. So we don’t do it. Ever. We work in small batches, and because of that there may be slight differences in colour between releases. That’s something to be cherished and embraced, much like the bottles we put our actual whisky into, which can vary slightly in colour due to nature of using 100% recycled glass (which you can read more about here).