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Caramel in Whisky – Demystifying a Demon

by Oliver Klimek on February 16, 2012

E150a, spirit caramel… Mention this substance to seasoned maltheads and chances are that you will get their blood pressure rising. Few things are as controversial in the whisky world as caramel colouring, maybe only the concept of chill-filtration manages to evoke similar emotions. Many experienced whisky drinkers are strongly opposed to caramel colouring, but judging from discussions on blogs, whisky forums and social media platforms, facts and fiction about caramel get mixed up at times. Time to have a closer look at that unloved substance.

What Is Caramel Colouring?

The caramel used for colouring whisky and other spirits has been assigned the E number E150a. If there is E150a, there may also be E150b, E150c and so on, right? Indeed. There are four types of caramel colourings that differ by their ways of production. E150a is plain caramel made by heating carbohydrates (sugar) only. E150b is made with sulfite compounds, E150c is made with ammonium compounds and E150d uses both sulfite and ammonium compounds. The different types are used according to the chemical properties of the substances they are added to.

Spirit caramel is a highly concentrated water-soluble liquid that is almost black in colour. A tiny amount is sufficient to make a bottle of water look like whisky.

Used by large parts of the whisky industry, caramel colouring has been added for two main purposes:

1. Harmonizing Colour

Whisky Producers defend the use of caramel with the argument that the majority of buyers expect their dram to have the same colour whenever they buy a new bottle. Fair enough, and this may certainly hold true for the mass market. Pet peeve of critics is the use of caramel for single malts, sometimes even for high end bottlings in the triple digit price range.

A different kind of harmonization may be the answer for some of those bottlings, examplified here by the Fettercairn 30 and 40 year old single malts. Perhaps whisky producers also think that buyers would appreciate it when different expressions have the same colour.

2. Making Whisky Look Darker

A side effect of colour harmonization is that the whisky always becomes darker. And making it darker certainly was the original reason why whisky makers began to use caramel in the first place. The longer a whisky stays in the cask, the darker it gets, so the psychological implication ‘darker = older = better’ is to be exploited here.

How much of today’s colouring practice really is only done for harmonization remains a secret of the whisky industry. It would be highly interesting to see uncoloured versions of whiskies that are normally treated with caramel.

Debunking A Few Myths About Caramel

Some misconceptions about caramel keep popping up that are just not right:

1. Caramel colouring of whisky is a recent phenomenon – No!

Caramel has been used for many decades. It is not exactly known when the whsky industry started to use it, but there is evidence that it was already used in the early 20th century.

2. Caramel colouring of whisky can cause cancer – Very unlikely!

There are reports floating around that caramel colouring contains substances that are considered carcinogenic. But this accounts only for the ammonium based E150c and E150d. E150a used for whisky is not under suspicion here. A connection between cancer and plain caramel has not been found by any scientific study so far. By the way, E150d is used in acidic soft drinks like cola.

3. Spirit caramel tastes of caramel – No!

I have read claims by whisky drinkers that they were able to taste the caramelly tang of coloured whisky. I have even seen an instructional video on Youtube where the ‘expert’ states he actually likes caramel coloured whiskies because they match so well with desserts.

E150a is so highly caramelized that it does not taste sweet anymore. It actually tastes bitter. If you keep heating pure white sugar, it will turn brown first to give the familiar caramel used for sweets. But then it turns darker and darker untill all chemically bound water has evaporated, leving behind pure black carbon in a great mess, and if you don’t stop heating at the right moment, it will actually turn into a miniature volcano. For making E150a this process is stopped right before the caramel compounds chemically fall apart.

4. Caramel makes a whisky taste worse – Not necessarily!

Now if spirit caramel actually tastes bitter, you might think it must have a negative effect on whisky. But it is not that easy. Back in 2005 the Malt Manaics did a very thorough experiment with E150a. Several single malts as well as spring water and a blend of the used malts were tasted blind at several E150a levels by five maniacs. The overall results were far from being devastating for E150a. Especially the blend benefited from the addition of caramel, proving an old industry ‘secret’ that adding caramel helps in blending.

How To Handle Caramel Coloured Whisky As A Consumer?

Of course everybody has to make up their own minds how they feel about using caramel in whisky. But this should be done in an open-minded an un-prejuduced manner. Here is my personal view:

Do it if you feel you need it, but tell us about it!

I am strongly in favour of adding the declaration of E150a to the legally binding labelling requirements for all whiskies, preferrably as part of the whisky regulations of the whisky producing nations. So far only Germany and Denmark have national laws that demand the declaration of colouring on the label of spirits. Consumers have the right to know, just as they have the right to know if their frozen pizza contains flavourings or their yoghurt contains gelatine.

I have never not bought a bottle of whisky just becuse it was coloured. Many great standard drams like Lagavulin 16 or Talikser 10 are ‘caramelized’. The right to know is more important than the fear of whisky producers that buyers might be repelled by a mandatory mention of caramel on the label. I would suspect the number of those to be very small anyway.

Think Outside The Box

With all the criticism of caramel colouring of whisky – be it informed or not – it may prove interesting to look at other spirits. Just as an example, take cognac. Centuries of tradition, highly regarded as a token of luxury, just like whisky. Are you aware what nasty things cognac (and also armagnac) producers are allowed by law to do with their brandy? In addition to caramel colouring they may add up to 2% sugar syrup after maturation. And then they may use a nifty invention called boisé. If you know some French, you may already guess it. Yes, it is wood extract, made by boiling wood chips in water and then reducing it to a dark brown liquid containing tannins and wood flavour.

Isn’t caramel coloured whisky a clean product in comparison?

Sometimes I have the impression that many people who loudly complain about coloured whisky have no problems drinking E150d infested Coke and snacking artificially flavoured, monosodium glutamate enhanced potato crisps before meeting with their friends to dram with uncouloured, unchillfiltered independently bottled single cask single malts while ranting over the devious practices of the whisky industry.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Steffen Bräuner February 16, 2012 at 10:21 pm

I am no particular fan of E150

It can be used in very small doeses so the colour effect is negible. On the other hand it is often used in a more heavy way, to an extent that colour and taste doesn’t match

Blue Ketchup effect

Steffen

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Oliver Klimek February 16, 2012 at 10:27 pm

I only hinted at his aspect, but this really is the problem of the double whammy harmonization/darkening. This is a grey area and the temptation to push the limits is surely there.

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bloedbabbler February 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Ich halte den Grund des “Der Käufer will einheitliche Farbgebung” für ein vorgeschobenes Argument.
Eher trifft imho der Punkt 2, man will dadurch Qualität vorgeben, egal ob sie da ist oder nicht.
Unterm Strich bleibt es eine Form von Verbrauchertäuschung mittels billigem Zusatzmittel.
Wenn sie den E150-Dreck unbedingt loswerden wollen, dann sollen sie einfach ein Säckchen an den Flaschenhals hängen – zum fröhlichen d.i.y. färben.
Der letzte Absatz ist eine plumpe Unterstellung und nur polemischer Natur – sicherlich mag es diese Menschen geben, ob sie nun gehäuft bei Trinkern von Whiskys auftreten kann ich nicht beurteilen, vermute aber nicht.
Es gibt also, soweit ich den Artikel gelesen habe, eigentlich keinen ernsthaften Grund der dafür spricht etwas wie E150 in den Whisky zu kippen.
Wer seinen Whisky gerne farbig und bunt haben will, der kann ihn ja mit Lebensmittelfarben mixen. :-D

Ihnen Ihr Blödbabbler

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Peter February 17, 2012 at 7:14 pm

I have an aversion to caramel coloring because, in general, I stay away from food and beverage products that contain artificial flavorings and colorants. But I think I’m also turned off by caramel coloring more because of the reasons given for its use than by the use itself. I’ve never once thought I could taste the difference and have certainly never worried about picking up a tumor from the stuff. But I really resent the reason given by several whisky makers for adding coloring to single malts – higher end ones at that – that consumers want that darker color and the consistency that goes along with it. Perhaps that was true 20 years ago, but as we, the single malt drinking public has become more educated, we’re aware that coloring single malts and higher end blends is basically just a trick and an unnecessary one at that. I think far less of a distillery whose 15yo and 18yo look pretty much exactly the same year after year…that’s not how maturation in wood works, that kind of consistency isn’t natural. I know this, most whisky aficionados (their core market) know this, and the distillery knows this, so why the hell do they keep doing it and keep handing out the same tired rationalization for it? That’s really off-putting to me.

I think as cognac becomes more popular with “educated” drinkers, we’ll see more natural products and hear similar debates…or at least I hope so…

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Ryan February 17, 2012 at 10:12 pm

“Straight bourbon” (which is just about any bourbon you’ll buy) cannot contain any artificial coloring. I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about the color inconsistencies… have you? Doesn’t this make it seem a little more silly with the scotch whisky industry claiming that people want color consistency? I think it has to do much more with the argument that people see darker and their enjoyment increases because their expectations change. I’m sure there are lots of people who buy that bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label because of the nice dark color. But once you’re selling single malts in boxes, what’s the point?

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Oliver Klimek February 17, 2012 at 10:25 pm

That’s a great point you make here, Ryan. Jim Beam and Jack Daniels sell millions of gallons of their booze wihtout bothering about inconsistency. Has anybody actually compared the colours of different batches of those to see if they are noticeably different? But of course in fresh cask whisky gets darker quicker anyway ;)

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EricH February 24, 2012 at 4:00 am

I’m not an expert but I have a theory that American whiskey makers maintains color consistency based on barrel locations in the warehouse. Many of the American whiskey distilleries stack their barrels in multistory warehouses where whiskey ages faster (and gets its color) at the higher levels of the warehouse due to temperature variation. Thus the distilleries have darker whiskey with which to batch with lighter whiskey (from the barrels lower to ground level) to get a consistent color.

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Fabvodka November 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm

All bourbon is put into new oak, the colour extraction rate is much higher making the addition of caramel unnecessary. Whisky casks tend to be refilled and so the extraction of colour is lower therefore some distillers will add a bit of caramel.

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Andrew Webb February 22, 2012 at 9:52 am

As a drinker of higher-end single malts, I love the “batch” nature of bottlings. I don’t want consistency – that’s for entry level.

And when you have limited edition, triple-digit price but yet under-strength (< 46%), chill-filtered and artifically coloured whisky… that is the most insane, ridiculous abomination you could foist onto your discerning drinkers. Dalmore, Glenfiddich, etc. – when will you learn? This is the year 2012, not the 1980's.

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henri kwakman October 19, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Dear mr. Webb,

Being an amateur whisky drinker, I appreciated your comments. What would you say is a solid whisky in a lower price range? Is Dalwhinnie any good?

I just bought another Glenfiddich today and noticed the colorants mentioned today.

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Oliver Klimek October 19, 2012 at 7:29 pm

I suggest to have look at my ‘bang for the buck’ list for affordable hogh quality drams:

http://www.dramming.com/top-10-bang-for-the-buck-whiskies/

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Vanbellingen March 11, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Hi everybody
What are we al talking about? Nothing!
For me only 1 thing counts ” enjoying whisky with some whiskymates” and that’s all.
E150 or no E 150 .
That my noble opinion.

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Ben March 13, 2013 at 11:38 pm

What gets me is that tasting notes from Michael Jackson, Whisky Advocate and so forth almost always mention the colour. If colour is generally manipulated at the manufacturer’s whim and has essentially no bearing on flavour or quality, then why is it mentioned by the opinion-makers?

On the other hand, it is well-established that if you think you’re consuming good stuff, you’ll enjoy it more. So if the colour makes you think that it should taste better, then it will taste better. But of course the converse is also true. Le sigh.

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mgnair April 3, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Hi Oliver,
It was very intresting to read your article while having a peg of whisky, great and thanks for the detail about Harmonizing Colour.
Could you post a comparison of whisky and Brandy, if you have some of the details about it.

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Oliver Klimek April 3, 2013 at 10:08 pm

Do you mean brandy as a generic term for distilled wine or specifically Spanish brandy? I know very little about that, but since Cognac is allowed to use caramel I would suspect other types of brandy to use ot too.

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Neil Cake May 31, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Hi,

Thanks for the informative article. I was j.ust doing a bit of research into caramel spirit for an article I’m writing about a brand i bought in vietnam called ‘wall street’ that is a blend of scotch and ‘vietnamese spirit’, which is listed on the ingredients as ‘caramel’. So thanks for the useful info

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Sam Fisher April 6, 2014 at 11:25 pm

Recent study by Consumer Reports on one form of caramel coloring in sodas and syrup suggests a cancer link. From this study, the FDA is supposedly doing a follow-up. Don’t know if 4-Mel is similar to E150, but many foods and drinks are moving away from artificial coloring as more evidence of bad stuff continues to come out.

http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/01/caramel-color-the-health-risk-that-may-be-in-your-soda/index.htm

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Oliver Klimek April 7, 2014 at 7:35 am

Apperently you have not read the article properly. The caramel used for the coloration of whisky is not the potentially dangerous “soda caramel” because it is not made with ammonia which would result in the 4-mel you mentioned. This simply is heated sugar.

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