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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.

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