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Master Of Malt Reference Series Update – E150a Influence

by Oliver Klimek on October 13, 2014

Back in April Master of Malt released a special range of blended malt whiskies that they were going to use for experiments: the Reference Series. Now there have been the first additions to the series, and I was recently sent a sample pack with Reference II and three variations. I will split this into two posts and start with what is definitely the most interesting experiment for geeks: the comparison of the same whisky with and without added caramel colouring, or E150a in Eurospeak.

Reference Series II [re-tasted] – 47.5%

Colour: Straw
Nose: Strong on vanilla and polished wood, hints of pine resin, minimal lemon zest, custard, hints of nutmeg.
Palate: Quite gentle with minimal fruit, vanilla, toasted bread, hints of nuts, nutmeg and cardamom.
Finish: Rather long, spicy and slightly fruity.
Overall: Re-reading my notes from April, I find this less floral than I remember it.

Rating: 83/100 – Price Tag $$$$$ – Value for your Money $$$$$ – Buy at Master of Malt

Reference Series II.3 – 47.5%

Colour: Dark amber
Nose: A bit weaker than the uncoloured version, quite similar not surprisingly, maybe a little less fragrant.
Palate: Really not much of a difference, but it is not quite the same, maybe slightly more robust.
Finish: Rather long, spicy and slightly fruity.
Overall: The difference is very difficult to pin down, There just seems to be a little bit less complexity.

Rating: 83/100 – Price Tag $$$$$ – Value for your Money $$$$$ – Buy at Master of Malt


This comparison was not done blind, so there may be some psychological effect involved. What is certain is that E150a is not “invisible” to nose and palate. But I would say its influence is minimal. Overall I have the impression that it minimally mutes fragrant aromas and overall complexity but minimally enhances the vanilla and mild spice notes.

What I definitively can rule out is that the addition of E150a makes a whisky scream “CARAMEL!” The changes are very subtle, and even with my impression that complexity is slightly affected I would be hard pressed to give those two whiskies different scores. From a geek perspective I would say that unaltered whisky is always better than some that has been fiddled around with, but it is not really worth it to make a lot of fuss about E150a.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Gareth October 14, 2014 at 9:07 pm

“What I definitively can rule out is that the addition of E150a makes a whisky scream “CARAMEL!” The changes are very subtle.”

Do we know if there is ‘a lot’ of caramel in this? If there’s less in this than something like maybe the Loch Dhu or Cu Dubh then it surely can’t really resolve the flavour question one way or the other – it might be subtle here, but not in other commercial releases.

Would they release a £55 whisky as ‘The world’s most caramel-influenced whisky!’?

It’s an interesting release but maybe it needs a set of about 5 on a sliding scale – from something light up to malt whisky gloop? (Just a thought, not sure that idea will be snapped up by a marketing department any time soon.)


Oliver Klimek October 14, 2014 at 9:23 pm

Loch Dhu and Cu Dubh are two extreme examples that in my opinion detract from the fundamental question. These two make no secret that they contain lots of E150a, and logically the influence on the taste will be much bigger.

In this experiment the whisky was darkened from straw to a dark amber hue that is typical for a coloured commercial whisky. Of course there are also darker ones, but there might well be sherry involved too which would mean that the uncoloured version of those would not be as light in colour as the MoM reference whisky.

In short, they used an amount of E150a that should by typical for a coloured commercial whisky bottling. Some may contain a bit more but some may also contain less than in the experiment. I am sure that most coloured whiskies on the market won’t use an awful lot more caramel than here.

Secretly my geeky heart would have wished for a stronger influence. Then I could have pointed my finger at “the industry” and say “Look how you ruin your whisky!”. But it just wasn’t much at all.

If you follow my blog, then you know that I don’t hesitate to point out things that nag me about the whisky industry. But the caramel issue is very much a tempest in a teacup, in my humble opinion.


Dario Grabaric October 15, 2014 at 12:06 pm

I agree both with Dominic and Oliver !
If we get a whisky on a blind tasting, I strongly doubt we’d be able to tell it’s “caramel color influenced”.

The real question is why it is used in the first place?
To make the whisky more matured is IMO totally unnecessary ’cause the influence on smell/taste is way to minimal. It is just a visual effect at the very edge on faking (like photoshopping).
On the other hand, many distilleries use E150a to make their expressions consistent over years (or decades). For my point of view it is unnecessary too. But it is incredible how many people would start asking questions just on the matter of colour, even prior to even be able to taste it.

Anyhow, a great post Dominic. Thanks and slainte !


two-bit cowboy October 16, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Dario said, “… it is incredible how many people would start asking questions just on the matter of colour….”

Exactly true; however, those masses have not heard of E150a, and they likely could not tell you the ingredients of their single malt or blended Scotch whiskies. Aren’t they the very consumers who generated the wide-spread use of coloring and chill filtering to begin with?


Dario Grabaric October 16, 2014 at 5:30 pm

To be honest, the whisky industry generated the use of colouring, decades and decades ago through a keen approach of “the darker – the older – the better”.
Consumers were just a quite fertile soil for that “mind formatting” strategy.
(the “age statement” priniciple was a logical extension)


Jeff October 25, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Right, but the industry’s returned to “the darker – the older – the better” in the form of the Macallan 1824 Series – and through a consistent resistance on the part of most commentators to denounce it. “It is incredible how many people would start asking questions just on the matter of colour” – yes, and good for them, because many professional whisky writers give the “logic” of the 1824 Series a free pass so as not to offend Edrington. So it’s not really a case of the industry outgrowing the idea that “colour matters” so much as resorting to it when there’s no other selling point to promote a whisky around – and age, while no guarantee of quality, and whether stated or not, is not irrelevant TO quality; the whisky’s put in those barrels to improve it; not just to store it. There’s no less “mind formatting” going on today than in the past, except that now the industry wants to have it both ways: age is “irrelevant” as it applies to NAS, but important to the quality, and price, of age statement whiskies – yet every distillery keeps track of the age of EVERY barrel they distill; so much for the “debatable” nature of the importance of age.


kallaskander October 15, 2014 at 10:34 am

Hi there,

still interesting results.



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