The use of caramel colour is probably the single most controversial subject in the world of whisky. Unlike sulphite in wine, which can be naturally occurring, caramel colour can only be artificially added. Whether to enhance flavour or alter colour, caramel colour exists in a wide variety of food and beverage items. As far as spirits are concerned, it is widely used in armagnac, cognac, rum and whisky. In scotch production, caramel colour is apart from water the only additive permitted by Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, insofar as it does not affect the taste of the final product.
For purists, the spirit is but a liqueur if it contains any artificial additive. Scotch producers are entirely aware of the negative consumer perception caused by the less than romantically named E150 (caramel colour), but many persisted in using it. This is due to the following reasons, listed from the more reasonable to the more cynical.
First and foremost, caramel colour is used to ensure colour consistency across all bottles of the same product year in, year out. No two batches of distillates are identical, and no two casks are identical, yet consistency is paramount in whisky. At the risk of repetition, apart from single cask bottlings, even single vintage single malts are a blend of numerous casks. For wine buffs, the lack of vintage and bottle variations in whisky is a glaring weakness; for whisky lovers, this is precisely the beauty of it, without the fickleness and unpredictability of wine, and the nectar can be savoured time and again over one or two years.
However, caramel colour is also used in precisely the same way as fake tan. Yes, older whiskies usually look darker, but it would be a logical fallacy to conclude that all dark-coloured whiskies must be old. A young 3-year-old scotch (the lowest requirement possible) matured in tired multi-fill casks would predictably look anaemic, and so here comes the cosmetics, in the form of caramel colour. This has perhaps more to do with – depending on how kind you are – consumer inexperience or ignorance than cynicism on the part of producers. As consumers become increasingly well-informed, fake tan in whisky may disappear as the way Liebfraumilch and Mateus Rosé did over the past decades.
To put things into perspective without engaging in classic whataboutism, rum, cognac and armagnac have much looser regulations on caramel colour and other additives than scotch or bourbon. Perhaps the worst sinner, cognac production allows the use of not only caramel colour, but also the notorious boisé (essence of wood chips) as well as a whopping 2% of sugar syrup in the final content. In contrast, there still is a significant minority of single malts which proudly state “natural colour”. Bourbons and “straight” whiskeys from the land of the free and the home of the brave, en passant, have natural colour.
Luminous mahogany with copper-tawny reflex, the sensual nose exudes dried cranberry, cumin, hazelnut, potpourri, caffè mocha and fruitcake. With a buttery mouthfeel, the hedonistic palate secretes dried dates, star anise, pecan, hibiscus tisane, milk chocolate and tiramisu. Medium-full bodied at 43%, the arresting palate continues through an irresistible mid-palate, leading to a moreish finish. A gorgeous 12-year-old sherried Highlander, perhaps the best in its class.
Rich amber with copper-golden reflex, the luxurious nose radiates gala apple, dried apricot, cinnamon, manuka honey and potpourri. With a creamy mouthfeel, the redolent palate oozes loquat, golden raisin, nutmeg, salted caramel and bonfire smoke. Full-bodied at 40%, the composed entry evolves into a variegated mid-palate, leading to a satisfying finish. An urbane 18-year-old sherried Highlander, enchanting without being extravagant.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages