Colourings & additives in whisky

Fredrik Stockborg


– Okay, since you’re the expert, where does whisky really get its colour from?

– There are actually lots of explanations. It comes mainly from the cask in which it is matured, although in many cases, caramel colouring (!) is added. Caramel colouring in this case does not impart flavour, and simply alters the colour of the liquid. It is formed from burned carbohydrates – primarily sugar or syrup – which are transformed into a bitter caramel concentrate in liquid form. This colouring is used commonly in beverages like Coca-Cola, Swedish Julmust, and dark beers. It is of great benefit to whisky makers, as it makes it easier for them to retain the same shade in their whisky year after year. Not only that, the darker hue tricks the eye into thinking the whisky is older, or more flavourful, than it really is. Caramel colouring.

– Who knew? Are there any other additives which play a part?

– Well, yes and no. Additives take a variety of forms and are a constant source of discussion among whisky lovers. Here’s a quick history lesson to set the scene. Right up to the early 1900s, there were very few whiskies which where matured for a particularly long time. The quality and flavour could vary somewhat as a result, so a lot of people started to add everything from honey and syrup to wine and peach juice (!) to their whisky to achieve a more rounded taste. This was mainly the case for blended whiskies and bourbon, and still takes place to this day. However, even Scottish single malts contain additives other than the caramel colouring mentioned earlier. Wine and sherry casks are commonly used to mature whisky at a later stage. The best results are achieved when the original contents of the cask have recently been emptied, creating a more romantic image of the process than if it was simply poured into the cask.

– Is there anything else which affects the appearance?

– Yes. In some cases, chill filtration is also performed to remove impurities from the whisky. This takes place only for cosmetic purposes, to ensure the whisky does not become unclear or cloudy when it is chilled, or when water is added when it is consumed. The whisky is chilled to a temperature of zero degrees before being pressed through a fine metal filter. This enables the removal of oils and fatty acids which form lumps during cooling or dilution, and may adversely affect the visual impression in the glass. What do you mean by cooling and dilution? A lot of people choose to add a few drops of water, an ice cube or a frozen stone (marble, most commonly), to their whisky. Whisky makers use dilution as a way of controlling the volume of alcohol without needing to repeat the entire distillation process. That said, to be called whisky, the volume may not fall below 40%. Ordinarily, the water used is drawn from the same source from which the whisky was earlier made, although there are exceptions in this case too … So you can modify the flavour of the whisky yourself later. This subject really divides opinion among whisky lovers. There simply is no accounting for taste!

– Indeed! Can you tell us more about how to modify whisky yourself?

– Absolutely. But I’m afraid it’ll have to wait until next time…

/ Fredrik Stockborg, Whisky blogger Instagram: @maltteasers