The Deceptive Ways of Caramel Colored Whisky
Adding caramel coloring (E150a) to whisky is and has been a hot topic for a long time among whisky enthusiasts. The debate mainly surrounds the question: can you taste it? Opinions differ. I’m not convinced that you can, while others swear they are able to detect trace amounts of E150a. But that’s not what I want to write about. I want to talk about the reasoning used by Diageo’s Nick Morgan as to why the use of caramel coloring is actually a good idea. And why I think it is a deceptive practice.
This blog post is actually a reaction to an article that was published on Scotchwhisky.com, the excellent website spearheaded by author Dave Broom. However, you can’t leave a comment on that website. So I’ll just do it here on Words of Whisky. The article ‘Spirit caramel: friend or foe’ is basically a head-to-head discussion about caramel coloring between Adam Hannett, the head distiller of Bruichladdich, and Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo. Guess who’s in favor of it?
The Importance of Color
So why would a whisky company use E150a to color its product? Well, first it is important to know that the color of whisky is important. Something Nick Morgan agrees with, or as he puts it: “The appearance, the colour of your Scotch in your glass, is of huge importance.” I could not agree more. Color gives an indication as to what you can expect. Color might tell you something about the type of casks used and how active they were, and about the age of the whisky. Subsequently it might tell you something about what to expect in terms of smell or taste.
Sadly that’s not the only reason why Nick Morgan thinks the color of your whisky is important. He seems to ignore what color means in relation to the smell and taste of a whisky. Instead he’s mostly concerned with one thing: consistency. And for that he needs caramel coloring. Because your Lagavulin 16 should have the same color, batch after batch. Otherwise you and your tiny brain will get confused, or something.
Morgan doesn’t seem to hold the consumer in high regard. This is what he says about the critics of caramel coloring. They are “a tiny and unrepresentative and self-consciously elitist group of vocal critics [who] are apt to signal their ‘expert’ credentials by claiming obsessively that spirit caramel affects the taste of the final whisky in the bottle”.
It’s not the first time he’s done this. He really seems to have a dislike for the people buying the whisky he is trying to sell. In an article about No Age Statement-whiskies he called its critics intemperate and ill-informed newbies. While I don’t doubt his whisky credentials, I feel it is safe to say he underestimates at least part of his consumer base.
Back to why Nick Morgan feels caramel coloring is a good thing. “You can’t taste it, you can see it”, he says. “And that’s one of the sensory triggers that gives the whisky drinker […] the assurance that the product they are drinking is going to be the same as it was before, and the same as it was before that.”
A contradictory statement. Misleading too. He’s in favor of using E150a because it assures the consumer of a consistent product. But if you artificially color a whisky, how does that assure me that a whisky tastes the same? Because that’s how I would judge the true consistency of a whisky, by taste and not by color. They could be filling the bottle with nothing but raw spirit and a fair amount of caramel, and it will look the same as aged whisky. But is that consistency? No, coloring is a form of disguising the true characteristics of a whisky.
Finally I’d like to involve Adam Hannett from Bruichladdich. In the Scotchwhisky.com-article he states that whisky companies artificially darken their product to make it seem older. He adds: “If you combine this with that other simplistic industry mantra, that ‘older whisky is always better than younger whisky’, then there is a significant risk that people will misinterpret what they are being offered.”
Now we’ve already concluded that just because whisky looks the same, that’s no guarantee it actually tastes the same. What do you think a consumer finds more important: the look or the quality of the content? What Nick Morgan and his artificially colored whisky accomplish is actually quite deceptive, as Hannett already put so eloquently. Caramel coloring is as much, if not more about making a product seem more attractive by faking age or perceiving a certain richness of flavor, than it is about true consistency.
Thijs is a spirits writer and accredited liquorist from The Netherlands. He runs the blog Words of Whisky and contributes to a number of Dutch and international publications.