Colour in Whisky

Miriam Samples


The Brown Mushrooms

In the 1980s, there was no such thing as a Portobello mushroom. Seems that our highly-strung ancestors of 30 years ago just weren’t interested in being served something as plain and icky sounding as the ‘brown mushroom’, and so marketing geniuses stepped in. ‘Portobello mushrooms’ – now those sound glamorous and haute-coûture. I’ll have twelve punnets of those, please. (For our readers in the US, I’m talking about fully mature Cremini mushrooms: very popular in the UK. Since the early ‘90s, anyway).


The Brown Spirits

Any colour you like, so long as it’s brown.

The word ‘brown’ just isn’t glamorous, no matter how descriptive it is. Small wonder that whisky, dark rum, brandy and all the other ‘brown spirits’ do what they can to avoid being lumbered with that name. And that’s why we have marketing teams.

You may see whisky described as ‘liquid gold’, ‘amber nectar’ or ‘demigod in bronze’ – but according to my exhaustively cherry-picked research, these are all just fancy words for ‘brown’. A whisky by any other name smells, it seems, twice as sweet.

Whatever you want to call whisky, it’s abundantly clear that the colour that whisky shows off in the bottle or glass is one of its strongest assets. This makes perfect sense, as ‘abundantly clear’ is exactly how whisky starts off in life. The freshly distilled new spirit that gushes out from copper alembics has no colour to it at all – it has the appearance of the clearest, purest water. Only through maturation can whisky become a bronze, golden, rusty or brown spirit – and so the final colour of a whisky is evidence of the long years it has spent carefully becoming more and more superb. Small wonder we often judge whisky by appearances. Even smaller wonder we rarely use a word as common as ‘brown’ to describe it.


Dark, Brooding & Mysterious. 

A whisky cask is charred by fire before the new spirit is poured in. The licking flames open the structure of the wood to allow the whisky to penetrate deeper, and the breaking down of lignins releases all kinds of flavoursome molecules to be released into the maturing spirit. The charring of these sugars creates a lovely, toasty colour that gradually infuses the nesting whisky over time. But is there a way to add a little colour to whisky without waiting for years and years?



Known also as ‘spirit caramel’, E150a is the only legal additive to Scotch whisky. The numerical classification can scare some people, but let me reassure you that it really is caramel. Completely non-toxic, it’s sugar cooked until a lovely shade of brown, and then dissolved into a liquid that you can add into all kinds of things that look more appetising when they’re browned. A little E150a also helps to prevent a product from bleaching from exposure to sunlight – a very helpful trait indeed.

So useful is caramel colouring that it’s approved for use in: 

An attractive sight, no? Bubbling, browning sugar. Few things are lovelier. (Image credit: shutterstock)
  • Dairy products and analogues     
  • Edible ices 
  • Fruit and vegetables 
  • Confectionery 
  • Cereals and cereal products 
  • Bakery wares 
  • Meat 
  • Fish and fisheries products 
  • Salts, spices, soups, sauces, salads and protein products 
  • Foods intended for particular nutritional uses 
  • Beverages 
  • Ready-to-eat savouries and snacks 
  • Desserts 
  • Food supplements 


Caramel colouring makes the world go round.

If you overdo it, E150a can have a bitter flavour when added to, but to get to that point you’d really have to season the whisky until it was almost black. I’m not saying it’s not been done, but there are always extremes on every margin. In most cases, a little caramel goes a long way, and a couple of drops are enough. It’s so benign that most countries don’t even require its use to be declared on the label.


Whoa, whoa, whoa;

“Hold up a minute there – that’s not the point!” (I imagine many of you are declaring at your screen) “I know the stuff isn’t toxic, I know it doesn’t alter the flavour, but isn’t it cheating? Giving colour to a whisky that it hasn’t earned through years of quiet meditation in a mossy, subterranean chamber of secrets?”

Perhaps… ish. There’s no simple relationship between cask, whisky and time that leads to a certain colour.

Type of cask matters. A bourbon cask can only ever get a whisky to be so dark, no matter how long it spends there. From pale and sandy through to damp haystack, whisky matured in an ex bourbon cask probably won’t ever be as dark as one matured in an ex-sherry butt. Red wine and port barriques can grant even more of a ruddy flush to their contents.

Age of cask matters too. A first-fill cask grants a much larger boon of flavour than a cask that has been filled with whisky before. That’s also true of how much colour the cask can impart: younger casks will tend to make darker whiskies, while refills have an upper limit on how much colour they can impart. 

Are first fill casks always better? They might make a darker and richer whisky, but not every whisky needs to be completely domineering on the palate. Sometimes a lighter touch is very welcome, and a whisky with a subtler bouquet can be just as delightful.

The level of charring also has an effect on colour. A heavily burnt cask should produce a darker whisky, but not necessarily a better one. Sometimes the distiller is just looking for a light toasting of the wood, which results in a variation in the flavour. If the endgame was all about getting the darkest whisky, then every cask would be immolated in cleansing flames to the point of alligator skin, but they aren’t. There’s more at play.

At Holyrood Distillery, Edinburgh, they show off a variety of cask stave type – each affecting their whisky in different ways. For more on Holyrood distillery, see ‘Holyrood Distillery: Edinburgh’s New Set of Stills‘.

Alright then. Whisky can and should come in a spectrum of browns. But age is still quoted as a primary determinant of quality in whisky – so could someone use E150a to give the impression of greater maturity?

Well yes… I guess that if one was unscrupulous, one could add a little splash of extra colour to a whisky that wanted to seem a little older than it was. I’m not convinced that this is a widespread malevolence, however. But this isn’t the only reason to do it. It’s not even the most common reason to do it.


The Needs of the Many vs The Needs of the Few

Famous brands such as Glenfiddich, Dalmore or Famous Grouse distribute their whiskies far and wide, on a scale that boggles the mind. A very great number of their customers expect the whiskies to be a certain way, and so consistency is important.

With all the complexity involved in maturing whisky, different batches might end up having slightly different colours; a fact that could be very controversial since every bottle of, say, Dalmore 12yo, is supposed to be the same. If the whisky looks or tastes different from how it is supposed to, that’s almost a breach of contract with the customer. 

And so, on a large scale, the colour that these original bottling (OB) whiskies are supposed to have is maintained with the judicious application of a little toasted caramel – E150a. As sinister conspiracy theories go, it’s pretty tame.


The Independents

Not every cask of whisky is put into bottles by the company that originally distilled it. Independent companies (like us, Cask 88!) and private individuals can buy their own casks from a distillery and create their own range of bottles from them – independent bottlings (IB).

We independents have many fewer casks in our warehouses, and the kinds of people who seek out IBs often have different priorities when it comes to choosing a bottle of whisky.

For us and our customers, inconsistency becomes a great strength in our whisky. Inherent variability makes the whisky even more exciting. The story behind the cask, and the time it was created; those are far more important.

When we bottle a single cask, we get a few hundred bottles from it, and that’s that. Small batch, never to be repeated. Did you fall in love with the Scottish Folklore Series ‘Selkie’ last year? That wonderfully rich, ex-sherry butt, unusually dark (no E150a, I swear!) Arran 22yo? Tough luck, it’s gone – sold out and there will never be another set of bottles quite like it. Doesn’t matter, though – there will be new and exciting unique casks of whisky in the future.

Since every independent bottle release is a unique event, we let the liquid tell its own story. It’s far more common to see the words ‘No Colour Added’ or ‘Natural Colour’ on an independently bottled whisky, because so much has already been left up to chance when the bottle was filled. The whisky is authentic to itself, presented just as it came out of the cask – no need to add any colour to change that story, because people will accept it that way.

An example of colour change from our own office: From the almost colourless 3yo Glenallachie, the progress to the full colour of the 2 year sample is astonishing. (For more on this, see ‘an experiment in maturation’, or the sequel ‘The Living Cask Experiment: Two years on.’


Cask 88’s Final Thought

As an independent bottler and group composed of unapologetic whisky nerds, we at Cask 88 have decided that caramel colouring is not for us.

We can see the benefit of it – the consistency it brings, the protection against UV bleaching it can provide – the fact that it may well improve the experience of whisky drinking for many people. It is certainly not some demonic tincture, scourge of all that is fair and good in whisky.

Nonetheless, we have made the choice not to use it in our own releases of bottles. Our 88, Folklore and Scotch Express series all consist of single cask bottlings – never more than a couple of hundred bottles – and these bottles carry the DNA of the single cask they came from. Each and every one with its own individual thumbprint. 

We love to deal in unique and transitory experiences, and we have the luxury of being able to explain to our customers (at great length if they desire) that a whisky might be light in colour for a variety of different reasons. A little pallor is not beyond the pale.


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