A lot of emphasis is put on the color of whiskey. It tells you what to expect flavor-wise, but it can also be a deceptive taste indicator.
A dark whiskey is associated with rich and luscious aromas and flavors, with plenty of maturity to boot. Moreover, a light whiskey is often dismissed as young and immature, probably lacking a certain complexity. We’re here to tell you that’s just plain wrong.
Yes, there are general guidelines when it comes to the color of whiskey. For example, most of the time the darker the whiskey, the older it is. A deeper color also suggests a more intense tasting experience, which in a lot of cases is correct. You wouldn’t be completely wrong to abide by these. But as always, there are exceptions to the rules. A lot of ‘em, actually.
It is important to understand how a whiskey gets its color. Remember, the spirit flowing from the stills is clear. It has no color whatsoever. It isn’t until after maturing in oak casks that the whiskey transforms in the golden hued liquid that we know and love. Here’s all you need to know about how to judge the color of your whiskey.
Different types of oak give different colors to the spirit. The most commonly used types are Quercus alba (American white oak) and Quercus robur (European oak). The former imparts a reddish shade, while the latter gives more of a strong yellow color. Depending on the charring level of a cask, the color extractives in the surface layer inside the cask are decreased.
Four Roses Bourbon / Photo Credit: Four Roses
Bourbon, Sherry or Port
It’s not just the type of wood that influences the color of a whiskey. While the bourbon industry exclusively uses virgin oak, the rest of the world is partial to used casks. These casks range from former bourbon casks, to sherry casks, and even brandy or port casks.
The previous contents of a cask have a huge effect on the final color of a whiskey. Sherry casks tend to give a whiskey an auburn-like look, while bourbon-matured Scotch whisky is often much lighter in color. Port cask maturation can even lead to a pinkish appearance.
The Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve / Photo Credit: The Glenrothes
First-fill or refill
In the Scotch whisky industry (and in other countries as well), a cask is used several times. The more often a cask is used, the less active the wood becomes, and the less color it will impart on the spirit.
Think of a cask as a tea bag. The first time you use it, it takes almost no time before you have dark, bitter tea. Every subsequent time, your tea will be lighter and not as intensely flavored. Check the label for any mention of first-fill (the first time a cask is used for Scotch) or refill (the second, third or even fourth time).
Benriach Aging in Ex-Bourbon Barrels / Photo Credit: Benriach
Finally, there’s an artificial way to darken a whiskey. This is thanks in part to something called E150a, otherwise known as spirit caramel, or caramel coloring. One of the most commonly colored spirits is Scotch whisky. Next to water (to dilute to bottling strength), E150a is the only substance legally allowed to be added to Scotch.
While in this context, the word caramel can be confusing, we’re not talking about flavor. The reason companies use this technique is brand consistency. For example, Diageo wants to ensure that every batch of Johnnie Walker Black Label has the same color.
Bourbon is more regulated when it comes to E150a. Any bourbon—regular or straight—gets its color from the barrel, and nothing else. The same goes for other types of straight whiskey, like corn, wheat or rye.
The other whiskeys produced in America are fair game. Some are even allowed to add up to 2.5 percent of caramel coloring. If caramel coloring is used, it doesn’t need to be mentioned on the label.
Johnnie Walker Black Label / Photo Credit: Johnnie Walker
What does it all mean?
Knowing all this, it is time to re-examine what we said at the outset. For example, can you ever safely say that a darker whiskey is actually older? No, that’s impossible. As we have learned, there are many variables that influence the color of a whiskey.
There are several natural ways for one whiskey to be darker than the other. The length of maturation is just one of them. Most likely it is because of wood type, cask type, or the amount of times a cask has been used.
The same applies to the correlation between the color of a whiskey and any perceived flavor expectations. A dark whiskey often means it has matured in a sherry cask, or something more exotic like Cognac. A first-fill bourbon cask can also be very active and impart a lot of color, but will taste markedly different.
When E150a is used, all bets are off. A rule of thumb: unless the label explicitly mentions the whiskey still has its natural color, you’re safe to assume it doesn’t. It is impossible to judge an artificially colored whiskey on anything other than flavor.
Which brings us to the most important point. Don’t be too quick to judge a whiskey by its appearance. The only way to really judge a whiskey, is by tasting it.