The origin of the colors of whisky

In general, we tend to judge things through our cognitive and perceptive senses, including food. However, this often leads to assumptions based on looks rather than quality. Such a predisposition can cause a drinker to make an error in judgment when nosing and tasting something as complex as a single malt whisky. For that reason, blind assessments are often preferred when reviewing new drams. Do note that a blind assessment is different from a blind tasting where the reviewer samples a drink of unknown origin.
But did you know, distilled whisky spirit is entirely colorless? The color is gained during the maturation process. In this post, we explore the origin of the colors of whisky.

Maturation and coloring of whisky

Whisky is matured in oak casks, and the size, shape, and location of the cask define its color and character. When we talk about location, it refers to the climatic conditions that govern the ‘breathing’ of the cask. The condition of the cask – virgin, toasted, charred, or re-used – also plays a role in determining the color, along with the length of maturation.
Oakwood is porous, causing the whisky to move in and out of the wood itself as temperatures fluctuate and the cask expands and contracts. Surrounding air pressure and humidity also impact the maturation process. For example, Indian whiskies age quicker than those stored in the Highlands because of the warm temperatures and relatively high humidity in the sub-continent.
Over time the spirit begins to imbibe the properties of the wood. In a way, the color of a whisky is linked to its other properties, such as aroma and flavor. So, an intensely colored whisky will have a greater cask influence in aroma and flavor. But sometimes, a whisky may extract different amounts of color compounds and flavor compounds from the cask, resulting in a very pale but flavorful dram.

Identifying and describing whisky colors

Despite color chemistry being an exact science, the descriptions of color and intensity are usually subjective. Since the human eye isn’t quite as precise as a spectrophotometer, only a near approximation is achieved through visual inspection. That’s why whisky color descriptions often center around gold, amber, and copper-like references. On the other hand, more specific references are used for wines and spirits with uniform color patterns, e.g., Champagne gold.
Typically, a 20-point scale of color intensity is used as the standard for describing whisky color by whisky connoisseurs. The liquor industry uses a slightly expanded scale, either the Series 52 Brown Scale or European Brewing Convention (EBC) scale. These scales define the color grading for whisky, honey, beers, malts, caramel, and similarly colored liquids.

Is the color always natural?

Whiskies that come with the statement ‘No Added Color’ or ‘Natural Color’ are considered pure products. However, distillers may use a caramel additive known as E150a for harmonizing the color of a natural product that might have color variations due to cask maturation. The logic is that if every batch tastes the same, it should also look the same.
Also, as mentioned earlier, a visual evaluation may alter a consumer’s perception of a batch with color variations. Spirit caramel adds no flavor to the whisky, and a tiny amount is needed for harmonizing an entire batch. But purists tend to prefer the brands that do not use spirit caramel and bottling requirements in regions like Germany and Denmark, explicitly ask for coloring declaration on the packaging.