Judging Whisky by Its Colour

Do you remember the moment you found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real? I do, and that loss of innocence and magic happened all over again when I found out why you shouldn’t judge whisky by its colour. What you are about to read might upset you, but I promise it will be alright in the end.


Before we get to the truth about judging a whisky by its colour, you need to understand how whisky barrels work. Whisky is matured in wooden barrels. During this process, changes in temperature prompt the barrel to absorb and release the liquid it contains causing the whisky to take in the colours of the wood. This is why un-aged whiskies like Moonshine are clear. They are not stored in barrels to age and therefore do not have chance to absorb colour.


Bourbon is dark and scotch is golden. Why? Let’s start with bourbon. In order for bourbon to be called bourbon it must be aged in new oak barrels. Barrels lose their colouring power over time. However, because bourbon is specifically aged in new barrels they have not lost any of their colouring ability. Therefore, the bourbon has more colours to absorb giving it a strong brown colour.


By comparison, scotch ages in barrels that have already held other spirits. The reason for this is that the flavours of the spirits first stored, usually bourbon or sherry, are absorbed into barrel and then imparted into the scotch giving it its unique flavour. However, because the barrels are pre-used they have fewer colours to transfer. This is why scotch can spend decades in a cask maturing but will still be a lighter colour than bourbon. There is a common misconception that darker whiskies have spent more time maturing, are older and therefore better. This is not true.


The truth is that judging a whisky by its colour is pointless because nearly all whisky companies darken their products with caramel colouring. Now you know the truth. Whiskies aren’t as brown as you think they are and your mum and dad bought your Christmas presents. The magic of that golden colour is ruined forever.


Or is it?


Before you start to hate whisky companies for betraying you take a second to remember finding out Santa wasn’t real. The trust in your parents was dented, but not broken. Both your parents and the whisky companies have good reason for their methods: giving you what you want. As a child, you expected Santa to bring you every toy you asked for so your parents lied to make sure you had the Christmas you wanted. Similarly, you expect your favourite whisky to be the same colour every time. If one day it was brown and the next it was gold, you might worry about its quality. Whisky companies use colouring to ensure you get the product you are expecting. Like Santa this is not a new thing, colouring has been common practice for dating back as far as the 20th Century. Is this a betrayal of your trust? Maybe. But, when you look at the bigger picture it’s not as horrific as you think. Father Christmas is a lie, but no one is hurt in the process and likewise caramel colouring does not affect the taste of whisky. Caramel colouring is highly concentrated, only a tiny amount is necessary to create the desired colour.


Santa didn’t bring your presents, but you still got to have them. Your knowledge of how whisky gets its colour has changed, but your favourite whisky will still taste the same today as it did yesterday. Christmas will always be fun and whisky will always be delicious: two truths that we can all be happy to know. I told you it would be alright in the end.



Judging Whisky by Its Colour