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Can you taste Caramel (E150a) in Whisky?

Caramel in Whisky

Quite a big one this…

For as long as anyone can remember, (some) whisky companies have been using caramel colouring in their whiskies. The arguments for and against the use of caramel in whisky are well documented, but just in case, let’s imagine a discussion between a well-educated, handsome whisky consumer, and one of those nasty and ‘orrible whisky companies that make whisky packed full of yucky and horrible caramel (the b*stards).

Can you taste caramel in whisky

<—- A Whisky Industry PR guy, yesterday. His silence will only incriminate him further.

Consumer (handsome) – Why do you insist on putting caramel in my whisky?

InterAgeoRicardi PR guy – Well, there are lots of reasons for doing so. The biggest one of which is product consistency. When someone goes to a shop, buys a bottle of GlenWonka 10yo and takes it home, they want to see that it’s the same colour as the bottle they’re just finishing off, otherwise they’ll lose confidence in the product.

Consumer – But I’m a big boy, I understand that there’s variance in colour between casks. That’s one of the reasons I love whisky. Why do you insist on altering it from its normal, natural state to something that’s just a fantasy – an unnatural colour that it hasn’t achieved on its own?

InterAgeoRicardi – I get what you’re saying, but I’m sure that you’d recognise that you’re probably within the top 1% of our customers, and the kind of knowledge that you have about cask interaction and colour is not ‘normal’ for a whisky consumer.

Consumer – Well shouldn’t you be making the effort to educate the other 99% of consumers that caramel is an unnecessary addition, and try to phase it out?

InterAgeoRicardi – Yep. For sure, and that’s what we’re doing with our higher-end, single-cask bottlings all of which are un-chillfiltered, at natural cask strength, and without caramel.

Can you taste caramel in whisky

Consumer – Which no ‘normal’ consumer can afford because of your pricing strategy?

InterAgeoRicardi – …

Consumer – Okay, so what about the countless number of inexpensive blends that you sell where a really significant amount of caramel is added (much more than is necessary for the consistency you seek)? Surely the reason you’re doing this is obvious. Consumers associate depth of colour with quality, and you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes and make them think they’re getting a higher quality of product than they actually are.

InterAgeoRicardi – Let me ask you a question – do you ever eat sweets?

Consumer – Erm, yes – from time to time… I’m rather partial to a Jelly Baby in fact.

InterAgeoRicardi – Okay, and how do you think Jelly Babies would sell if they were all clear (or more likely an unappealing shade of grey)?

Consumer – Probably not very well, and I can see where you’re going with this…

InterAgeoRicardi – So, for a moment, take sales completely out of the equation, and let’s just talk about your own personal enjoyment of the product. Can you honestly tell me that you’d enjoy the Jelly Babies as much if the Strawberry ones weren’t red, the Lime ones weren’t Green etc…

Consumer – Of course not.

InterAgeoRicardi – So why should whisky be different? If we can increase a consumer’s enjoyment of a product by making it a shade darker, why shouldn’t we do it?

Consumer – Because it’s inherently dishonest. You’re making people believe they’re getting an older, better aged product by colouring it.

InterAgeoRicardi – You say ‘dishonesty’, I say ‘marketing’.

Can you taste caramel in whisky

Consumer – But what about the alteration to the taste of the product?

InterAgeoRicardi – What about it? Have you ever actually tried E150a? Do you think you could pick out a whisky that contains Caramel from one that doesn’t?

A very good question. Clearly if there was a palpable effect on the flavour of the whisky, that would be a different matter altogether.

If you’re a regular reader of some of the whisky forums, there’s no end of discussion on the matter, with many people swearing blind that they can taste ‘caramel’ in whiskies that have been artificially coloured. We wanted to find out once and for all whether this is true, so we conducted a bit of an experiment.

We took 6 glasses full of pure (filtered) water, and added caramel to one of them until we got to the same kind of level you’d see on average in a mass-market whisky.

It’s worth noting two things at this point – firstly, the amount of caramel in our glass is greater than you’d find in a typical ‘caramelled’ whisky because the whisky has at least some natural colour to begin with. Secondly, it’s going to be much easier to detect the presence of caramel in pure water than it is in whisky…

When we had our glasses, we roped in 10 of the Master of Malt staff, all of whom would like to think they’ve got reasonably good palates, blindfolded them, and after we’d finished messing with them because they were blindfolded (obviously), we asked them to nose and taste the 6 glasses in a random order, and identify which one contained the Caramel.

Ten people participated, only one person correctly identified the glass with Caramel in (statistically we’d expect 1.66 people to get it right at random).

Can you taste caramel in whisky

So, the conclusion? We don’t think it’s possible to taste caramel in whisky.

And no, for the avoidance of doubt, we don’t add Caramel to any of our own bottlings.

So – what do you think? Inherently evil, a necessary evil, or a non-issue?

– The Chaps at Master of Malt –

Categories : Tasting Notes, Whisky

24 comments on “Can you taste Caramel (E150a) in Whisky?”

  1. Marc says:

    Well done MoM! Excellent idea, and pretty shocking results. I don’t like the idea of colouring because the whisky is more ‘natural’ without it, but from the above the die-hards that complain it alters taste don’t seem to have a leg to stand on. You would think the InterAgeoRicardi would market the fact that it is tasteless to the 1% of customers who are knowledgeable – oh but wait, they don’t have to care what we say, they make their money from the other 99%.

  2. dbk says:

    Very interesting, and I’m glad to see a good attempt at an empirical test. That said, your method is still not all that sensitive. A better method would be a two-alternative forced choice design, repeated within subjects. Have two glasses (one with caramel, one without) and have your subjects taste just those two blind and in random order, as you did. Record their responses, and then repeat (best with a fresh pair of glasses, randomized again) five or so more times with the same subjects. Run a repeated measures analysis of variance on the data (I’d be happy to do this for you, if you don’t have the means to do so). The other issue is that while the notion that caramel will stand out in water more than in whisky has great face validity, I’m not sure it’s an entirely sound assumption. Given that the question really is "can you taste caramel in whisky" and not "can you taste caramel in water," you would do better to replicate the finding with whisky. Again, your argument that "if it can’t be tasted in water, it can’t be tasted in whisky" is only sound if your assumption that it stands out more in whisky is true.

  3. Joshua says:

    What a great piece! Yeah, this has been an argument for some time and I’m not sure where I stand with this one. There are obvious differences between chill-filtered and non-chill-filtered whiskies (just put the new Bunnahabhain 12yr @ 46.3% v the old 40% to get an idea). But DOES caramel coloring add or change the flavor of whisky? One thing I find interesting is that there seems to not be consistency with coloring in the UK v the US. I’ll use the example of the Balvenie 15yo single cask series. In the US, that whisky has caramel coloring but this does not ring true for the UK. Why is that? Well, because US consumers are not as educated on whisky as our good friends across the pond, me thinks. Obviously, that is a single cask series so this is somewhat unique but I imagine there may be other examples such as this. One question that came to mind right away (because this experiment focused on caramel in water rather than in whisky) was – does E150a caramel coloring interact with whisky differently than it would with water given the alcohol content? That would be an interesting experiment: to take a 46%ABV, NCF whisky add caramel to one sample and leave the other alone and see what you get (well, being blindfolded I guess you wouldn’t actually SEE it but, you get my point).

  4. The problem with caramel is that it can happen that colour and taste DOESN’T match. Quite opposite the candy example

    When I get a heavily coloured whisky I feel the blue ketchup effect

    Eating blue ketchup. It tastes exactly the same, but feels very wrong


  5. dbk, Joshua,

    Yep – both very good points. Perhaps I should explain that there was actually a first stage to the process which consisted of me putting caramel in the water, passing it to my online editor, and both of us being absolutely astonished that there was genuinely no flavour or aroma there at all. This is what prompted us to conduct the (admittedly rather hastily thrown together) experiment with more people and a higher degree of control just to make sure.

    Whilst the results are by no means 100% safe, we’re not presenting it as ‘You can’t taste caramel in whisky – fact’, but rather ‘we’re pretty convinced there’s nothing in it’.

    I accept that there [i][b]might[/b][/i] be a difference in trying the experiment again with whisky instead of water, but only in the same way as you have to accept that Marilyn Monroe might have come back to life, and be right behind you at this moment smoking a big cigar and riding a Tyrannosaurus Rex. You don’t know until you check, but you’re sure enough not to turn round.

    Anywhoo – it’s definitely something you need to try for yourselves – bung a note in the delivery instructions next time you order, and I’ll get the warehouse guys to send you some out in a test-tube.

    ps – I bet you checked didn’t you?

  6. Roddy Graham says:

    I think I’d like to repeat your experiment, but using a non-coloured whisky instead of water, and opaque glasses. Also, I would get someone like my daughter, who hates whisky, to put the two bottles into bags labelled "A" and "B" or similar, when I’m not looking, so that I wouldn’t subconsciously prompt the tasters.

  7. mike nicolson says:

    Well done. Good piece of work. Great to read, albeit too rarely, some puncturing of popular myths of our time, out there in blogdom.

    (former whiskymaking person)

  8. EricH says:

    Someone else on another whisky forum came up with this gem (wish I could give them some credit):
    Caramel in whisky are like breast implants, they make you say "WOW" but you know they aren’t real.

  9. Dexter73 says:

    If you can add color to whisky, why not add flavours or aromas or thickeners for consistency?. Just as aromas are crafted in the whisky by the process of maturation and ambient conditions–which is an art–so should the color develop naturally.

  10. Tim says:

    I believe "Caramel coloring" is not even real caramel its a chemical additive, like whats in Coca cola. Its also a carcinogen, that means it kills lab rats and maybe possibly humans.

  11. Rheal says:

    This is complete BS! I’m a big Single Malt Whisky lover and buy Single Malt because I want a pure natural product like it use to be and how it should be. Plus Caramel coloring" is not even real caramel its a chemical additive, like what’s other crappy products like candies and sodas and it’s a known carcinogen. I want to know which distillery does this so I can avoid them like the plague! It should be noted I have about 90 bottles in my collection worth a substantial amount of money and I would pour any of them out if I knew that had E150a in them

  12. Ben says:

    "Ten people participated, only one person correctly identified the glass with Caramel in (statistically we’d expect 1.66 people to get it right at random)."

    Why would we expect 1.66 people to get it right at random? Isn’t 10 people guessing which glass has the caramel a binomial distribution with p = 0.1 and n = 10. And the expected value of a binomial distribution is np.

    So np = 10*0.1 = 1


  13. Leo says:

    After drinking Scotch for nearly 60 years, I believe the caramel question is a non-issue. For me it doesn’t make a bit of difference if it is used or not used, I only care does the drink taste good and do I enjoy it.
    Rheal, before you pour any of your collection away, let me know and I will gladly take the offenders off your hands. 🙂 I have both in my collection and I enjoy them all equally.

  14. Celebrithil says:

    I have absolutely no idea if this actually changes something or not, it’s just a thought: would it be possible that some elements are present in whisky, but not in water, for the caramel colorant to interact with?

  15. Tim says:

    Let’s set the record straight on two of the misinformed comments above.

    #1 Single malt is pure and natural with no color added – False.
    The majority of single-malt spirits have caramel color. US TTB laws exempt whiskey and scotch producers from disclosing the addition of caramel color on their labels and advertising. The exemption is due to historical production methods – it is "understood whiskies and scotches traditionally include caramel color in the production process." For this reason the TTB does not require disclosure on their labels.
    You have been drinking single-malt spirits with caramel color, but just never knew because the spirit companies do not want to label as such.

    #2 – Caramel Coloring is not real caramel – False.
    The term E150 is given to caramel coloring, but produced from heat treatment of a sugar substance — in essence this is caramelized sugar. You can fact check this with most scientific articles written on the subject.

    Big Kudos to Ben and team for attempting to educate your readers and debunk the myths about caramel coloring!

  16. @Ben (USA) – I doff my cap to you, sir.

    @celebrithil – an absolutely great question, and one that’s going to be answered very soon by developments in the Reference Series range: http://www.masterofmalt.com/distilleries/reference-series-branded-whisky/ – watch this space.

    @Tim – spot on on both points. Thank you for saving me the trouble 🙂

  17. tgm says:

    "Secondly, it’s going to be much easier to detect the presence of caramel in pure water than it is in whisky…"

    Well you can add water to water and it would be impossible to detect, but adding water to whisky change the taste, water is ph neural and does not contain any sugar/fat/…./-based taste for the caramel to alter or interact with, whereas whisky from the start is much more complex chemically so in least in theory proving no taste in water does not prove that it does not alter whisky.

  18. Mark says:

    Why then does Jim Murray in his Whisky Bible devote a whole page about how you can taste caramel in whisky and that it ‘clogs the taste buds’?

  19. Hermes says:

    Caramel adds a sickly, industrial, bitter aftertaste and is responsible for 50% of the head ache the day after.

  20. Javquie says:

    Hi can you tell me a whiskey that does not have E150 added – my husband is allergic to E150! Thanks

  21. Dear Javquie,

    Off the top of my head,
    Tomintoul 14
    Glencadam 10, 15, 21
    Old Pulteney Noss Head

  22. Volker Hetzer says:

    Ok, I see you point. But.
    For me, the main clash is with the marketing.
    Whisky is normally marketed as (at least) old-school, and often enough as "pure", "natural", "without" any newfangled chemical stuff and so on. So, if you bask in that advertising and think you are one of those who this natural and whatever product is made for and then you discover that they painted it because they think they can fool you with some superficial optical effect, you'd feel stupid (and probably cheated) too.

    The jelly beans example is a good one, by the way. Consider: If jelly beans were made only from specially selected extra ripe and organically grown fruits and the collagen came from the fish bladders of special hand-caught salmons from extra pure streams somewhere in a remote canadian nature reserve and each individually hand-crafted jelly bean was extra pre-licked by professional tasters using sterile tongues in order to ensure the best taste experience for the discerning customer and you pay £60 for a pound and had one or two of those jelly beans on a good saturday evening, maybe together with a cuban cigar – and then we paint them with some mass-produced color, perhaps even made from genetically modified mais, just for a cheap optical effect – we'd complain about the color in jelly beans as well.

    Why don't the destilleries offer a non-paint version of their colored whiskies for the extra picky customers and see what happens? Same taste, better image.

  23. Volker Hetzer says:

    "Hi can you tell me a whiskey that does not have E150 added – my husband is allergic to E150! Thanks"
    The kilchoman ones aren't colored either as far as I know.

  24. BassCoaster says:

    To those going on about “carcinogens”. The alcohol in the whisky is far more toxic than the caramel. I’m not happy that one of my favourites, Talisker 10 has colour added but so be it. It’s still one of my favourite drops as are Lagavulin 16 (colour added), Ardbeg 10 (no colour added) and Ledaig (no colour added). I’m a fan of Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, too and can tell you that while it’s not coloured with e150a, it’s coloured by port. Who made the port? What was in it? Brandy and wine. What was in the brandy? Where did it come from? You get the picture. Reality is we don’t know what is in our whisky, we just know it tastes good so with or without e150a, enjoy it.

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