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).
<—- 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.
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’.
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).
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 –