Updated: Jan 13, 2019
The world of whisky is such a fascinating realm. While we could all tell whiskies have certain complexities and aromas, the interesting question lays on the fact that nobody actually knows how exactly do they come to such aromas. This is exactly the reason why the experience of distillers is highly important for producing a quality whisky.
While that mystery is yet to be solved by some genius one day, I would like to share with you all some of the more approachable areas of whisky, particularly concerning the fact why whiskies have certain colors. Without further delay, let's dive into the main content of the day.
There are a few factors that really determine the color of a whisky, and the first one being the age of the whisky. As cliché as it sounds, aging is a process of maturing. It allows things to become more subtle and well-rounded.
Whisky is no exception. Keep in mind that even after the spirit went through the still pots, it would still be clear and transparent. The most straight forward way for a whisky to get its complexity and thus its color is to interact with the cask that contains them.
Therefore, regardless of the type of cask the liquor was filled in (something what would be addressed later in this article); the older the whisky, the darker and more saturated it gets in color.
Without surprise, the newer the whisky, the more transparent it is in color.
When I visited the Talisker Distillery back in April, I had the opportunity to try out one of its whisky that has only been aged for a year. (The Talisker New Make, as shown as the bottle in the center from the picture above.) In fact, it wasn't even a proper Scotch since it did not meet the 3-years minimum age requirement.
As a result, you could really imagine the water-like spirit was very aggressive on the palate and did not show much complexity. Whiskies with such young age tend to be rather straight-forward in their key scent, as demonstrated by the overwhelming classic Talisker peaty smoke in this case.
Whether 'the more mature the whisky is the better' is an interesting topic, and is something that I shall continue to discuss on another day. But for now, let's move on to the next factor.
Another crucial element that determines the color of a whisky is what type of wood is the cask being made of. Keep in mind the whisky is a solvent after all; and when it interacts with the wood, certain components of the cask would ultimately dissolve into the spirit.
The most commonly used wood types in the market are European oak, American oak, and sometimes Japanese oak. While the European oak gives the end product more of a vibrant yellowish, golden color; the American oak tends to mold the spirit to produce more of a reddish or mahogany tone.
The Japanese oak, on the other hand, is a rather tricky one. Due to the fact that the Japanese Mizunara oak are usually much more fragile and more prone to leaking than its European and American counterparts, whiskies are only partially matured in a cask made of this type of oak. As a result, there is not really a particular type of color tone that could observed from the Mizunara compared with the former two.
On top of that, the specific cask used for the maturing process affects the color of the spirit as well. While American Bourbon straightly uses virgin oak casks that have never been used before due to the US regulations; Scotch as well as other whisky producers tend to mature their products in used casks, ranging from Bourbon, Sherry, and many others.
What this does to these whiskies is that the remaining substances from the previous maturing process would get absorbed into spirit, and would shift the color of the whisky in many different ways. Generally speaking, while Sherry casks tend to make the whisky more auburn-like, Bourbon casks usually would shape the whisky into a vibrant-yellow color.
An interesting example of this would be the Raasay While We Wait which I have previously featured in this blog. Since the distillers intended to create a great variety of flavors with this product, they also included whiskies matured in casks that had previously matured Sauvignon Cabernet. This significantly elevated the color of the whisky to have more of an amber tone.
Another important factor is whether the whisky is a first-fill or a refill. While American Bourbon is certainly first-fill as mentioned earlier; many times whiskies produced from anywhere else in the world are at least a second-fill. What this means is that the more times the casks have been used, the lighter the whisky would be in color. This would be the case even if the cask has been charred.
As a matter fact, whisky manufacturers tend to blend whiskies from different refill numbers in order to have their products be coherent in color. But even then, American Bourbon would definitely start off having a darker shade than their Scotch or Japanese whisky counterparts.
Last but not least is Caramel Coloring -- a process of artificially darkening the color of the whisky; all done with the help of a chemical named E150a.
This spirit caramel is sometimes applied to whisky by the brand in order to keep their product in consistent colors. Unlike common perception, however, it tastes nothing like the caramel that we usually have in our ice cream. In fact, it is usually tasteless so it wouldn't affect the aroma of the whisky.
The only downside to adding this chemical is really it prevents us from really assessing the quality of the whisky by just looking at its colors. Thusly, in order to tell whether a whisky is good or not, you should stick to the traditional way by really tasting it.