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My host, at Thanksgiving dinner, graciously produced a couple of single malts from his collection, for those of us who were so inclined to indulge. Not surprisingly, I was.
One was Ardbeg 17 year old; a classic Islay malt. I enjoyed it quite thoroughly, but it was a curiosity to me to notice that this 17 year old whisky was very light in color. How, I wondered, could it stay in a barrel for 17 years, even a used barrel, and yet be so light in color at bottling? Not even amber at all, but more of a pale golden color.
The other bottle was Blair Athol 12 y/o, also very pleasant. I struggled throughout my dram to put my finger on the peculiar fruitiness, before I learned that it was aged in sherry casks. 'Splains everying. This whisky, however, being five years less in wood, was much darker in hue; a lovely rusted amber.
What's the explanation?
I think your on the right track. Scotch whiskey aged in a used sherry cask would be darker. Also many such whiskies have food coloring added to darken the spirit. Ardbeg 17 is aged in used bourbon casks and would not acquire a dark hue. Nor would much if any coloring be added.
What's the explanation?
With Scotch, all the bourbon rules are off. That means you can add caramel coloring with no repercussions whatsoever. Ignore any notes you might have about color--they're essentially meaningless.
Exactly right: spirit caramel, E150a, can be added for color adjustment. As far as I am aware, this is the only allowed coloring and supposedly it is strongly enough colored so that only tastelessly small amounts are added (pun intended!), but your mileage may vary. So, color of single malt scotch means nothing, UNLESS you get the scotch in one of the few European contries (Germany and Denmark, for example) that require disclosure of added caramel coloring. In that case, if the label does not state that coloring was added, the color is due to the cask.
This is also why some of the non-colored scotchs are sold in colored bottles.
You, gentlemen, are a veritable TROVE of information.
Thank you all.
I'd like to add that just because it's a used barrel, doesn't mean it will add NO colour. Barrels for aging scotch can be used time and time again. And single malts are not single barrel so when the malt is vatted, the source malts may have been aged in various types of barrels new or previously used only once or a variety of times.
As an example Bruichladdich is one distillery that prides itself in NO CARAMEL ADDED. Check out the photo below and you'll notice the beautiful colour of their 15 year old. This is not photo trickery, it is the product's true colour. How did it get this rich in colour? This product was aged in 85% FIRST FILL used bourbon barrels. Some of their older releases utilize fresh (ie. previously unused) barrels, while others utilize 2nd fill etc.
Here's an example of the effect the barrels and their prior use can have on color of Scotch. Unfortunately the lighting here was less than optimal, but the relative difference is still visible: the bottle on the left is a 22-year-old Port Ellen; in real life it's about the color of white wine (but still very flavorful). The bottle on the right is Aberlour a'bunadh, which is a cask-strength sherry-cask-aged Scotch, which while not quite the color of red wine, is certainly way out on the deep red end of the whiskey color spectrum.
According to the bottle, the Port Ellen was aged in a refill sherry butt! I also have an 11-year-old Caol Ila that is the same color as the Port Ellen, aged in a bourbon barrel--probably, again, a refill.
The independant bottlings( such as the Sinatory shown ) seem to use more refill butts and in most cases do not add any colorings to the spirit. I have many Murray-McDavid bottlings ( some 25 to 29 yrs old ) that emulate the color of white wine.
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