Caramel keg

Caramel keg

Ian Wisniewski investigates one of whisky's most controversial and maligned ingredients … caramel

Production | 16 May 2002 | Issue 22 | By Ian Wisniewski

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What a lot of fuss. You only have to mention caramel and a certain group gets over-anxious and condemnatory. Admittedly it’s the more militant single malt brigade rather than the majority of Scotch whisky drinkers, but it’s usually the most vociferous group whose views get prime publicity. Adding caramel is usual for blends, and hardly unusual among malts, in order to achieve colour consistency between batches, as even the most rigorous cask selection results in colour variations.This particularly applies to blends, which may comprise between 15 and 50 separate grain and malt whiskies, with the availability of some component whiskies prone to fluctuation (not to mention termination). But if blending or vatting can achieve a consistent flavour profile, why worry about any minor inconsistencies in the colour? The problem is that while many consumers know their favourite brands, a typical assumption is that colour variation
indicates a different flavour profile. Consequently, caramel plays a strategic role in reinforcing a sense of familiarity with a brand, optimising consumer confidence. But it’s also a case of consumers having a certain brand knowledge, while lacking some key whisky knowledge – which is that slight colour variations needn’t automatically affect flavour. An obvious solution is for distillers not to keep perpetuating this situtation (by continually serving up standardised tints), but to explain colour variation, and the fact that caramel is simply a cosmetic measure. Then again, which marketing department would be willing to take on such a task, and weathering the subsequent re-adjustment period, when everyone’s ‘to do’ list has so many other priorities. The principle behind current regulations (the 1988 Scotch Whisky Act, allowing a specific type of spirit caramel, E150a, to be added – but without affecting the flavour or aroma of the whisky) was established by The 1880 Spirits Act. Thought to be the earliest legal reference to caramel, it seems logical that this was passed in response to unscrupulous operators using caramel in order to bypass the maturation process: touching-up new make or immature spirit with caramel, in order to simulate the appearance of mature whisky.This ruling was maintained by subsequent legislation passed in 1909, when a member of the industry giving evidence on caramel and colour consistency told the Royal Commission: “Not many people have a palate, not many people have a nose, but everyone has eyes.” Moreover, the Immature Spirits Act in 1915 established a minimum two-year aging period, raised to three years in 1916.It is also possible that using caramel became a more widespread practice from the late 1930s-40s, when bourbon barrels became the new norm (due to the Spanish Civil War and World War II, sherry barrels were far scarcer). The sudden appearance of lighter-coloured whiskies may have prompted some colour adjustment, to try and reduce the difference between the ‘new look’ and the more familiar, darker, sherry-matured whiskies.Colour consistency became a more prominent issue during the 1960s, when clear glass bottles increasingly displaced the traditional choice of green or brown glass. This focus on ‘looks’ also saw chill-filtering become a more widespread practice, in order to prevent whiskies below 46% abv from throwing a haze in the bottle.Distillers establish a specific colour tone for each product, typically using the EBC (European Brewing Convention) scale. Measuring colour tone is a straightforward procedure. Shining a light through a sample of whisky, and measuring the
intensity of light that reaches a detector on the other side provides a reading in terms of colour units. Even when using caramel the objective is to get as close to the colour specification by using wood management as possible, with caramel only making adjustments. The proportion of caramel used varies depending on the degree of adjustment required, though the amounts are negligible: around 0.01% of the total, or less.Despite being able to calculate the amount of caramel required to adjust each product, this formula still isn’t guaranteed to result in a perfect colour match. That’s why a standard precaution is initially adding 90% of the total amount of caramel to the vat, then measuring the resulting colour of the whisky. This is followed by adding another 5% of the caramel, and taking another colour reading, before committing the final 5%. While the colour specification does include a small margin of error on either side, precautions are vital as once caramel has been added to the vat, it can hardly be subtracted. Caramel is typically added after adjusting the whisky’s abv to bottling strength by diluting with water, and prior to filtration. It is usually measured, and added to the vat, using what is fondly known as a ‘bucket,’ a traditional stainless steel measuring vessel, which typically comprises 5 litres. The caramel may initially be pre-mixed by diluting either with water or whisky before being added to the vat. Thorough integration within the vat is achieved either manually using a paddle or, more usually, mechanically by using the vat’s rouser, which resembles a propeller. Another option is air rousing (bubbling air through the vat).Using caramel to achieve a specific colour match actually entails a significant irony, as caramel fades within the bottle. This in itself needn’t be a concern, it depends of course on the degree of fading, and that is determined by various factors.
Exposure to sunlight is key, and this is increased/decreased depending on if the bottle is clear or coloured glass, whether it remains within a carton and where it’s stored. A clear glass bottle displayed in a shop window, for example, may be great for consumer visibility, but a sunny week or so is all that’s required to instigate the fading process. While this could result in a reduction of up to five tint units, this would still not register as significant to a layman’s eye. However, longer-term exposure and consequent fading could be readily discerned, resulting in ‘consumer-producer correspondence,’ even though any colour variation can actually be attributed to the retail environment. Moreover, a carefully stored bottle within a carton will also experience marginal fading within three or four months, but only to a degree measurable by a high-tech accessory, rather than by applying a simple low-tech consumer eye test.Of course not every distillery adds caramel to every release. There’s obviously no need for colour concern with a limited-edition style, as there won’t be a corresponding next batch. Moreover, some distilleries maintain colour consistency through wood management, even for expressions that are continually available. This poses a greater challenge for the master distiller, requiring skilful vatting and juggling the inventory in order to match the flavour and the colour. In this case, the fact that even the best quality casks can yield significant colour variations not only provides a challenge, but also a solution, by providing a ‘palette’ of tints for the master distiller to colour co-ordinate. A suspicious mind may perceive whisky offering a portion of crème caramel and crème brûlée flavours as evidence of spirit caramel being present. As being able to detect spirit caramel is a breach of the regulations (and no-one would want to risk rebuilding a brand after a caramel scandal), the explanation lies in the barrel. Bourbon barrels can readily pass on these types of flavours, particularly with a vanilla accent, which is hardly surprising considering the degree of caramelisation the barrels are subjected to. Similarly, Oloroso Sherry barrels can yield a certain sweetness that may be misinterpreted. Moreover, if an abundance of spirit caramel were to be added, this would hardly be manifested in such an attractive manner. On the contrary, the result would be a palate bearing astringent, acrid, bitter notes. As taste tests are redundant in detecting spirit caramel, how do you know whether any has been added, assuming it matters to you? Well, it’s not as straightforward in the UK as it is in Germany and Denmark. Regulations in these countries require caramel to be stipulated as it’s considered an additive. Check out the back label, either for the tell-tale technical reference E150a, or if your language skills don’t include German and Danish, ‘Farven et Justeret Med Karamel’ provides a positive ID in Denmark, and ‘Mit Farbstoff’ in Germany.Caramel and chill-filtering now tend to be twinned as the two ugly sisters, which somehow prevent our beautiful Cinderella spirit from attaining her rightful position and living happily ever after. In fact, ‘no caramel and non chill-filtered’ is becoming a marketing mantra, repeated by a growing number of distilleries, and cited as hallmarks of a totally natural product. That’s great, but evaluating whisky on the basis of these two production details is an over-simplification. If a whisky doesn’t deliver and reward the palate, production credentials are hardly important.
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