WHAT GIVES BOURBON AND WHISKY THEIR COLOUR?
WHAT GIVES BOURBON AND WHISKY THEIR COLOUR?
Picture this: It’s Friday of a three-day summer weekend, and the party’s at your house. Everybody loved your grilled chicken, the firepit is crackling, and the only thing missing is a post-dinner dram of your favorite whiskey. Good thing you’ve got a fresh bottle tucked away just for this moment. You crack the cork, grab a glass, and pour yourself a generous splash of brilliant sapphire liquid.
Record scratch, right? Whiskey is supposed to be brown—full stop. That amber color is as central to the spirit’s identity as casks, mash bills, and the Old Fashioned cocktail.
But have you ever wondered where the color comes from—and whether a darker color automatically means a higher quality whiskey? Read on for all the answers to your most burning whiskey color queries.
COLOR COMES FROM CASKS
When fresh whiskey comes out of the still, it’s crystal clear. The amber tone only develops during maturation, when the spirit begins extracting pigments and other compounds from the oak cask that give it color, flavor, and aroma.
While virtually all whiskeys fall somewhere from the straw-to-mahogany spectrum of browns, exactly where they land depends on the type of oak barrels they age in. Bourbon barrels, which are always made from new, charred oak (usually American white oak) are the most powerful, giving aging bourbon that rich amber tone in a matter of months.
Beyond the deep color, new oak also gives bourbon a richly woodsy flavor full of vanilla, brown sugar, coconut, and spice. You can taste that richness for yourself in our line of Small Batch Bourbons, including our latest release, Barrell Bourbon Batch 029, which blends 6, 7, 9, 10, 14, and 16-year-old barrels for a unique combination of bright tropical fruit and sweet dessert notes.
In addition to bourbon, new charred oak casks are also used to age other types of American whiskeys, most notably rye. We think of rye as bourbon’s bolder, more characterful sibling. Many of those same rich American oak flavors are there, but underpinned by a distinctive herbal spice. Rye whiskey forms the backbone of our award-winning Seagrass, which is finished in Martinique rum, Madeira, and apricot brandy barrels.
SECOND USE–AND BEYOND
Bourbon and rye have to be aged in new casks, but other spirit categories are under no such restrictions. That means that most casks are re-used, often many times. The more times a cask is used, the less color and character it has to give—just like how steeping a tea bag a second or third time results in a weaker brew. But that’s not always a bad thing.
The Scotch whisky industry, for instance, buys loads of ex-bourbon casks from the bourbon industry. The first time an ex-bourbon cask is used, it tints the whisky a rich amber color (although not as deep as the bourbon it held originally).
Every successive use results in a lighter whisky. Third- or fourth-fill casks might produce a whisky the color of white wine, even after a decade or more of maturation. While it won’t have as much overt oak character as bourbon does, that just means there’s more opportunity to experience the character of the distillate itself.
Because so many consumers believe that a dark whiskey is a good whiskey, Scotch whisky producers sometimes add caramel coloring (also called “spirit caramel”) to tint their whiskies a darker color. It doesn’t add any flavor, but some consumers are willing to pay a higher price when they see that deep hue.
Caramel coloring isn’t allowed in bourbon, and some single malt producers have opted out of its use, preferring to let the natural color of the spirit shine through. We’re with them; at Barrell Craft Spirits, we always bottle everything at natural color.
Another way Scotch whisky producers can deepen the color of their whisky (and add flavor) is by using casks that previously held something with a darker tone, like sherry, port, or wine. Sherry casks often produce a very deep brown whisky, while red wine or port casks can give whisky a ruddy, blush, or even subtly pink hue. It might not be as spectacular as that imaginary blue drink, but in the world of whiskey, subtly pink is about as showy as it gets.
All this whiskey talk make you thirsty? Good news. You can shop all of your favorite Barrell Craft Spirits releases online, or use our map tool to find a retailer near you.