Brightly coloured candy to symbolise the fact that whisky does not always show it's natural colour

It’s Only Natural

Whisky is a very natural product. The only “raw” ingrediënts that go into the making of your dram are grains, yeast, and water. The grains may have been influenced by (peat) smoke. And the spirits are influenced by the barrel. Which in some cases includes influence of the spirit it previously held. But strangely enough, whisky does not always keep its natural colour before it’s bottled. Food colouring may have been added. Namely caramel colouring, or E150a.


E150, or caramel colouring, is one of the most used colourings in food and beverages. There are several different types of E150, but whisky only uses Class 1. Also known as E150a, this classification means that there are no ammonium or sulphite reactants added. It’s also known as “caustic” or “plain” caramel colour.

Caramel colouring is made in practically the same way caramel is made at home. Sugars are heated until the point they start to form a brown liquid. A very small concentration of this liquid is allowed to be added to some whiskies, to create a uniform colour. It’s good to note though, that the caramel colouring only has a shelf life of about two years. Thus, even a whisky with food colouring will eventually revert to its natural colour.

Tainted whisky

I was already well into my whisky journey when I found out about food colouring in whisky. It simply shocked me.  A product that has so many rules, and so much pride on its natural process… why would they want to add colouring to this? Why taint the whisky? Well, very crudely said, that’s our own fault. We, as consumers, started associating a “darker” whisky colour with a higher quality. And not just that. When we buy another bottle of the whisky we love, and it suddenly has a different colour? We tend to distrust that shit…

So, to make the whisky look like it’s worth it’s price tag. And to make sure it looks the same as its predecessor. Food colouring became an interesting tool for distillers, to avoid having you disregarding their whisky because of its colour.

SWA says: I’ll allow it

When you realise just how many, nit-picky, rules the SWA (Scottish Whisky Association) have surrounding our dram. Turning a blind eye to food colouring, almost seems bizarre. I mean, Compass Box once had a great whisky “outlawed” because it added staves to the whisky (Spice Tree) in the second maturation process. Which means, that if you add a bit more barrel… to the barrel you’re aging your Scotch whisky in, you can no longer call it Scotch. You can, however, add food colouring… odd, isn’t it?

It seems to me that the consistency it gives distilleries, outweighs the adding of the colouring. Take in consideration that the impact on the flavour of the whisky seems negligible… and you’ve got (in my eyes) a case of; oh well why not.

It’s not (always) on the label

Some countries (Germany comes to mind) state that the use of food colouring has to be on the label. In other countries though, not so much. This means you can’t always tell if a whisky has food colouring added. The rising popularity of natural whisky (un-chillfiltered and natural colour) has caused that many whisky makers do tend to put it on their bottle if they DON’T use it. So, when a bottle says “natural colour” you may assume no colouring has been added.

God bless America

An alinea or two ago, we established that the Scottish Whisky Association allows Scotch to contain E150a. I must add though that it was not entirely fair of me to single them out like that. Scotch may have its colours artificially enhanced… but so may Irish and Canadian whiskey. The newly made rules for Japanese whisky also state that “caramel colouring” is allowed to be used. And you can safely assume – simply because many don’t really have clearly defined rules – many of the world whiskies are allowed to add it too. So, basically that’s everyone. Everyone except… the Americans. God bless America!

But wait… that’s not fair either. Bourbon is not allowed to have food colouring. Neither are any of the “straight” products (straight rye, straight corn etc.) but an American Single Malt? If they want to add some food colouring, they can do as they please. So scratch America and just say: God bless Bourbon!

Full open honesty

Ok, full open honesty: I still prefer a good smoky Islay, over most bourbons.
And on that sense of being honest with eachother.. let’s answer some basic questions:

Do some of my favourite whiskies have colour added?


Does the colouring have a big impact on the flavour?


Do I understand why distillers look for consistency?


Is adding food colouring full open honesty?


That last question is the main problem the people in camp “natural colour” have with food colouring. It’s simply not honest. We sit there enjoying our whisky, and often we find ourselves admiring its colour. Only to find out that’s not the whisky we were admiring, it was the E150a. They deceived us…

For the fans

I must also admit that at first, I didn’t get it. I mean, it’s not like I would disregard a whisky because of a lighter colour. And I don’t know many whisky fans that would. But it’s good to remind myself, that not everyone that buys whisky also reads dozens of books about it. If I ran a distillery and found myself with a lighter coloured batch – and knowing that because of it most people would leave it to gather dust on a shelf – I might also prefer to add some colour to protect my good name. The payoff is worth it, and the downsides are negligible.

As a whisky afficionado, however, I’d much prefer to see the colour it got from the barrel. When it comes to the bottles that are targeted at us whisky fans out there? Extra points for “natural colour”. With the bottles targeted at the masses?… I mean I still prefer to see the natural colour, but E150a I get it. And if it helps keep the price down of some of those favourites of mine, hell I’ll sing off on it!

Thank you so much for reading! And if there are any more questions, hit me up! I’d love to hear (and answer) them. If you’d like to read more about what the colour of a whisky says about the quality of a dram, I can greatly recommend the article: Let’s end colour prejudice – by Cara Laing. She tells a compelling tale, and it’s a great read.

Dramble On!

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Whiskey Nut
Whiskey Nut
2 years ago

I’m not fond of e150 in whiskey myself, but do enjoy some that have it.
Having done blind tasting which picks out non-caramelised offerings I do think added e150 has a taste difference.
On a final note e150 whiskey tends to be on the cheaper side & I can’t always afford a €100+ unicorn bottle.

Drambling Man
2 years ago
Reply to  Whiskey Nut

That would be a very interesting tasting to do! Do you remember which whiskies you tasted? I’d love to do a tasting like that myself someday.
Indeed price always factors into play, so I’m happy to see more and more “affordable” bottles feature natural colour. Arran (for example) has some great, affordable, offerings!

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