Over the years, a lot of official bottlings have evolved beyond my financial comfort zone. So, my interest in the affordable 'bottom shelf' segment of the single malts market has only grown keener over time. I'm very happy that quite a few affordable 'daily drams' are entered into our annual Malt Maniacs Awards competition each year, so I can stay informed about the condition of a wide range of affordable single malt whiskies that are available these days.
Unfortunately, some distilleries and bottlers never participate in our competition, so I have to buy bottles or swap samples if I want to know what the latest batches taste like. With that in mind, I bought myself a bottle of the regular Glen Grant NAS a wile ago, so I could publish fresh tasting notes and a score. I didn't really notice the colour initially, because it was a dark amber 'whisky colour' like so many other bottles on my shelf. However, then it dawned on me that the Glen Grant NAS used to be unusually light in colour in the 1990's - perhaps the lightest regular OB available at the time. Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but could it be that Campari started using lots of caramel when they introduced the new packaging in 2007? I decided to share my thoughts with the maniacs...
Olivier: "More caramel, absolutely… I am sure it increases image value. In Germany you can see all these ‘Mit Farbstoff’ on all these bottlings. I recently looked at a big range of Dalmore and they ALL had this mention on the back label. Unless they use a standard back label for all products, I would say that most commercial 12yo or less have caramel added in order to avoid colour differences between batches, but now it also adds a certain image of quality (darker = more tasty and older). However, I am happy that one of my favourite 12yo is now made without colorant: Highland Park 12yo. In 2008 they started using again older sherry casks to adjust colour.".
Ho-cheng: "Dear Johannes, You are certainly right. When I visit Glen Grant in 2007 summer, they just release the new labeling, I did remember the distillery manger, Dennis Malcolm, showed me both versions, the new one with caramel the old one don't, He asked my opinion about it. (Please see the attached photo.) He mentioned that the marketing team believe coloring is better for the sales and he think it has very minor effects with the taste. Honestly, I did remember I taste them in spot and also brought some back for the second blind tasting, I can only tell very little difference but hardly to say which one is better."
Dave Broom: "Without wanting to stir up the bloody caramel debate yet again it's worth noting that from this year Burn Stewart are bottling their malts with no caramel, no chill-filtering and at a higher strength. Just got the samples through. I think (well.. hope) that as single malt begins to move into the premium price area where it always should have resided that we will see more of this."
Luca: "In Italy, one of the selling points of Glen Grant was the light color of the whisky. "Colore chiaro, gusto pulito" (Light color, clean taste) has been the classic lines used for the ads and TV commercials. I wonder how they will change marketing strategy now, after using that approach for so many decades. Another case of Macallan turning from "we only use sherry casks" to "we are using all kinds of crappy casks and the result is wonderful"?"
Davin: "Don't forget the Van Meersbergen experiment which showed some Maniacs couldn't tell the difference or marginally preferred the flavour of vatted malts with caramel added. That Jim Murray hates it so, has campaigned so hard against it, (and detects it in places it isn't), almost makes me hope Burns Stewart change their minds."
Nabil: "OK, I don't want to raise the wrath of Davin...I'm going to see him in a couple days! Let's set flavour aside. Ho-Cheng's and Olivier's comments are really the crux of the issue: The industry wants the colour of the whisky to make a (perhaps deceptive) statement about time in the cask, type of cask, and tastiness. I understand the marketing challenges, but on principle I wish they wouldn't use caramel....I prefer au naturel."
Serge: "Nabil, I guess it's hard to resist what the consumer wants and anoraks do not quite make for 'a market'. In the 1960s they had to 'de-colourise' some whiskies because the people wanted 'light' or 'light-looking' whiskies! And I've heard Coca-Cola, were it not caramelised, would be green ;-). As they say, 'tastes and colours!'..."
These wise words were not the end of our debate (in fact, we seldom finish our debates with wise words ;-) but the 'Ask an Anorak' discussion derailed a bit after this. I'd like to stress that I'm not against colouring by definition. In fact, a recent tasting from Bert, Paul, Michel and myself sort of proved that caramel doesn't only work as a colouring agent, it also has a positive effect on the taste and cohesion of the whisky. I wouldn't be surprised if this is also a reason why many producers add it these days. It's not allowed to add flavour components to a pure product like Scotch whisky - but if a change in flavour is a side-effect of the colouring agent, there's little they can do about it, right?
Oh, it looks I'm growing cynical in my old age ;-)
Oh, it looks I'm growing cynical in my old age ;-)