Revisiting Coloring & the Non Chill-Filtered vs. Chill-Filtered Debate
I just read through over 400 posts on the whiskywhiskywhisky forum; I was guided there from a a fellow malt head in the whiskymag forum. Yes over 400 posts - call me a glutton for punishment!
In short, in December 2010 in these forums, there's been a raging debate about labeling. The idea being: if Scotch whisky is only supposed to be made from certain cereals, water and yeast, and aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels not exceeding 600 liters, how and why is it allowed that caramel coloring is sometimes added?
Thus, for over 400 posts, the tone is generally to either change the industry's use of coloring agent (don't allow it) or to change labeling requirements to clearly indicate its use. A lesser number of posts point out possible health concerns about the coloring agent, and that it may or may not change a whisky's taste and texture. There was only a couple posts about how and why the practice came to be, though not well covered.
Thus, this post may be a starting point for this debate in this forum, and I hope to start the debate with a little more about how and why coloring agents came to be used. We'll see what this forum says about whether its use should be allowed continuation...
The standard industry line is that coloring doesn't significantly change a whisky, there are great whiskies that have been colored as well as not, and that it is a necessary to provide a consistent look for a whisky from bottling to bottling. Chill-filtering receives a similar standard line.
However, it is easily argued that whether or not significantly changed, the adjective "significantly" ABSOLUTELY indicates some change - otherwise there would be no reason to say anything other than it DOESN'T change a whisky. So, coloring DOES change a whisky's character to some level.
Chill-filtering does the same but in reverse. Rather than the addition of something, any filtering removes something. Thus, chill-filtering changes a whisky from its most complete form compared to what it was prior to its removal from cask.
Of course, the addition of color and chill-filtering don't render a whisky undrinkable. But it must be recognized they both indeed change a whisky from what it was prior to coloring and/or chill-filtration.
Another point here is that not all chill-filtered whisky is colored and not all colored whisky is chill-filtered. The processes are two entirely different acts. Though most whiskies being colored are chill-filtered.
Historical Reasons Why:
Commercial caramel color was greatly pioneered in 1880 in Chicago by the Sethness Caramel Color Company.
What was happening in the whisky industry at the time?
1. Phylloxera was devastating France and France's wine industry.
2. Limited wine production in the Cognac region meant Cognac distillers didn't have enough wine supply to distill to meet Cognac production and consumption demand.
3. The limited supply of Cognac drastically increased the prices of available stocks of Cognac
4. This situation set the stage for Scotch whisky to quench the British's Cognac thirst
5. The market for Scotch whisky was blended whisky brands owned by merchants and large companies.
For whiskies to become brands and easily replace Cognac, they needed to have cosmetic consistency - meaning brands need more than just consistent flavors and aromas but also consistency of appearance.
In the day, Cognac obtained a darker color more quickly during maturation due to the oxidation process often having affected the wine prior to distillation, and the wine spirit also being affected more quickly than cereal spirit as it matures in barrel.
Thus, with the advent of commercial color at around the same time the Brits were switching from Cognac to blended Scotch, it makes perfect sense that coloring blends to appear more like Cognac became desirable by the blenders as they were ******* Scotch as a replacement to Cognac.
As filtration was less in those days for these brands, the darker color also managed to mask the "floaties" we only witness today in unfiltered whiskies.
So, branding and consistency of visual appearance (cosmetics) are important reasons to continue coloring and filtering today, the same as they became in the late 1800s, as a generally unknowing mass-market would be easily confused if the brand of whisky they buy today is different in appearance from a bottle of the same brand two weeks from now. Not to mention, two of the same brand sitting on the shelf next to one another looking different. God forbid there be a little something suspended in the bottle!
Recognize chill-filtering wasn't pioneered until the 1930s, but by this time many of the brands most people still buy were well developed.
So, here's a little history of why and where coloring came into fashion, the same with filtration.
What do you think? Should coloring be allowed or discontinued?