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 selling 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?
..."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?"
It may be that some of the posts/posters are confusing the sequence of events for traditional whisky production: i.e. addition of coloring agents happens AFTER distillation and aging and thus caramel shouldn't be thought of as a basic ingredient like malt, water or yeast. -But perhaps this is a distinction without a difference for many malt people, and I can understand their dismay at a spirit being presented in anything but the unadulterated (to their mind) form that best represents that particular malt/expression. For myself, tho' it's nice not to have coloring added, I don't get my knickers in a knot over it.
Dale let's get the facts and history correct.
First the Scotch Whisky Act says that casks must be no larger than 700 litres not 600.
You say that chill filtration was pioneered in the 1930's, that may be true in America but it was originally called pre-cooling and invented and patented in 1926 by a Glasgow [Scotland] whisky company who used it for a couple of years then stopped. The reason 100% of all blends are chill filtered is because in the late 1960's American drinkers demanded whisky that wouldn't go cloudy when they stored it in the fridge at 4 degrees. So during the first couple of years of the 1970's ALL Scotch whisky companies had to perfect a means of accomodating this demand. Not all went down the chill filtration route as there were other ways to do this. At this time there was only a very few thousand cases of malts sold and they also used the same method.
You say that colour was pioneered in Chicago in the 1880's, this may be fact but had nothing to do with Scotch more with Bourbon and American Whiskies as colour wasn't in general use in the UK until the 1890's or even later. I agree that phylloxera was the spark to make Scotch become what it is today but it devastated all European vines, the only original European vines that were left unaffected were, and still are, in Cyprus.
It doesn't matter what the colour of the wine is before distillation as during that process all colour is taken out and clear spirit is the result. The brandy/cognac industry have always, and still do, used a much larger volume of colour than Scotch whisky in their spirit as european oak gives very little colour during maturation and they only toast their casks.
The only colouring allowed under the SW Act is Spirit Caramel and that's produced by one company in the UK, the rules state that its use "should not be sufficient to deceive the consumers", Factually there is less that 1 part per 10 million of caramel in whisky and does nothing to the taste and smell of the whisky only to the appearance.
As to your comment about "floaties", if you look at the adverts in the 1880's they were and had been selling plate and frame filters that are exactly the same as the ones used today. I believe your misunderstand filtration as ALL Scotch whiskies are barrier filtered to remove the bits of char and wood present and produce a clean whisky, there is one company that puts pieces of char into their bottles but that's after barrier filtration, but not all chill filter their whiskies. You will see the words "non chill filtered" which means that not that there's no filtration.
I do fully agree with your paragraph about consistency and visual appearance as that is really important in the current commercial climate.
To finish this discussion about to colour or not really started in Germany in the mid 1990's when they introduced a law which meant that anything that was added to a product had to be stated on the label. This meant that all Scotch's had to carry the German wording that said "with added caramel" and all of a sudden they started complaining about it. Up to that time they hadn't bothered even though Austria had enacted that law about 25 or so years earlier and all Austrian bottles carried the wording.
Blenderm you're right. Sorry for the 600-700 screw-up, I can only attribute to a typo.
1926 is right about chill-filtering. I said 1930s because the process was stopped, played with a little in the 30's and took some time before more widespread use and general acceptance, with both being realized in the 1960-70s. A similar idea could be said about Aeneas Coffey's 1830 patenting of his column still in Ireland - the concept and design was not far from Robert Stein's of a couple years earlier in Scotland - though Coffey generally gets the credit. It's only been 20 or so years that the promotion of chill-filtering in beer production has been promoted to consumers in adverts as being beneficial (something they should be making their buying decisions on), and "dry" and "ice" beers fall into the same situation.
I don't find American drinkers demand much - they generally don't know enough about the products to know what to demand so the producers and industry don't usually listen to them. Not that there aren't examples of industry listening to consumers (it took the U.S. nearly a decade to get out of Vietnam after the start of widespread dissenting protest). Today, perhaps the internet, blogs and forums such as this will have a bigger influence going forward. Lord knows something needs to have an impact beyond the "focus group" game.
American consumers generally drink what is provided. I know of no American drinker demanding bubble gum flavored vodka! But they'll drink it if someone comes up with the idea, makes it and is successful getting it to market. Unfortunately, someone has!! Thus, consumers may want a retailer to carry it because they want to try it, or have and, God forbid, like it.
But other than wanting a retailer to carry something, I don't believe the consumer's demands are often a part of why the industry develops production innovations - it is more someone in the industry addressing/improving something they think will result in something consumers will buy because it either results in a better product or eliminates what the people in the industry perceives is a problem to affect wider distribution, greater sales, and broader brand recognition.
I participated in some focus groups when I was in university (needed the money) and have seen products totally flop, as was my opinion in the focus group. Of course, some products are successful. How else to explain bubble gum vodka? I just don't see it as the industry listening but more like the industry forcing their will on unknowing consumers.
Cream liqueurs, for example, are subject to coagulating if kept too long and at too high of temperature. Plus, the cream can actually go rancid. Mass brands therefore use powdered dairy products to prevent this from happening. Thus, there is a market for making and selling real cream liqueurs to consumers who are actually looking for better creams, but this narrow market also need the education of why it's important to keep these creams cool, to drink them up, and not leave them sitting open in their liquor cabinet for 10 years.
Bailey's could never be what it is today if they were using fresh cream. And if consumers could taste a real cream Bailey's versus today's mass produced Bailey's, I cannot imagine a majority of drinkers would find today's bottling better than the real cream version. Even if they did, I don't think they'd be demanding that all real creams in the market start using powdered dairy.
Producers are often looking for ways to improve their products and the perceptions of them so as to reach a larger audience, sure. In my opinion, chill-filtration is an example of this, and its mass use, was to affect removal of the cloud that can happen when a liquor (not just Scotch) is chilled. This is revered in absinthe but not in whisky? It's a matter of image.
Being a lot of Americans drank their Scotch over ice (which was unusual to the rest of the world), and being unknowing to why some Scotch would throw milky character, the industry sought to eliminate this - not the consumer demanding it.
In my opinion, the industry (especially a lot of the big companies and brands) actually disregard the consumer. They come up with something that allows them to remove what they see is a problem for a continued mass distribution and growth of the brand, even if the process may diminish some the quality of the product. If they regarded the consumer, rather than come up with a new process and possibly diminish their product, they could instead embark on program of consumer education which would eliminate the need for the process. Of course, it means they have to continually be educating each generation of drinkers where once the process is implemented there is not the need for an ongoing education strategy. Thus, it's less costly to chill-filter than run continued educational campaigns, and industry/brand profit is usually the driving factor.
It took some years for Cognac stocks to diminish, as there was stock in warehouse, and there was still some production occuring while while replanting and eradication was taking place. Your right that color use took a while to cross the pond, but also by the mid 1890s Cognac was back to pretty solid production and a means of making young stock look older was coloring - and blended whiskies seem to have followed this trend to try and continue to keep the whisky business strong in its new markets in efforts to prevent a revert back to Cognac.
Besides Cyprus, there is also pre-phylloxera rootstock in Chile, of course via transplant, mainly in their carmenere.
I shouldn't have used the term "floaties." Thought about not doing so after I wrote it. In fact, I love it when I see sediments as it tends to be indicative of a less mass produced product/bottling. I drink a lot of single cask non chill-filtered whisky, so I see it a lot - as people might also find sediment in unfiltered wine. Sediments would have been a better word choice.
The Germans are known for their accuracy - which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing when it comes to labeling products we ingest. There is a camp of producers trying to make this happen in the U.S. with regards to wine - with Randall Graham of Bonny Doon greatly leading the charge.
Is it important for the consumer to know of different fining, filtering, clarification and coloring techniques? It is not really relevant for most people and their enjoyment of something. But perhaps egg white fining and uses of certain compounds should be noted, as you mentioned charcoal, on labels? Not that some don't already mention certain things - Jack Daniel's is "charcoal-mellowed." We know most people aren't going to read the label anyway. But for those of us who love this stuff and participate in forums like this, it would be worthwhile as we're generally trying to get more/better for our money.
From a professional perspective, I'd like it to have the information to use for demonstrative purposes to the differences between mass produced and handcrafted products, and I believe this allows an affecting consumer benefit. I think could help break the brand barriers a lot of consumers have - which is one reason the industry will fight it.
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