We are all susceptible to using color to prejudge whiskies. Long before we experience the aromas and flavors inside the bottle, our brain has already processed the visuals; it’s made up your mind. Once mature, whisky typically ranges between the color of pale straw to deep mahogany. It starts as colorless, new make spirit, as it’s the cask that imparts this spectrum of natural hues over the years. We can’t help ourselves; invariably, those rich, dark tones appear a more attractive prospect than a lemon-tinted bottling. Given the choice, wouldn’t we rather bask in the glowing amber skies of an ocean sunset than shiver in the undernourishing rays of a winter morning’s first light spilling over cold ground?
In the age of Instagram heroes and digital consumerism, naturally darker whiskies stand out from the crowd; more clicks, more likes, more sales, more bids. Whisky producers know this too. Why do you think Glenrothes ditched those solid tubes from the 1990s in favor of open frames that display the tones of their different vintages? Ever wondered why more modern whiskies than ever are filled into clear bottles, not brown or green glass? Then there’s the perpetually sticky topic of spirit caramel. Whisky producers can add this legally, ostensibly for color ‘consistency,’ but that norm can be ‘consistently’ darker than the natural product. Discerning a whisky’s natural color online can be problematic, especially with old collectibles when details are sparse. Here’s another dark thought for you: photo manipulation could be the spirit caramel of the Internet.
“Darker whiskies paint a taste profile in your mind,” says Neil Urquhart, a director at Gordon and MacPhail. “As human beings, we’re programmed to buy with our eyes, being led by appearance first and other elements second.” When Gordon and MacPhail holds their ‘So you think you know whisky?’ sessions, they challenge consumers to select the older whisky in a series of head-to-head contests. The objective is to educate people that color doesn’t indicate smoothness or age. Faced with a light, golden whisky next to a dark one, the fingers all point incorrectly to the latter as the oldest. They found out not everyone could discriminate between a mature whisky and new make spirit adulterated with spirit caramel either. Place two different drams in blue sampling glasses to mask the color, and more drinkers arrived at the right conclusion, though narrowing the age down to a specific number is even trickier.
Collectors’ veneration of sherry cask maturation is intensified by its relative scarcity among modern whisky ranges, now that the abundance of yellowy no age statement whiskies is commonplace. This explains the predominance of whiskies with colors of hazelnut, walnut, and even ebony featuring in the most triumphant sales at online auctions. “Darker whiskies, particularly sherry matured whiskies, give an indication of age, richness, and complexity of flavor which naturally appeals to buyers at auction,” says Iain McClune of Whisky Auctioneer, an online whisky auction site. “The idea of ‘age’ is becoming highly sought after. Color is seen as a direct consequence of aging and quality, particularly noticeable in independent bottlings: we see younger whiskies matured in first-fill sherry casks attracting prices of whiskies twice their age.”
Whether we seek complexity, indulgent luxury, or superior quality, it seems many of us are inescapably drawn to dark, brooding, potentially delectable whiskies.