Caramel addition may prove sticky issue for Scotch's marketeers
The use of caramel as a colour taint in Scotch is seen by many as a marketing must. But legislation in Europe that demands the labelling of all additional ingredients may cause a backlash against this "unnatural" additive.
It was at this year's Islay whisky festival that the depth of the caramel issue hit home. Rather than answering questions on the mechanics of maturation, GuinnessUDV's Jim Beveridge was fielding questions about why his firm added caramel to Lagavulin.
"These whiskies are a different colour to the one on the bottle," said one [German] inquisitor about the samples Beveridge had poured to show the impact of different cask types on malt.
"Yes," said Jim. "But remember they are from single casks. Every cask can give a slightly different hue depending on wood type and how many times it has been filled previously. The Lagavulin you buy in the shop is a vatting of hundreds of casks."
"But why is it always the same colour?" badgers another inquisitive visitor.
"To give consistency," says Jim. "You don't want a whisky to change colour every time you buy a bottle, do you?"
"So you add caramel?"
His inquisitors look disgusted and move away. It's easy to dismiss them as the Taliban of malt, fundamentalist whisky lovers, people who believe nothing - water, chill-filtering or caramel addition - should get between them and their drink.
There again, how many people know that whisky distillers are legally permitted to use spirit caramel to adjust the colour of their whiskies?
The discussion at Lagavulin crystallised the debate that has been taking place between the industry and the new whisky connoisseur. For the past 18 months all the Scotch sold in Germany and Denmark must declare whether any colour adjustment has taken place. Needless to say as soon as the word "caramel" appeared on the back labels of most Scotch brands, everyone in those countries took notice and began to question the practise.
The industry is sticking to its guns, although the Scotch Whisky Association's Campbell Evans expressed some disappointment that the Germans and Danes had taken up such a position.
"We said that they shouldn't jump the gun with labelling until there was legislation, if indeed it was decided that legislation was needed," says Evans.
'Scotch Whisky' - whisky which has been produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley to which no substance other than water and spirit caramel has been added.
But why are an increasing number of consumers (and governments) expressing alarm at what is legally permitted? The Scotch Whisky Act 1988 states: "'Scotch Whisky' means whisky which has been produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley to which no substance other than water and spirit caramel has been added."
End of story. Caramel adjustment is legal.
"The addition of spirit caramel is contained within the hard-fought definition we have for Scotch whisky," says Nick Morgan at GuinnessUDV. "We know that consumers want to have their whisky the same colour every time they buy a bottle. This is a consumer need which we're satisfying."
As Evans says: "If we're selling 1bn bottles of whisky a year then people want a consistent product. If they saw various shades of whisky varying from one batch to the next then there would be consumer complaints.
"You must remember that caramel is used to tint a whisky, it's not as if vat loads are being tipped in."
But not every distiller is toeing the party line. Springbank has never used caramel adjustment. "It's always been our aim to produce a whisky which is not changed in any way either by the extraction of flavouring oils during chill filtration or by the addition of caramel colouring in order to standardise the whisky," says distillery manager Frank McHardy.
Independent bottler Murray McDavid, the new owner of Bruichladdich, is another believer in the "all-natural" route. "Although it comes from a natural source, caramel is an artificial colour," says Gordon Wright at Bruichladdich.
"Our view is that the spirit must stand on its own, open to scrutiny and the colour should act as an indication of the wood that the whisky has been matured in. It should give the consumer a visual guide to the flavours and aromas he might expect," he adds.
The issue however isn't just about colour, but flavour. Does caramel affect a whisky's taste? Nick Morgan says it doesn't. "We've been completely open about why we use caramel and called on [writer] Pip Hills to analyse whiskies for us.
"His results show that caramel makes absolutely no difference to the taste of a whisky. If there is a caramel flavour in a whisky it will come from the [naturally occurring] caramels and vanillin's contained in American oak and not from any colour adjustment."
Wright disagrees. "We recently test-bottled Bruichladdich, some with caramel and some without. The difference was amazing, with the non-coloured being cleaner and fresher by miles." McHardy agrees: "I think the addition of large amounts of caramel colouring can alter the flavour of the whisky. In the case of some of the cheaper blends it may even improve the flavour!"
Surely this is just a case of whisky aficionados getting their anoraks in a twist? Nick Morgan's argument is that the average punter in the street doesn't want his whisky to be a different hue every time he buys a bottle.
"I think everyone who knows about caramel addition would rather see whisky being bottled naturally."
"It's only an issue for a very small group of vociferous people," he says. But Wright asks: "Is it only tree-hugging, save-the-whale types that care about food additives, GM foods and bits of spinal cord in their burgers?
"When people are fully informed about what is in a product they're able to make a decision on how important it is to them. I think everyone who knows about caramel addition would rather see whisky being bottled naturally."
Ironically, both sides feel that there is commercial advantage to be gained by holding to their opposing positions. For GuinnessUDV (and most major distillers) the issue is simple. Sales would be lost if there was colour variation between batches.
For smaller players, being able to say, "this is a natural whisky" gives instant appeal to the small band of aficionados.
"As the consumer becomes more informed regarding the addition of colour, which they'll probably regard as an additive, they will shy away from what they perceive not to be a totally natural, unadulterated product," says McHardy.
So, does this give Springbank a commercial edge? "The main advantage we have by not adding colouring is that we can honestly say we're sticking to making a product which is not tampered with in any way."
The fact that there is a commercial advantage to be had by taking the all-natural route hasn't passed GuinessUDV by either. The firm's Rare Malts collection is bottled at cask strength with no chill-filtering or colour adjustment. Isn't this a contradictory stance? The people who know about whisky can have it as it comes, the beginners can have the adjusted version.
"The Rare Malts range is being sold to the same vociferous people I mentioned earlier, people who take a perverse enjoyment in diversity," says Morgan.
"They know what they're getting, but if you gave the average Dalwhinnie drinker their malt in lighter or darker colours there would be an issue." In other words, it's a matter of knowing your markets and differentiating between your consumers.
But if the malt market is maturing and firms are dealing with a more informed consumer is colour adjustment necessary? A bottle of malt is hardly a weekly purchase for most drinkers; it's a luxury product. And even if caramel doesn't affect flavour, is failing to declare its use pulling the wool over consumers eyes?
"If you're buying something to drink as an everyday drink then you want a consistent product. "
Not so, says Campbell Evans. "If you're buying something to drink as an everyday drink then you want a consistent product. If you want something a little different you will buy a specialist bottle."
Wright inevitably disagrees. "It's cheating the consumer," he says. "The majority of drinkers are led to believe that a whisky's colour comes from the casks used rather than a bucket or two of colouring added just before bottling. I have seen examples of righteous indignation from consumers who, when they find out, feel they have been patronised and made to look foolish. That's what happened in Germany after the labelling requirements were changed."
So far there has been no indication that the EU will adopt the German/Danish line of labelling, but it does remain a possibility.
"I hope it is made a Europe-wide policy," says Wright. "If it is I think that many companies will need to re-think their whole policy on colouring. They may even have to apply some thought to their vatting, bottling and cask policy.
"Wine drinkers either understand (or don't care) that the colour of their wine may vary slightly from vintage to vintage or as the wine ages. Why should whisky consumers be any different?"
If the EU does step in then much of the brown spirits industry could become involved in what has been seen, until now as a minor spat between a small group of whisky nuts and major distillers.
What will happen when consumers realise how much caramel is used to adjust the colour and flavour of rum? What of the widespread use of Boise in Cognac and Armagnac - also legal, but widely used to mask the flavour of a young brandy to make it seem older?
This one could run and run.
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