Most bottles of Bourbon and Rye dating from back in the 1950s and 60s, had a rich, red, amber color. This includes younger whiskey – 4-year-old bonded products such as Old Fitzgerald, Old Grand-Dad and Old Forester. Today’s versions of these products have lost that nice, deep amber color. This change has led me to think about why the color has changed. Why are whiskeys of today more golden than red? I think it is due to a combination of factors that have changed in the last 50 or more years. Here are my thoughts on this loss of color.
The first factor I considered was filtration. It was in the 1970s that chill-filtration became common. Technology had developed that allowed the distilleries to economically start to use chill-filtration on their whiskeys. When you filter out more fatty acids and such that cause cloudy whiskey when it gets cold, you also are filtering out some of the color. Today, there are more people who are not using chill filtration on their whiskeys, and they do tend to be darker in color. Still, they are not the rich amber color of the whiskeys from the 1950s and 60s. There are several artisan distillers that do not chill filter their whiskey. This is mostly because chill-filtration systems are expensive. These artisan products do tend to be darker in color than one would expect for whiskeys of a very young age.
The next factor is barrel entry proof. Before 1964, the maximum barrel entry proof was 110. Many distilleries’ barrel entry proof was actually lower than that number, putting whiskey in the barrel at 105 or 107 proof. Water is the universal solvent, so the added water is going to add more sugars and other compounds to the whiskey from the barrel at a younger age. Plus, when the whiskey is bottled, less water is added to the whiskey, diluting the color less in the bottle. There are many artisan distillers that are using lower barrel entry proof for their whiskeys. Once again, the color does look darker and more amber than gold.
The final factor is the barrel itself. The use of kiln-dried wood in making the barrel has increased over the years. Letting wood age outside for an extended period of time causes different chemical reactions in the wood than kiln drying. Air-dried wood could lead to darker whiskey. The char level for the brands could also have changed in individual brands. Smaller barrels also make a difference in color at a younger age. The artisan distillers using smaller barrels do tend to have darker colored whiskey at a young age.
Some of the more amber colored whiskeys of today are being made by Michter’s Distillery. Michter’s is chill filtering their whiskey, but they are selective as to how they do it. Their philosophy is to do the least amount of filtration needed to remove what they want to remove without taking away any flavors they want to keep. They have a low barrel entry proof of 103. They also use barrels made from oak that is air-dried, some for well over a year.
Peerless is another distillery that has four-year-old whiskey that is darker and more amber than most whiskeys of the same age. They have a low barrel entry proof of 107 and bottle their products at barrel proof without chill filtration. They get most of their barrels from Kelvin Cooperage, but I am not sure whether or not the oak is air-dried or kiln-dried.
The color of whiskey has changed in the last 50 or more years. I suspect that these are the three factors in that color change, but there could be other reasons as well.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller
February 17, 2020 at 11:31 am
What are the rules regarding added caramel in the US?
In Scotland & Ireland a lot of the coloring is down to this additive.
February 17, 2020 at 12:44 pm
No coloring or flavoring compounds allowed in any American Straight whiskeys.
February 17, 2020 at 12:56 pm
I don’t believe water contains any sugars at all so lowering the proof of whiskey by adding water would not increase the sugar content.
February 17, 2020 at 1:03 pm
You need to read the sentence again – water is the universal solvent and dissolves the sugars in the wood better than alcohol. That is why there will be more sugar in the whiskey.
February 17, 2020 at 1:10 pm
Water being a, “universal solvent” As Mr. Veach stated, causes it to extract more sugar from the Charred wood barrels.
February 17, 2020 at 1:32 pm
Thank you both Michael and Robyn, that helps
to clear things up. It is not obvious from the sentence that “water, the universal solvent, causes it to extract more sugar from the charred wood barrels”. A particularly relevant factor in understanding the flavors and colors of, I presume, all whiskeys.
February 17, 2020 at 1:39 pm
Thank you Michael and Robyn for clearing up my misunderstanding though I don’t think it is clear from the reading that “water, being the universal solvent, causes it to extract more sugar from the charred oak barrels”. For someone who enjoys an education in whiskeys, their heritage, the distilling process and the reasons for their myriad colors and tastes, this is a particularly important aspect of their development.
February 17, 2020 at 1:48 pm
You are welcome.
October 23, 2021 at 12:34 am
If I could add to that: The lower barrel entry proof increases in those things that are water soluble – such as vanillin, hemicellulose and other wood sugars – while a higher barrel-entry proof promotes higher concentrations of those things that dissolve in alcohol – wood resin and tannins. The first we associate with smoother and sweeter whiskeys, the second with spicier and bolder whiskeys.
October 27, 2021 at 8:58 pm
Perhaps oxidation plays a role here as well?
September 7, 2022 at 2:33 am
What year is the original bottle shown in your post. I just cleaned one up and filled it with the current ogd bib and curious what age my bottle is. It’s identical to the one in the picture