Why Natural Color Is So Crucial To Understanding A Whisky’s Flavors
You don’t have to be superhuman to see the importance of a Scotch’s natural color.
In our editorial series The Macallan Rare Cask Society—sponsored by The Macallan Rare Cask—we will be looking at the qualities and characteristics that define Scotch whisky. Click here for more of our Rare Cask Society.
Human vision is as close as we mere mortals will ever come to having a genuine superpower. Our eyes—those things that give us eye strain headaches and itch like mad when ragweed season hits—can distinguish at least 2.8 million different color variations. We can detect a candle’s flame at ten miles and distinguish between surface textures as small as .002 millimeters.
Next to our eyes, our noses and ears are outright slackers. Most beverage critics like me have an arsenal of 60 or 70 flavor and aroma descriptors rattling around in our heads. But we use, on the average, fewer than a third of those in our tasting notes. That’s because we have something as powerful and acute as the human eye at our disposal. Color, it turns out, is a whisky’s superhuman strength.
More than perhaps any other distiller of Scotch whisky, The Macallan understands the importance of color to a great whisky. Their legendary barrel aging program is unique, even among Scottish distilleries, for its range of natural color expressions. Sometimes a dark, moody amber/brown, sometimes a lambent, red kissed dark gold, the colors of these whiskies reflect their life in the individual barrels. That’s why The Macallan doesn’t ever use artificial coloring in their mix. Why mess with such a powerful tool for decoding a whisky’s complex flavors?
While natural color is no indication of quality, it can speak volumes about character. In darker, older The Macallan whiskies you can expect to find soulful dark caramels, burnt sugar, roasted nuts, sweet spices, dried fruits, coffee, and smoke notes. Meanwhile younger, lighter colors evoke citrus and tree fruits, candy sugars and vanilla toffee. In between? An infinite variation on those core flavors. But artificially alter those colors? And a perfectly amber whisky might as well taste like an old shoe.
The Macallan’s whiskies, like their new expression The Macallan Rare Cask, have been aged in Spanish Sherry barrels that have already held an evolved, darker spirit so it tends to be more overtly brown and taste of dark caramels, toffee, and fruit leathers. But the Macallan’s range of barrels produce a literal rainbow of color possibilities. In new oak, the color process is slower and more subtle with the ambers and lighter browns more commonly found in American Bourbon. “With around 60 percent of The Macallan’s final whisky color, character, and flavor determined by cask quality,” explains The Macallan’s “Whisky Maker” Bob Dalgarno. “Therefore in our view we need to talk about our wood management before any other factor in the maturation of The Macallan.”
So how does a whisky take on a particular natural color? What it brings us back to, even for scientists who study the effects of barrel aging, is a sort of magic; an impenetrable alchemy that is so unpredictable, so totally dependent on the individual barrel, that literally no two barrels will produce exactly the same natural color whisky. That’s why to Bob Dalgarno tasting is as much about the eyes as it is about the tongue. If he is going to maintain that consistent color in every bottle of The Macallan, he is going to have to look long and hard before he can taste.
“I always say that whisky enables you to take a journey,” Dalgarno says. Indeed, we’re transported, as if by magic, long before the glass is raised to our lips. —Steve Body