Skip to Content

What food coloring makes whiskey color?

Food coloring is sometimes added to whiskey to alter its appearance. The most common food colorings used in whiskey are caramel coloring and artificial colorings.

Caramel Coloring

Caramel coloring is made by heating sugars and is one of the most popular food colorings used in whiskeys. It imparts a rich amber or brown hue that mimics the color achieved through barrel aging. Most bourbon whiskies use caramel coloring to standardize their appearance and give them a uniform golden or reddish-brown color. Scotch whiskies also regularly employ caramel color, though their use is regulated and limited.

The caramel coloring approved for use in alcoholic beverages does not contain 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), a potential carcinogen found in some types of caramel coloring. Instead, a specially manufactured type of caramel coloring called spirit caramel is used. It helps provide batch-to-batch color consistency and enhance the visual appeal of whiskeys.

Artificial Colorings

In addition to caramel coloring, some artificial food colorings may also be used to alter the appearance of certain whiskeys. Common artificial colorings include:

  • E150a – Plain caramel coloring
  • E150b – Caustic sulfite caramel
  • E150c – Ammonia caramel
  • E150d – Sulfite ammonia caramel
  • E153 – Carbon black

These artificial colorings help whiskey producers achieve the desired shade and consistency across production runs. However, many whiskey connoisseurs view them negatively as additives that adulterate and mask the true natural color of the whiskey.

Effects on Flavor

In general, small approved amounts of caramel coloring do not noticeably alter the flavor of whiskey. The caramel coloring is used more for visual enhancement and consistency.

However, some whiskey experts argue that artificial colorings can subtly mute or mask some flavor notes. Overuse may impart a slightly burnt or bitter aftertaste. Many distillers try to use minimal amounts to avoid dampening the whiskey’s natural aroma and taste.

Labeling Laws

In the United States, bourbon and other whiskeys are not required to list added caramel or artificial coloring on the label. However, in Europe, regulations mandate that spirit drinks fully disclose any added coloring agents.

For example, a Scotch whisky label may state “E150a” to indicate the use of plain caramel coloring. This provides consumers with more information on the contents of the whiskey.

Alternatives to Artificial Colorings

Due to growing consumer demand for more natural, additive-free whiskeys, some distillers are eliminating artificial colorings. They allow their products to display their natural hue derived from the wood barrels and aging process. However, batch-to-batch variations in color may occur.

Other distilleries are experimenting with alternative natural colorings derived from sources like roasted oak, raisins, and sugars. These aim to provide color consistency without artificial additives.


Caramel coloring and artificial colorings are regularly added to many popular whiskies to standardize their appearance. While these approved colorings do not significantly impact flavor at low levels, many whiskey aficionados prefer whiskies without additives that showcase the spirit’s natural color. Due to shifting consumer preferences, more distillers are producing and labeling whiskeys that use no coloring agents at all.