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In simple terms, caramel is merely sugar or syrup that has been heated until it turns brown and then used as a flavouring or colouring in food and drink. However, this is where the conflict lies, with many whisky devotees believing that caramel has no place in a fine blended Scotch whisky – or whisky of any kind, for that matter.
Caramel colouring is a water-soluble food colouring. Once heated, it can range in colour from pale yellow to amber and dark brown. It’s not known when caramel colouring was first added to whisky as historical records are somewhat unclear. What is, however, clear is that when added to whisky, caramel has little effect on the flavour of the malt, instead giving whisky the brown sheen it has become synonymous with.
Darker whiskies will certainly feature richer caramel colouring. Some of the more notable whiskies that feature caramel colouring are Runrig One For The Road, Dalmore Port Wood Reserve and Bowmore 18-Year Old whisky.
As much as caramel colouring is a prevalent part many different whiskies ambiance, many whiskies take on a caramel flavour during the maturation process. During the maturation process, spicy, salty or sweet flavours can become infused into the liquid. This is primarily due to the casks. It’s not uncommon for a sweet or caramel flavour to become synonymous with certain whiskies as they mature.
Indeed, after a mere dram of Dalmore whisky, and one will immediately notice a rich, toffee and caramel taste. Entirely separate from caramel colouring, this sweet, rich taste – and aroma – is as distinctive as it is welcoming.