Friday, December 15, 2017

elektrischer Heilbutt: jetzt mit farbstoff

One thing I noticed while sitting around in a pair of crusty urine-soaked underpants morosely swigging neat whisky out of the bottle the other day was the small print on the back of my (now empty) bottle of Auchentoshan, in particular some stuff that appeared to be in a foreign language.

If you're struggling to read it, perhaps because you're sitting around in a pool of your own piss swigging whisky out of the bottle and the salty tears of despair and self-loathing are making your vision go all wibbly-wobbly, what it says is:
Mit farbstoff. Farven justeret med karamel.
The first thing that's slightly odd about this is that it's not in English; the second thing that's slightly odd is that it's actually in two different languages. The first bit is in German and just means "with colourant" or "with dye"; the second bit is is Danish and means "colour adjusted with caramel". What both of them signify is that there has been the addition of a quantity of E150a during the bottling process to darken the colour of the whisky.

I was in Tesco a few days later and snapped a few pics of some more bottles that bore the same legend. This is by no means a comprehensive survey, it's just to illustrate how widespread the practice is. From top to bottom these are Ardmore, Bowmore, Laphroaig and Old Pulteney respectively.

The whisky community are a funny and perhaps slightly obsessive bunch, and there is much discourse around the rights and wrongs of artificially colouring whisky. A lot of this stems from the entirely nonsensical idea that whisky is some sort of "natural" artisanal product, water from the crystal-clear distillery stream, peat-fired stills stoked by some Groundskeeper Willie-esque be-kilted lunatic striding in through the mist every morning with a hod of peat on his sinewy shoulder, the resulting spirit lovingly filtered through the unruly ginger pubes and down the milky inner thighs of a laughing freckle-faced Scots lassie while the evocative skirl of bagpipes wheezes wispily from a nearby glen, and finally re-collected and left to mature in a rustic barn, tended lovingly by some infinitely wise bearded custodian until the mystically-divined moment of perfect readiness and then being drunk in chunky tumblers by square-jawed types in Aran sweaters in front of a roaring log fire while munching on shortbread. In fact it's a highly industrialised process and whisky acquires colour and flavour from plenty of places not directly related to its original distillation, most obviously the casks in which it's matured. It's worth also noting that those who claim that they can taste the caramel in the finished product are almost certainly lying or mistaken, unless perhaps you go for one of the comedy "black whisky" products like Loch Dhu or CĂș Dhub, which claim to derive from heavily charred casks, and maybe they do, but you can bet your ass they also have a colossal amount of E150a dumped in as well. And don't get them started on chill-filtration!

I can't honestly say I'm much bothered about it either way; a gazillion other food and drink products have far more noxious colouring and flavouring products in them and they haven't done me any harm, my word no, apart from these terrible headaches and the occasional murderous rages and blackouts. What amuses me about the labelling is the weaselly nature of a clearly English-language product bearing statements in (I assume) only the languages of the two countries which legally require explicit disclosure of these kinds of additive, in (presumably) the hope that most people's eyes (including the subset of people who might care to the point of going and buying something else if it were printed in English) will just skate over it uncomprehendingly. 

I suppose, just to backtrack on that slightly, what may be a concern is if the whisky producers are using caramel colouring to give a false impression of age to the sort of no-age-statement whisky that many are now offering as their entry-level product. The Bowmore shown here is a good example: I have a bottle of this, it's called No. 1 and it's cheaper than the 12-year-old that I tried a while back (and liked very much). But is it as good? Well, to be blunt, no - it's perfectly nice and quaffable but doesn't have the depth that the 12-year-old has. And that's pretty much what you expect from something containing whisky that hasn't matured for nearly as long (a good chunk of it is probably between 5 and 8 years old). Obviously from an economic perspective the younger and rawer the spirit you can foist off on the consumer the better it is for you, long-term storage being an expensive business. Whether it's better for the consumer is another matter. Caveat emptor, though, innit, as they say in Denmark.

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