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The Color of Bourbon (and Other Whiskeys)

Last updated Nov 24, 2020 | Published on Nov 6, 2020

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by Matty Sims

Nothing is more confusing than the color of bourbon. Many new drinkers and some OGs don’t know exactly what gives bourbon its beautiful caramel, amber, or honey color. Can artificial colors be used like with soda? Is anything extra added to bourbon to give that dark brown color?

Many who visit distilleries for the first time might see the whiskey (soon to be bourbon) coming off the still and ask, “Why isn’t it brown?” Well because the whiskey hasn’t had the chance to meet the charred barrel which gives it the color. That’s the short answer. Now for the long answer.

The Color of Bourbon and the Barrel

color of bourbon

First of all, the type of oak (Quercus genus) used to age bourbon will affect the color of bourbon. “Oak is the ideal choice for several signature traits—strength and durability, its liquid-tightness, and suitability to coopering” (Whiskey Advocate).

The type of oak is not legislated by Congress for whiskey to be called bourbon. However, traditionally American white oak (Quercus alba) has been the preferred choice of bourbon distilleries. American white oak provides deep amber colors to bourbon.

The Type of Oak

However, some distilleries use other types of oak like:

  • French Oak (Quercus robur)
  • Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii)
  • Mongolian Oak (Quercus mongolica)
  • Canadian Oak (Quercus Fagaceae)
  • Irish Oak (Quercus robur)
  • Oregon oak (Quercus garryana) – Used by Westland Distillery
  • Sessile oak (Quercus petraea)

As far as large bourbon distilleries go, Buffalo Trace has done a lot of experimentation with different oak barrels (see their Old Charter line of bourbon).

Toasted Staves to Finish

Maker’s Mark has done a lot of experimentation with toasted staves — their Maker’s 46 is finished with French Oak staves which impart a spicy flavor profile and does affect the color of the bourbon.

Second Barrel

Many bourbon distilleries are experimenting with a second barrel — either toasted or charred. Here are some common expressions:

The Color of Bourbon and Barrel Char Level

color of bourbon

The level of char in your oak barrel will also affect flavor and color. Here’s a quick breakdown of the char levels:

  • Level 1 char (15-second burn) – most bourbon distilleries do not use a Level 1 char
  • Level 2 char (30-second burn) – also, not commonly used among bourbon distilleries but it does impart a light caramel color
  • Level 3 char (35-second burn) – many bourbon distilleries do use a Level 3 char
  • Level 4 char (55-second burn) – This char level is also known as Alligator Char. It is commonly used by bourbon distilleries.

Eddie Russel, the master distillery at Wild Turkey, says, “When charring at this level, the wood starts to peel off the barrel, which gives the liquid more surface area to come in contact with” — more surface area in contact with the bourbon, the more color and flavor.

Watch the video below to see how barrels are made and charred. Old Forester on Whiskey Row in Louisville has a great tour where you can see a barrel being charred.

The Color of Bourbon and the Weather

The weather, believe it or not, plays a role in the color of bourbon because as the seasons change the bourbon expands into the oak barrel then retracts out of the barrel in the warmer months. That’s why many point out that Kentucky’s climate is ideal for aging bourbon in new oak barrels. KY has clear warm and cool months that allow for maximum penetration into the oak every year.

Pat Heist, founder of Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville, KY, is a bourbon genius from a technical standpoint. Listen to him talk about how weather affects bourbon.

The Color of Bourbon and Its Age

The last component that we will discuss is the age of the bourbon. If you’ll notice all of the points I’ve made today are closely tied together and the age of bourbon is no different. The longer a bourbon ages the more time it has to go in and out of the charred barrel. The more times that happens the dark (in most cases) the bourbon becomes. That’s why generally a bourbon that’s 12-15 years is going to be darker than a bourbon that’s aged 4-6 years.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Bourbon artificially colored?

No, it is not.

Why is Whiskey Brown?

The wood barrel it is aged in gives the brown color we all love.

Can spirit caramel (E150a) be used in bourbon?

No, it cannot. No artificial coloring allowed. And it’s typically not needed because bourbon is using virgin oak and extracts color from the wood.

How is this different from other whiskeys colors?

Scotch whiskey, for example, does not always use virgin oak barrels. They will regularly purchase used (or pre-fill) barrels to age their whiskey. That is one reason why a Scotch aged for 20-30 years may not be darker than a bourbon aged 10 years. The bourbon is going in and out of the barrel and is extracting the color and flavor from the virgin oak. When a used barrel is used to age other whiskeys, another spirit has already extracted color and flavor from that charred barrel.

I’ve heard the example of a teabag used many times. If you re-used a tea bag, you would get less flavor and color the second or even third time. Because of this practice, Scotch distilleries in particular use spirit caramel (E150a) to provide a consistent color to their product. It’s the only thing legally besides water that can be added to Scotch. Spirit caramel cannot be used legally with bourbon although water can be.

Written by Matty Sims

Matty Sims is the Editor-in-Chief at a digital media company. LeAnn (his wife) and his daughters Claire, Maddy, and Adele along with a brand new pup Booker live in Taylors, SC, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He enjoys cracking a well-aged bottle of bourbon with friends and sharing stories, or cracking one of his favorite daily sippers on the back porch while the pup and his kids play in the backyard. He is a storyteller at heart, and Bourbon has deep roots in storytelling.

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