What is the Caramel colouring in Whisky? Why is there caramel colouring in Whisky? anyways? You always hear about the E150a in Scotch. Is E150a a Caramel colouring?

Screen capture of Google Images.
Screen capture of Google Images.

What is the Caramel Colouring in Whisky?

The answer to this questions was a fun research quest. What I was looking for is the technical / chemical definition for Caramel Colouring.

It took a while but I found documents drawn up by:

  • the World Health Organisation (WHO),
  • the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO),
  • the Food Safety Authority of the United Nations,
  • the USA federal code of conduct,
  • the EU Laws,
  • All kinds of other documents I found along the way,
  • One of the best Science Blogs about Whisky.

What does the WHO / FAO say?

First of all I have found a definition of Caramel Colour used as a food additive given by the World Health Organisation and the FAO. It is not said that any Caramel colour per this WHO / FAO definition is in Whisky.

The WHO and FAO have published multiple documents about Food additives. One of these documents is the “COMPENDIUM OF FOOD ADDITIVE SPECIFICATIONS

This document details all of the technical and chemical attributes of four classes of Caramel Colouring.

  • Class I: Plain caramel; INS No.150a
  • Class II: Sulfite caramel; INS No.150b
  • Class III: Ammonia caramel; INS No.150c
  • Class IV: Sulfite ammonia caramel; INS No.150d

Please note that the INS No. is also 150a to 150d, and could have a correlation with the European E150a to E150d. E standing for Europe.

I found a nice overview of the uses of Caramel Colour on  caramelfacts.org

  • Class I: High-proof alcoholic beverages (e.g., whiskey)
  • Class II: Cognac; sherry; vinegar
  • Class III: Beer; soy sauce; candy
  • Class IV: Soft drinks; dark bread

Caramel Colour is also given a definition which reads:

  • Complex mixtures of compounds, some of which are in the form of
    colloidal aggregates, manufactured by heating carbohydrates either
    alone or in the presence of food-grade acids, alkalis or salts.
  • In all cases the carbohydrate raw materials are commercially
    available food-grade nutritive sweeteners consisting of glucose,
    fructose and/or polymers thereof. The acids and alkalis are foodgrade
    sulfuric or citric acids and sodium, potassium or calcium
    hydroxides or mixtures thereof.
  • Where ammonium compounds are used they are one or any of the
    following: ammonium hydroxide, ammonium carbonate and
    ammonium hydrogen carbonate, ammonium phosphate, ammonium
    sulfate, ammonium sulfite and ammonium hydrogen sulfite.
  • Where sulfite compounds are used they are one or any of the
    following: sulfurous acid, potassium, sodium and ammonium sulfites
    and hydrogen sulfites.
  • Food-grade anti-foaming agents may be used as processing aids
    during manufacture.

The document goes on with further information which you could read if you follow the link to the “COMPENDIUM OF FOOD ADDITIVE SPECIFICATIONS“. Start reading on page 9.

So “Caramel Colouring” is defined in four classifications. It is made from “heating carbohydrates“. When the process is done it is a “complex mixture of compounds“.

The most interesting bit for us whisky drinkers is the description given in de Compendium.

Dark brown to black liquids or solids having an odour of burnt sugar 

So Caramel Colour, as defined by the WHO / FAO does have an “odour of burnt sugar”.

Side-note: What is also interesting is that Sherry and Cognac apparently can have Caramel added to it? I wonder how this works out with Sherry Matured Whisky. Is Caramel 150B also in whisky via this route?

What does Europe say?

First a link to a very detailed EFSA Document from the European Food Safety Authority. This document is very detailed in what Caramel colouring is. Feel free to read it if you like. For whisky is says an interesting thing on page 20 about Class I caramel use.

“For whisky, whiskey, grain spirit (other than Korn or Kornbrand or eau de vie de seigle marque nationale luxembougeoise), wine spirit, rum brandy, weinbrand, grape marc, grape marc spirit (other than Tsikoudia and Tsipouro and eau de vie de marc marque nation), the CIAA (2009) provided typical values ranging from 0 to 2000 mg/l with a extreme use level of 15000 mg/l. EUTECA (2010c) provided a typical use level of 2000 mg/l.”

What this document also says is that Class II, III and IV caramels have also been found in Whisk(e)y. See multiple tables in the (ANS)-2011-EFSA_Journal. This would be in contrary to EU regulations? This brings us to the second link.

2000 mg/l is about (roughly) 2 gram per litre. Which is quite a-lot of .

Second a link to the COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 231/2012 for food colouring additives. This Regulation gives a legal definition for Caramel E150a to E150d.


Plain Caramel is defined as:

“Plain caramel is prepared by the controlled heat treatment of carbohydrates
(commercially available food grade nutritive sweeteners which are the monomers glucose and fructose and/or polymers thereof, e.g. glucose syrups, sucrose, and/or invert syrups, and dextrose). To promote caramelisation, acids, alkalis and salts may be employed, with the exception of ammonium compounds and sulphites.”

Please note that the definition only states how it is prepared and what it can be made from. Please also note that the origins of EU Caramel Colouring is very much more limited than the USA definition. The USA allows Dextrose, Invert sugar, Lactose, Malt sirup, Molasses, Starch hydrolysates and fractions thereof, Sucrose as sources.

The EU definition for Whisky can be found in REGULATION (EC) No 110/2008 and states that:

“The final distillate, to which only water and plain caramel (for colouring) may be added, retains its colour, aroma and taste derived from the production process referred to in points (i), (ii) and (iii).” 

So Plain Caramel, E150 a, is the caramel intended to be used in Whisky. The Scottish Law also only mentions “Plain Caramel” for use in Whisky.

It may “added” to the “final distillate” “for colouring“. Here the intention of the use is described. So the intended use is NOT to add flavour and/or aroma. But this does not mean E150a does not have flavour and/or aroma.

In Europe the following companies are part of EUTECA (The European Technical Caramel Association).

Synonims for Caramel Colour are:

  • 8028-89-5, CAS Number
  • 232-435-9, EU Chemical Number
  • SW 250 (COLORANT)
  • RT 80 (COLORANT)
  • E 150A
  • INS NO.150A
  • INS-150A
  • E-150A
  • FEMA NO. 2235

What does the USA / FSA say?

In the USA the definition of “Caramel”  is governed by the Federal Code of Conduct. Title 21: Food and Drugs , PART 73—LISTING OF COLOR ADDITIVES EXEMPT FROM CERTIFICATION, Subpart A—Foods, §73.85

§73.85 Caramel.
(a) Identity. (1) The color additive caramel is the dark-brown liquid or solid material resulting from the carefully controlled heat treatment of the following food-grade carbohydrates:

  • Dextrose,
  • Invert sugar,
  • Lactose,
  • Malt sirup,
  • Molasses,
  • Starch hydrolysates and fractions thereof,
  • Sucrose.

Further details can be found by clicking to part 73.85 of the Federal Code.

Bourbon may not contain added colouring. But some other types of whiskey from the USA may contain colouring. I listed all the legal definitions found CFR-2011-title27-vol1-sec5-22. Please read more about USA whisky law here.

If colouring is allowed than the USA only knows one legal definition of Caramel colouring, where Europe has four.

What does the internet say?

What does YouTube say?

Now for a fun video about Sethness Caramel Colour. You Should see it and smile while you do! Please note how some companies offer HUGE custom made versions of caramel colour for the spirits industry, the beer industry and the soda industry. All depending on the alcohol %. So check out this Caramel Colouring video that is very clear and without any pretext. And yes caramel colour it is in Cola, food, breads, beers, whisky etc. etc.

A nice video detailing some of the steps of caramelisation.

Here is what John Glasser of Compass Box has to say about it on YouTube.

Best Whisky Science Blog.

I can write all about Caramel in whisky that I want, but the best blog ever Whisky Science, made by Teemu Strengell, already did it for me. Go check out this blogpost about E150 and this blogpost about Sugars in Whisky. Thank you Teemu for all your research!


Caramel food colouring, for whisky/whiskey, has the following things that can be said about it:

  • It is made from “simple carbohydrates” also know as “simple sugars”.
  • It is made by heating the “simple carbohydrates” to a set temperature. (I have not found a process description anywhere online)
  • It can made by either NOT using or using sulphite AND/OR ammonia during the process to speed caramelisation.
  • It can be bought as a liquid or a solid.
  • The chemical end product is such a “complex mixture of carbohydrates” that chemists around the world have not been able to give it a proper chemical identification.
  • It is made according to, at least, 9 different legal definitions.
  • It is made by very very many companies around the world.
  • It is used in very very many foods and beverages.
  • depending on the location and intended marked of the caramel colouring a wide range of “simple carbohydrates” may or may not be used as source “simple carbohydrate”.
  • If used for flavouring it needs to be called “Burnt Sugar” and not e.g. E150a.
  • It does have a flavour and an aroma, depending on the type.
  • It may or may not get transferred into the whisky from an ex Sherry / Cognac cask. Yes, some previous content in the barrel could have contained (another type of) Caramel Colouring too.
  • “Plain Caramel” may be added, with intent to control the colour only, to Whisky in Europe.
  • “Caramel” or “Harmless coloring” may be added to some types, but not all types, of whiskey in the USA.
  • Depending on the ABv some types of Caramel Colouring would precipitate in the water-ethanol liquid we call whisky.

I am sure I will add more information to this page, so come back sometimes to read this blog again. If you want to … it’s pretty nerdy …

What I see around the house

The first thing I grabbed while making this blog was a cookie. A Dutch Specialists called “Stroopwafels”, syrup waffles. It says on the last line “Kleurstoffen E150d and E150a”. Kleurstoffen being colouring agents.

During dinner I grabbed a Cola from the Dutch Super Marked Jumbo brand and this too contains E150d as you can see on the second line.

E150d in Jumbo Cola

Lastly. This blog is not meant as an onslaught on E150a in Whisky. It is purely meant to tell myself what E150a is. Just so I know. If you read this fat, to quote Ralfy,

“Now you know! Just sharing” ~ Ralfy