Is Darker Whiskey Better? The Answer Might Surprise You
Is darker whiskey better? This is a popular, frequently asked question, and it has been debated heavily.
The truth is, there isn’t really a right or wrong answer — but in short, no; darker whiskey is not always necessarily “better.” Different whiskeys offer unique depths of flavor and aroma, so it all depends on what you are looking for.
Darker whiskeys tend to be more robust than lighter ones and often have additional notes from more intense barrel aging: therefore potentially more notes of vanilla, brown sugar and oak. On the other hand, lighter whiskeys offer more delicate aromas like citrus fruits and a creamy finish where the barrel influence is more nuanced and less aggressive.
Ultimately, neither is better than the other – it’s about personal preference. So, what color whiskey will most likely suit your taste buds? We’ve got the answers.
Where Does Whiskey Get its Color?
While it’s true that color can indicate certain whiskey characteristics, it isn’t always an accurate measure. The color of a whiskey is determined by several factors, including its age, storage conditions and the type of barrel used for aging.
When whiskey is freshly distilled, it’s clear. It only develops its darker color after aging.
Bourbon and rye must be aged in new oak casks (oak barrels that haven’t previously been used for aging), but other spirits categories have no such restrictions. This means that casks are often reused multiple times, resulting in less color and character imparted to the spirit with each successive use — like reusing a tea bag multiple times.
Scotch whisky producers take advantage of this by buying used bourbon barrels, which provide a rich amber hue the first time they are used. With each subsequent use, the whisky is imparted with less dark color.
Even though there may be less oak flavor in lighter whiskeys, this effect gives distillers more opportunity to reveal the flavor of the spirit itself. In some cases, scotch distillers will add caramel coloring to deepen the hue, suggesting higher quality to some consumers who are willing to pay more for that deep color. For most American whiskeys, such as bourbon, however, adding coloring is illegal.
What is White Whiskey?
White whiskey, white dog or moonshine all refer to whiskey that hasn’t been aged and thus hasn’t been given its dark color.
White whiskeys are unaged and therefore have a strong bite that can be overwhelming for some people. These whiskeys tend to be rawer in flavor. The absence of time in oak leads to an aggressive flavor profile that isn’t as complex or mellowed out. The taste will vary depending on the grains used during distillation but can often have notes of graininess, corn sweetness, and a bit of smokiness.
It’s important to note that since there is no aging process involved with white whiskey, none of the caramelized or oaky flavors associated with aged whiskey will be present in this beverage.
First Fill vs. Second Fill Casks
First Fill Casks
A first fill cask is a barrel that has been used only once before, usually for aging bourbon, sherry or wine. This means that the wood still holds a lot of flavor from its previous occupant, which it will impart to the whiskey inside it.
These flavors can include spices, dried fruit, honey, tobacco or even chocolate. As a result, whiskeys aged in first fill casks tend to be darker than those aged in second fill casks as they are more active. Even more fascinating: Wine casks can be used in scotch whiskey and many other types. Red wines like Cabernet and fortified wines like Port and Sherry can also intensely color a whiskey.
Second Fill Casks
Second fill casks have been reused multiple times for other spirits. The wood does not hold as much flavor as first fill casks because most of it has been stripped away after years of use. Whiskeys aged in second fill casks tend to be lighter in color than those aged in first fill casks because they do not absorb as much of the flavors from their previous occupants.
The effect of these two types of barrels on whiskey goes beyond just color – they also contribute to its overall complexity and depth of flavor. While both types can make great-tasting whiskey, it’s important to understand how each one affects the final product so you can choose based on your preference.
Climate’s Impact on Whiskey Color
The climate the whiskey is aged in will also influence the color of the whiskey, and in this instance, this will be where the flavor will be influenced the most along with the color.
For example, a scotch aged in cold Scotland may not be as dark fresh out of the barrel as a whiskey that’s been aged in a hot climate, where the wood from the cask affects the liquid more quickly and intensely.
This means that whiskeys produced in different climates can have drastically different flavors due to their varying levels of oxidation and wood seepage resulting from their different climates.
Light Color Whiskeys That Have Been Well Aged
If you still aren’t convinced you can’t judge a whiskey on looks alone, there are a number of light-colored whiskeys that have been thoroughly aged.
Japanese whisky is an excellent example of this. Yamazaki 12 Year for instance, has been aged for 12 years and still maintains a light color.
Irish whiskey is another good category to reference in terms of light-colored, well-aged whiskey. Gold Spot has been aged nine years and is still a light, golden color, and Yellow spot from the same distillery is even lighter.
So, if you take anything away from this, it’s don’t judge a whiskey by its color.
The next time you try out a new dram, don’t let the color fool you. The true test of any whiskey is in its flavor. And that’s something you can only discover by trying it for yourself.
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