You may be wondering what additives could possibly be in whisky? However, it is rare to buy a whisky exactly as it has left the cask in the distillery warehouse. This form of the whisky is called ‘cask strength’ and refers to the natural state and strength of the spirit, which is usually between 50-60% ABV depending on age (the ABV drops as a whisky gets older). More can be read about this in our Explain about … Cask strength article. The sales of cask strength whiskies are growing rapidly and more distilleries and bottlers are releasing whisky in this form but it still remains a niche market. However, whisky companies deploy a number of techniques to make their product more appealing to their mass market consumers.
The process of adding water to the cask strength whisky is called 'cutting'. This is done so as to bring the alcoholic strength down to a more palatable ‘standard’ level. Basically, they dilute it. This new level is usually 40% (the legal minimum for which something can be called whisky) or 43% ABV. The water used is generally from the same source (usually spring water) that a distillery will use during the whisky distillation process, although this is not always the case. By doing this, the producers can consistently control the alcohol level of the whisky and don’t have to change their labels with every release, as different casks of the same age will have subtly different strengths.
The use of caramel when bottling whisky is a traditional process that is still commonly used today. Caramel (the flavouring E150, not actual caramel made from burnt sugar) is added in order to make the whisky look darker and therefore give the perception that the whisky may be older than it is (and in the consumers eyes, be better than it is!). The caramel is added prior to bottling in tiny amounts and this helps the bottler to consistently control the appearance of their whisky. The amounts added are small and do not generally alter the whisky’s flavour, unless added in highly excessive quantities. This is done for purely cosmetic reasons and if caramel has been added, it must be legally labelled as such (although this can be done in a slightly cloak and dagger way by using the German for ‘with caramel’ which is ‘mit farbstoff’). An extreme example of the addition of caramel is the black whisky Cú Dhub, although others are done much more subtly than this.
Not an additive but a removal! This is the process where substances that are seen as undesirable in whisky are removed. These substances are the naturally occurring fatty acids and oils that make a whisky go cloudy when cooled, mixed with water or with ice. This is seen as an undesirable side effect by many consumers, so the producers will filter these substances out prior to bottling. This is done by chilling the whisky down to a low temperature so that these natural acids and oils solidify and then passing the whiskt through a series of metal mesh filters, with these are separated. For further information on the chill filtering process, please read our article Explain about … Chill filtering.
In summary, with each of these processes the distillers and manufacturers are giving the majority of consumers what they want from a whisky – a lower ‘easy drinking’ alcohol strength, a darker colour and/or no cloudiness. They are reacting to customer perceptions of what is good or bad. Is it too strong? The darker the colour, the better? Cloudiness in whisky is bad, right? It gives them additional control when they mix different casks over a period of time for different releases of the same whisky. As each cask will have subtle differences, the distillers and bottlers employ some or all of these tactics to maintain a consistent level of quality in their whisky and leaves the consumer knowing what to expect each time. Therefore, each time you buy a bottle of a certain whisky it should look and taste the same, whether you bought it last year, this year or will buy it in two years time. The distillers and bottlers claim that none of these processes alter or detract from the original flavours of the whisky, but others argue that they must do. However, that is a whole new debate …