Friday, 5 April 2013

E150a Experiment

This is the brainchild of Johanne McInnis, aka @Whiskylassie and one half of The Perfect Whisky Match Blog

The idea originated way back in February, when Johanne, who has a  background in chemistry, announced her intentions on our Whisky Bloggers Facebook page,  after reading an article on the Whisky Science blog. Johanne asked for ten interested bloggers to step forward. Overwhelmed by the response the number of participants has increased to around two dozen of us now.

Johanne got hold of some E150a from an undisclosed source that works in the "brewing" industry, and then went out to purchase two identical bottles of known naturally coloured whisky from her local liquor store. Then based on a equation and information from a distillery "source", Johanne calculated how much of the colourant to add. One of the two bottles has 1.2g/700ml or roughly 1 drop of Caramel for every 15ml of Whisky.

These formed the basis of the kits that have been sent worldwide. Each kit also included a small vial of neat E150a and a small pipette so we too could conduct our own experiments, and I will be trying this again later.

I'll start this post with a brief introduction from Johanne:

The majority of single malts and virtually all the blends from Scotland are coloured with E150a. The SWA regulation of 2009 states that “plain caramel" (E150a) is allowed. HOWEVER, this is just a guideline. In fact, UK and EU laws permit the use of their definition which is “spirit caramel”. Which means any of the four caramels E150a-d can be used by the distillery.
Four different types (a-d or from class I to IV).

E150a (distiller’s caramel) is made by a process involving a controlled heat treatment of a carbohydrate. Mostly used are glucose, syrups, sucrose and/or dextrose. Although each manufacturer protects their trademark, most use the same process which involves adding acids or bases to promote the caramelization of the CH (carbohydrate) compound. This colouring agent is used in very small quantities. Fructose based E150a produces the darkest range of colours. It starts to caramelise at 110C. E150a is the most stable of caramels as it can tolerate high ABV’s (75%) and it is also the most resistant to fading.

How much do they use?  Again, it seems to be a guarded secret with most distilleries however on average we know it’s about 1.0 – 5.0 grams/Litre (that translates to 0.1 – 0.5 %)

So the question was can you detect a difference in your whiskies?  You will clearly see there is a difference in the colour of the whisky but can you truly detect on the nose and/or palate in a blind taste test?   Let’s find out:
All set up ready to start the first E150a experiment - I can do science me!
First of all what does neat E150a smell and taste like? You can see the small black bottle in the photo above, with the pipette alongside it. I can assure you that the glass vial is clear. The E150a liquid is a rich, viscous dark brown in colour, has the smell of burnt sugar, almost carbon like, the burnt sugar carbon note is clear on the palate too, and it starts to leave a bitter after-taste in the mouth, similar to the pith of a grapefruit, but a little more more unpleasant

A single drop in a glass of water is enough to make it look like a glass of whisky is in my hand. In hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to had  properly nose and taste the E150a first before conducting the tests, as it was I rushed headlong into conducting the blind whisky tasting tests without actually establishing what I would be looking for!

With shrouds constructed for the two nosing glasses and my youngest daughter in control of monitoring my blind tasting results, 10ml of each whisky was poured into separate nosing glasses. My first test took place in the afternoon. I correctly identified the darker whisky first time around, and to celebrate I pushed the boat out, had a cup of tea and a piece of cake. The second nosing occurred afterwards and I identified the incorrect whisky. Around thirty minutes later I revisited and was able to pick out the darker whisky correctly. The glasses were mixed up again for the taste test, and although I could detect a notable difference, I picked the sweeter whisky, which was incorrect.

The second test took place later the same evening, and interestingly finished a cup of tea before the first nosing and getting it wrong again. The next two nosing tests followed where I correctly identified the coloured whisky. I was still unable to pick the correct one on the taste test, choosing the sweeter tasting whisky again.

The final test took place the following morning, no tea in the morning for me this time, and I had a clear run through, identifying the coloured whisky by nosing correctly each time, and then picking the correct one on the taste test too. I think however by this third test I had learnt the differences and was able to correctly identify the taste immediately.

So what does this all mean? I haven't a clue apart from I am noticing a difference! I have questioned why brands feel it is necessary to colour whisky in some of my blog posts before,  as have previously been told that it is not noticeable.

The darker of the two samples smells richer, with more caramel flavours. The citrus notes are more lemon/lime in the lighter sample and more orange like in the darker sample.

However on the taste test the darker coloured whisky tasted bitterer - I was associating the darker richer notes found while nosing with the sweeter tasting whisky and was wrong on the first two taste tests. On the third taste test I remembered that the less sweet tasting whisky should be the coloured one and was correct.
The 'score sheet' from Whisky Discovery
And so concludes the results of the Whisky Discovery 'I can do Science Test'. My results have been sent off to our guru Johanne for collating and I'm looking forward to reading her blogpost on The Perfect Whisky Match once all the results have been analysed and her conclusion has been reached.

In the meantime, I will be 'doctoring' a small sample of naturally coloured whisky at home and repeating this experiment with Kat, more later!
All very orange! E150a samples being prepared in at The Perfect Whisky Match HQ


The Coopered Tot said...

Dave - kudos for being to first out of the gate to get a blog post up on this fascinating experiment. Great intro: very informative.

In the experiment portion I have a few questions: In the test you were performing what was your uncolored whisky and how much e150 were you using in you colored whisky? It might be interesting to perform the blind tastings with different amounts of e150 added to find out the threshold of detectability for you. That's what the Malt Maniacs did when they did blind tastings of single malt and water with varying amounts of e150:

I'd also be curious to hear your tasting notes of what you think the flavor of e150 in water was like (in greater detail than "more unpleasant than grapefruit".) It's very interesting that tea messed up your ability to find the e150 flavor difference. Tea has tannins. I bet that's the issue. I'll leave off tea before formal tastings from now on, however. I wonder if green tea has the same effect (assuming that, as a Brit, you were having black tea).

Dave Worthington said...

Thanks for your comments Josh. Johanne set this original test up so I don't know what whisky she bought and sent. Johanne coloured one of the bottles with 1.2g of E150a per 700ml of whisky, or roughly 1 drop of Caramel for every 15ml of Whisky. I will repeat this test with Kat later today, however will have just one coloured whisky with two or three naturally coloured to see if we really can detect or it was just flipping a coin.

I think the tea tannins may have influenced my palate (I drink mine black with no sugar) and will have to cease from drinking this before a whisky tasting

We'll mess with whatever leftover E150a we have and post our findings later

Macdeffe said...

I did a homemade e150 experiment myself a couple of years ago. having around 8 friends over for some dramming I had homemade some colouring by melting some sugar in a pan (what a mess). I chopped some colouring and added it to a whisky that wasn't particular dark. I had divided the whisky in two parts so I had some that was coloured and some that wasn't coloured. Then I handed around two sample bottles, one clearly darker than the other and asked my guest to tell me their opinions about the whiskies. As always when you ask people about an opinion about a whisky the opinions will always differ somewhat, but in the group there was a big difference in the description of one sample and the other sample

When I revealed they actually had the same whisky, one was just homecoloured, they were actual quite surprised. A few of the guys thought it was my colouring that had caused the taste difference they made a blind test. To their surprise they discovered, that when blindfolded, they couldn't really taste the difference between the samples

Now my experiemnt doesnt tell us that colouring doesnt affect the taste. The tasting was after a few drams and any slight differences wouldn't have been noticed. It do tell us that we do taste a whisky with our eyes, or I would say with our expectations to it. When tasting the two very similar tasting whiskies (maybe totally similar tasting whiskies) blindfolded they tasted the same. When not blinded they were perceived and described as tasting very different

Similar experiments have been observed with ketchup. test have been made with people being told their opinion about blue ketchup. Not many liked it. Well, the colouring was tasteless, and when tasted blind, noone could tell the difference between normal and blue ketchup

The problem with coloured whisky is that colour and taste doesnt match. This can confuse us as drinkers.

Some whiskies clearly suffer from the blue ketchup effect in my opinion. Something is just wrong when you drink them

(This comment is so long I can as well turn it onto my own blog post :-) )