Using Sugar and Caramel in Spirits
For decades additives like caramel and sugar have been used in the distilling of spirits. The most popular being sugar and caramel. The two sugary additions lend themselves to darker, more vibrant colors. They are used often and can receive quite a bit of controversy. While they are in most distilled beverages, they are exempt from being declared on labels. Using additives can help and hinder the production and sale of spirits because it can change the classification. It's wise to dig deeper to see why they were used and what the industry is going to do moving forward.
Our Obsession with Darker is Better
Before we can move forward, we need to take a step back in time. Far back. Our evolution as a human species was delicate. Survival was imperative, and we needed the calories to make that happen. In those days we didn't have associations like the FDA setting regulations and guidelines for manufacturers to follow. Instead, we had to use our senses to decipher the foods that would be the most beneficial. The first that came into play would be our sight. Fruit ripens and becomes darker, more vibrant in color. Not all fruits age at the same rate or pace, but it's worth mentioning that with maturity comes a darker color. Why? Well, it could be to the plant's advantage. The brighter and stronger the color makes them easier to see. As animals and humans are the biggest consumers of fruit, it gave each plant the opportunity to spread their seed if they were easy to spot. For humans, the ripened fruits were more nutrient dense and afforded more calories with less risk for illness. You want bright yellow bananas, the reddest apples, and the greenest limes. Over time we've transferred the same decision making to manufactured foods.
Darker Colors for Aged Spirits
At the beginning of commercialized spirits and transportation, the method utilized most was shipping. Spirits were often stored on deck in wooden barrels. Exposure to varying temperatures and the movement from the ship would continue to age the spirits while they arrived at their destination. The constant agitation allowed the liquid to pull from the wood which would darken its overall color. Merchants began to realize that these barrels would sell exceptionally well. However, there is a struggle. Each barrel was able to produce only one dark batch of liquid. Subsequent results would be progressively lighter. Understanding darker coloring appealed to consumers, producers needed something to make the spirit appear darker.
Using Caramel in Alcoholic Beverages
Who started using coloring in adult beverages is unknown. However, there is a booklet published in 1860 that outlines how to manufacture, imitate and manipulate wine, brandy, rum, and other spirits. It would be safe to say the practice pre-dates this information. What we glean from these recipes is the ancient art of adding caramel for coloring. The book has instructions for almost every shade ranging from "light amber to dark brown." If you needed to add more red to wine, you would employ beets. Since the concept came to fruition the use of caramel as food coloring has exploded and roughly 80% of colorants added to alcoholic beverages and food is from caramel.
Types of Caramel in Spirits
The thought of caramel includes the traditional method via stove-top. It involves pouring sugar into a saucepan and applying heat. The heat breaks down molecules, and the sugar becomes darker. The caramel used in spirits is a variation of this method and is categorized across four types:
Caramel Color 1: plain, spirit caramel used in high-proof spirits.
Caramel Color 2: caustic, sulfite caramel also used in high-proof spirits but with high oak extracts.
Caramel Color 3: ammonia caramel used in beer, sauces, and other mixes
Caramel Color 4: sulfate-ammonia frequently used in soft drinks and food products.
Government Regulations on Using Caramel in Adult Beverages
Using caramel is in some instances controversial. Some studies reveal that large quantities of caramel can lead to different maladies. Since global consumption exceeds 200,000 tons, there are some regulations set forth to help manufacturers. The United States declares caramel is "Generally Recognized as Safe" as a food additive. In The Beverage Alcohol Manual, there are further outlines on what spirits are allowed to have caramel coloring and don't have to articulate it on the label. Examples would include brandy, whiskey, and rum. The publication (a must for any successful distiller in the United States) also notes that the colorant and other additives aren't allowed to exceed 2.5% of the finished volume.
Adding Sugar to Spirits
When something smells sweet, you expect it to be sweet. It's a human trait we developed to find simple sugars from fruits that would give us calories and energy for survival. It makes sense that we carry this custom with us through evolution. The only struggle is the addition of production. The fermentation process to make spirits converts sugars into alcohol. Even when the fermentation is completed residual sugars are leftover. Not enough to make it taste sweet. A bit of a puzzle for our senses. Rum and whiskey will smell surgery but lack that flavor. Distillers in some instances have added sugar back into the final product to add balance — something that makes the consumer a little weary.
Deciding whether or not to add sugar or caramel to your spirit should be based on the end user and whether or not it will change your spirit classification. Adding sugar increases caloric value which is something that affects consumers purchasing decision. Working with experts in the alcohol beverage industry like the Brindiamo Group can help you identify which aspects will work best for your spirit.
Ayala, Luis. “Sugar & Caramel.” Artisan Spirit. Fall 2017: 61-64.