Last Updated on August 22, 2023 by Lydia Martin
Much like the children that mature over time, bourbon gets more refined and has a nice color after years of aging.
Like any other distilled spirit, it starts as a clear liquid, and the color changes as it ages in oak barrels.
But what color is bourbon, and does the color tell us its age? We broke the code so read on to find out.
About Bourbon’s True Color
Bourbon’s true color is dark, reddish brown, or amber, and its color has a lot to say about the spirit. The color of the bourbon is important because it is one of the age indicators.
To begin with, the longer it is aged, the darker the shade of the bourbon will be.
The aging process in newly charred oak barrels gives us the flavor and color we expect .
Unlike other distilled spirits, artificial bourbon coloring and flavoring are not added before bottling.
How Does Bourbon Get Its Shade?
Bourbon gets its shade from maturing in newly charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years.
As the fresh whiskey, “white dog,” comes out of the still, it is crystal clear.
The reddish brown and amber tone develops during maturation in newly charred oak barrels.
The spirit extracts pigments, color, flavor, and aroma as it is matured in barrels.
Since the oak barrels contain tannins, once the bourbon is aged, the taste and color of the whiskey are affected.
Is It Dark Or Clear?
Bourbon is dark and not clear. After coming out of the still, it is a clear liquid called a white dog.
However, as it is required to be matured in new charred oak barrels, maturation influences the color of the liquid.
The barrels are exposed to extreme temperatures; as the sugar in the wood caramelizes, the oak influences the color and flavor of the whiskey.
You may also want to check out our recommended dark liquors here.
Is Bourbon’s Color Important?
Yes, bourbon’s color is important. Many bourbon enthusiasts use the bourbon’s color as an age indicator or length of maturation identifier.
Older bourbons tend to be darker than younger ones.
It makes sense because the aging process of bourbon is slow, and you can compare its concept to a tea bag submerged in a glass.
Is It Artificially Colored?
No, bourbon is not artificially colored.
While other distilled spirits like Scotch and Canadian whisky can use artificial coloring (E150a), it is not permitted when making bourbons.
There is no legal way to add artificial color to a whiskey labeled bourbon, as Federal Law forbids distilleries. No coloring agents and artificial flavorings are added to the bourbon whiskey.
Does Bourbon’s Color Tell Its Age?
Yes, bourbon’s color tells its age. While color can be an inaccurate indicator of the exact age of the bourbon, the darkness of the shade of bourbon whiskey may tell you its range.
“With other whiskeys like Scotch, for example, you can add coloring and flavoring additives. That’s prohibited in bourbon”Attorney Brian Haara
Since it is not legally allowed to use colorings on bourbon whiskey, the only way older bourbons get slightly lighter is by blending with other bourbons and adding water. But how long does bourbon have to be aged?
Why Some Bourbons Are Darker Than Others
Some types of bourbon are darker than others because the more time the whiskey spends in a charred oak barrel, the darker it usually becomes.
Also, the proof or alcohol content of the bourbon may affect the color of the final product.
The distilleries add water to reduce the proof of the bourbon whiskey, which may slightly affect the color of the whiskey.
Is It Legal To Add Coloring In It?
No, it is not legal to add coloring to bourbon. Based on Bourbon law, you cannot add coloring and flavoring when making bourbon.
Water is the only thing allowed to be added to the bourbon before bottling and is used to lessen the proof if necessary.
The color of the bourbon solely comes from the barrel where the distilled spirit is aged.
Do all bourbons have the same color?
No, not all bourbons have the same color. Bourbon comes in shades of amber, from golden to dark amber and nearly ruby. It may vary depending on the length of maturation in barrels.
Does bourbon have caramel coloring?
No, bourbon does not have caramel coloring. Unlike other whiskey categories, Federal Law prohibits distillers from adding caramel coloring when making bourbon.
The color of bourbon is dark to reddish brown. It can also come in shades of light, gold amber, to dark amber.
“Age is just a number” may seem not to apply to the color of the bourbon because the age inside the barrel affects its final flavor.
The longer it stays in the barrel, the darker it could be.