Not too long ago, I overheard a sommelier joke about how certain self-professed wine buffs were nothing but air. Case in point: He had once recommended a white wine to pair with a meal, only to have it asked to be replaced with a cabernet. On a whim, he added a few drops of red food colouring to the white wine and sent it back to the table. At the end of the night, the guests complimented his “outstanding choice”.
Moral ethics of this sommelier aside, his little experiment intrigued me. In a study published in the Journal of Food Science, researchers found that people confused flavours when a drink did not have the appropriate colour. A cherry-flavoured drink manipulated to be orange in colouring was thought to have tangerine notes, while the same cherry drink dressed in a shade of green was thought to taste like lime.
When it comes to hard liquor, colour tends to denote a spirit’s age – but I’m in two minds about this. Several years ago, The Macallan, one of the top three single-malt producers in the world, decided to do away with age on the label and named whiskies by their hue in the 1824 series. The whisky intensified in flavours progressively: Gold contained light citrus notes, the slightly darker Amber had notes of vanilla and toffee, Sienna displayed more spice with ginger and nutmeg, and Ruby had the characteristic of rich dried fruits that the brand is well known for.
But I would have preferred knowing the age. After all, the strict governance of whisky production means the length of ageing really does count for something.
Quite unlike rum, which is pretty much a free spirit in comparison. No exacting rules dictate how rum is made, and the tipple’s sweet underlying notes make it a fun yet historically rich drink. It’s also in rum where I see the mischief in colour play out.
For instance, at a blind tasting I previously attended, a fellow journalist commented on how the gin had smooth floral notes and the whisky was a right dram with a spicy finish. Both, however, were actually rum – one white, and one golden-amber in shade.
A white rum is commonly perceived as a cheap make with an industrial aftertaste, while an oro appears refined on the assumption that its colour was achieved by ageing. But the lack of rules means these mahogany hues could actually be the result of a little caramel or molasses added by distillers into their recipe, to ensure the end product looks like it stayed in an oak cask for some time. In truth, the joke’s on you if all you’re going on is colour and preconceived mind-sets.
So while I admire the bravery of The Macallan in associating colours with certain tasting notes, I’d rather close my eyes and put faith in my own taste buds. Mistakes just mean more reason to drink and opportunity to hone your palate, and I’ll gladly toast to that.