Jim Murray hates spirit caramel. He's a prominent whisk(e)y critic and one of the guiding lights behind The Malt Advocate magazine, and he has been known to rant about the use of spirit caramel as a coloring agent in Scotch. It mutes the nose and the flavor of the whisky, he says, overpowering it with toffee and vanilla. Well, it makes sense that it would have that effect: spirit caramel is, well, caramel. That is, caramelized sugar. Scotch producers claim that it's just a coloring agent and has no effect on flavor, but I don't see how that can possibly be accurate. Caramel is a strongly-flavored substance. How could it not effect the flavor of a spirit that it's added to? Scotch bottlers have found that their buyers like darker whiskies better than paler ones and that they tend to associate a dark color with quality. Darkness is no problem with Bourbon because it's aged in new charred oak barrels. The char easily gives up its color. But when you reuse that barrel (and the vast majority of Scotch is aged in used ex-Bourbon barrels), there's not a ton of color left for the barrel to give up. Ex-sherry butts makes coloring easier, but ex-Sherry butts are becoming rarer and are certainly more expensive. And so Scotch producers are left with spirit caramel, particularly for the younger whiskies that make up the bulk of the market. It's so pervasive now that some malts (Bruichladdich, for example) make a big deal about the fact that they don't use it.
So why do I bring spirit caramel up when writing about the Aberfeldy 12 year old? I should say that I have no definitive evidence that Aberfeldy uses spirit caramel. Indeed, I don't really have the experience or the quality of palate to be much of a judge. However, I will say that it's pretty dark in color, even though it doesn't have many sherry notes; and that what I mostly get on the palate is one-dimensional honied sweetness. It's a tasty whisky, and I like the strong orange notes on the nose. Still, I would be very interested to know for sure whether they use spirit caramel in it.