Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Chill-Filtration: An Argument For The Ages

Photo taken From Luke Rymarz's Youtube vide.
For whisky anoraks, it's natural that after a while you start picking up on small factors that affect your drams, such as alcohol content, colouring, age, peat, oak, cask types - and one of the real biggies; chill-filtering.

Chill-filtration is the process of cooling a whisky to between -10 and 4°C  to solidify the various residues before passing it through a fine absorption filter. This process removes various fats, oils and proteins etc in order to prevent the whisky becoming hazy when cool or when water or ice are added. This is a purely aesthetic measure taken by whisky producers and is taken with no view to improving taste or quality.

I can hear the shrugging shoulders from here at my desk, while you try to contain yawns and the urge to click over to the Daily Mail website or Pornhub or whatever you kids are up to these days. But stop that right now - this is quite important to some of us, and this aspect of whisky needs addressing no matter how boring you might find it.


Why Chill-Filter?

One of the main reasons I feel that distilleries partake in CF is that they want to bottle at a lower alcohol volume - when a whisky is 46% or less and hasn't been chill-filtered, the whisky haze descends. Producers feel that whisky consumers are ignorant to this fact, which I generally agree with - your average whisky drinker won't know what this hazing is, or whether it's dangerous, or anything much at all about it.

However, the thing is that if the distilleries bottled at a higher abv they wouldn't have to worry about it, but most won't. Bottling at lower abv means cutting the whisky with more water and making a barrel fill more bottles, so it all comes down to basic economics: distilleries want more money from each cask, they give you weaker alcohol and eke out the spirit, this causes hazing to start, so they remove it... Simple.


How Can I Tell What Has Been Chill-Filtered?

The main giveaway is the alcohol content - if a whisky is under 46% then it is likely to be chill filtered.

Whilst a whisky producer will never say on their label if they have used CF, many will make it known that they haven't (there is a bit of an added issue in whisky at the moment with labelling laws not being strict enough for my liking, but that's another story.)
 Simply look out for percentages and those distilleries that tell you they don't use it - it's really all you can do at the moment.


So, What's The Problem?
Photo by Mike McCune

It's no secret that people are increasingly looking for more natural, craft, organic and basically just real and unsullied products. This is more important now than ever before - the craft beer, organic wine, organic food, Etsy etc movements show this.

(Please bear in mind that I said organic wine, not bio-dynamic which is a load of bollocks in my opinion, seriously why should burying a horn filled with dung be a part of the viticultural process, or monitoring the location of the moon, haven't the 60s been and gone? Anyway back to the task at hand...) As I was saying, people feel great affinity towards natural products and feel that chill-filtration takes a whisky away from what it should be and adds an extra layer of un-needed intervention and meddling.

Another issue is CF's effect on taste. It is widely thought by consumers that the removal of all these proteins and fatty acids from the whisky must affect the whisky in some way.

Non-CF whiskies in my experience often have more flavour going on, but the more noticeable is the fuller mouth-feel (there's no way of knowing if this is due to higher alcohol content, though). Of course any opinions that CF is bad are refuted by producers who say that it produces a more consistent and stable product, but  they don't let you try the same whisky with and without CF. That is, until now...

Aberlour have now produced a non chill-filtered version of their 12 year whisky - I intend on doing a side by side comparison soon, so keep an eye out.

Also, Master of Malt are working on a project called the Reference Series to release three whiskies at various price points, and then demonstrate the effect of different whisky making practices on the same whisky, such as adding colourant, ageing in oak and chill-filtering. It's definitely worth giving that a look.

I shall now dismount my soap box until I next feel that a sermon is required or... well, until I have done more research into the subject and won't just be talking out of my arse. Stay tuned for my side by side Aberlour comparison...

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