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Why The Best Bourbon Is Cloudy
Unfiltered whiskeys are something of a passion for me, and I seek them out whenever possible in my bottlings. I have an article coming out later this year for Malt Advocate about chill filtration in Scotch, which I will post on our whiskey site. But I wanted to talk briefly about filtration as it applies to Bourbon. I see its impact with every private barrel I select.
The issue of chill filtration has been growing in the Scotch industry for the better part of 20 years, as first independent bottlers and later an increasing number of distilleries championed the purity of no-filtration. In Bourbon, however, it has happened much more slowly. One reason is that Bourbon, thanks in part to the required new oak barrel, has more “stuff” in it—like fatty acids and proteins—that needs filtration. The vast majority of Bourbon would turn hazy if bottled without filtration at a lower proof; whereas unfiltered Scotch can typically remain clear when reduced to 92 proof. Basically this means that unfiltered Scotch requires only a modest price increase and is economically viable in the marketplace. Non-chill-filtered (NCF) Bourbon, on the other hand, pretty much requires bottling at full barrel proof, which results in a much more expensive bottle of whiskey. Long story short, if you want unfiltered Bourbon, it will need to be barrel proof, and significantly more expensive.
Is the extra purity of NCF worth the extra pennies? Well, it’s true that I don’t want all my Bourbon to cost upwards of $50 because it is barrel proof; and there are plenty of scrumptious 90 proof, filtered whiskeys out there. Therefore I’m quite ready to accept filtration on a wide variety of Bourbon bottlings. The notion that we can all return to a 19th century full-barrel proof bottling in order to go be unfiltered is a pipe dream. At the end of the day, we need chill-filtration.
That said, here is some graphic evidence of what can happen in the filter pads:
In the center is a sample of barrel proof, unfiltered, 15-year-old Bourbon from a single barrel I selected back in 2005. Notice the rich, dark color. This sample was one of the best Bourbons I ever drank, an incredible, overwhelming whiskey. And on the right is the same sample, diluted and filtered from the finished single barrel bottling. What happened to the incredible color? Not only did the filter pull out some color, but the flavor, while still very fine, was much diminished from the sledgehammer barrel sample. (On the left is the normal production bottling, from many barrels, of this whiskey, diluted to bottling strength and chill-filtered.)
Look at that picture again. That’s what can happen thanks to chill-filtration. Oh! how I wish I could go back and bottle that sample at barrel strength and NCF. I don’t expect every Bourbon to be barrel strength/NCF. But whenever possible, dear drinker, know that I will choose for you the very best that a barrel has to offer. With no. Filter. Pads. Between you and your whiskey.
All of my Willett Bottlings, Four Roses Barrel Strength, and my Buffalo Trace Experimentals are presently and will always be bottled without chill-filtration. All of my Private Cask Scotch is unfiltered.