When you buy any product, the filtered version is usually better, purer, and healthier than the base version. But when it comes to liquor, filtering is not an inherent good. Every filtering process has its pros and cons, and understanding what a specific process entails can help you make your buying decision. Chill-filtering is one way to filter a whiskey.
What is chill-filtered whiskey? Chill filtering is the process of passing whiskey chilled at 41 to 50 °F through an adsorption filter. This leaves behind all the residue, including most oils and fatty acids, resulting in clear whiskey that maintains its appearance when bottled, served, or poured on the rocks.
One of the more uncommon debates among whisky drinkers is whether you prefer your brand to be “non-chill filtered”. Chill filtration is a somewhat controversial practice among whisky distillers. The outcome is not always advertised on the bottle labels – which is why chill filtering is not a common topic of discussion. But serious whisky enthusiasts definitely have an opinion.
In this article, you will learn more about the chill filtering process, the pros, and cons of it, and whether you should buy it or not.
By the end of this post, you will have a complete understanding of what chill filtered whiskey is and whether you should bother with it. You will also find out about filtering alternatives and zero-filtering as alternatives to chill filtering.
What Is Chill Filtered Whiskey?
The decision on whether to chill filter arises due to a build-up of chemical compounds during the distillation process of whiskey. Besides sediments, a number of proteins, fatty acids and long-chain esters or ether-based diols are present in the whiskey that comes out of the barrel.
If the alcohol content is below 46% Alcohol by Volume (ABV) – some say the threshold is slightly lower – these compounds create a cloudiness and haze when the whiskey is chilled, as may happen when someone puts ice in their drinks. The haze is not harmful, but the cloudiness may offend the aesthetics of certain drinkers.
Some distillers, especially of whiskey with ABV lower than 46%, therefore prefer to chill filter their products prior to bottling them.
Chill Filtering Whiskey: The Process Explained
Chill filtering is a process of filtering, not just solid residue but also liquid residue that can result in a cloudy appearance. The principle works because whiskey freezes at -16 °F while fatty acids, proteins, etc., that can be in whiskey distillate freeze before the temperature gets that low.
By lowering the temperature to 41 °F, the filterer ensures that even liquid “impurities” are solid. Many whiskey drinkers do not consider these solidified contents as impure or worth removing.
After the whiskey is chilled to the required extent, it is passed through an adsorption filter, which separates all the liquid content from the semi-solids and solids. The result is clear whiskey that doesn’t get cloudy when poured on ice or in an empty glass.
The video below shows the paper filters and explains the process further:
Whiskey that is chill-filtered also has lower chances of going bad as it doesn’t contain fats, protein, and esters that might be affected by temperature changes and the passage of time.
But that’s not the main benefit of chill filtered whiskey…
What Is The Benefit Of Chill Filtering? (Pros)
Chill filtering makes scotch whiskey clearer. This is a decorative advantage that some connoisseurs assert also reflects positively in the liquor’s taste. The contents removed by the process are oily and can be seen as impurities or flavor-enhancing essentials, depending on which side of the debate you are on. If you see it as a positive thing, you will agree with the following perks of chill filtering whiskey.
- It looks good – This is perhaps the only aspect of the whiskey filtering debate where both sides agree as chill filtered whiskey objectively looks better than non-filtered whiskey. Chill filtering leads to a clearer-looking whiskey that continues to stay clear after the bottle is opened, no matter how long you take to finish it. In contrast, a non-filtered whiskey might look clear initially but can start developing a cloudy appearance over time.
- It tastes better – Chill filtered whiskey tastes better to some people. Those who appreciate the remaining flavor notes more than the removed elements, like how the whiskey tastes after it is filtered. However, those people aren’t in the majority.
- It has no impurities – While taste judgments on chill-filtered whiskey are subjective, it is an objective fact that this type of whiskey is pure. It is free of impurities and delivers the essence of what whiskey is.
What Are The Drawbacks Of Chill Filtering? (Cons)
The other side of the whiskey filtering debate is that chill-filtering doesn’t preserve the essence of whiskey but actually loses some essential elements. Chill Filtering removes everything that cannot rrr, which results in clear whiskey.
But the resulting beverage tastes significantly different from non-chill-filtered whiskey.
Some whiskey drinkers believe that the elements that visually cloud the liquor also make it taste better. With that in mind, you can understand why the following drawbacks apply to chill-filtered whiskey.
- Less flavorsome product – Chill filtering’s main disadvantage is that it does its job and removes a lot of oils and fats from the liquor in the process. This leads to a higher ABV whiskey that is less flavorsome.
- Longer process – Not only is chill filtered whiskey missing some flavor elements, but it also takes longer to produce. The longer a whiskey producer has to work his whiskey, the more he charges for it.
- Relatively expensive product – The length and the expense of the chill filtering process brings us to its final effect on price. Chill filtered whiskey can be more expensive than its non-chill-filtered equivalent.
Should You Buy Chill-Filtered Whiskey?
Now that you know how chill filtered whiskey is made and what its pros and cons are, you can tell if you would like your whiskey filtered the same way.
You should buy chill filtered whiskey if you like it to look clear. If your whiskey bottle serves a decorative function, then chill filtering it is in order. You should also get your whiskey filtered for fatty acids and protein if you want to reduce its calorie content.
You should not buy chill filtered whiskey if you prefer the taste of the whiskey you’re currently used to. Chill filtering can remove nuance from whiskey’s taste. It is hard to tell the age and origin of a whiskey after it has been chill filtered. If you don’t mind that, then you should get chill filtered liquor.
If you’re on the fence, let’s take a look at the opposite of chill filtering…
What Is Non-Chill Filtering?
Non-chill filtering is also called “regular” or “standard” filtering. It is a process that removes solid residue from whiskey by passing it through a nearly-microscopic sieve. The filtering process gets rid of the residue without separating liquid contents like fatty acids.
Chill filtering is better for cosmetic reasons, while non-chill filtering is better for flavor and taste. Whiskeys bottled at prestigious facilities do not remove high-freezing-point contents with chill filtering as they consider them crucial for the taste profile they have established.
Non-chill filtering is the best alternative to chill filtering, though it doesn’t guarantee clarity after bottling. Hence non-chill-filtering is considered a whiskey-cleaning step, while chill-filtering is a whiskey-beautifying step that also happens to clean up the solid residue.
There are arguments for and against chill filtering as well as non-chill filtering. It ultimately is up to the drinker and depends entirely on how much value he places on whiskey’s appearance and flavor range.
Still, there are a few instances where chill filtering is objectively counter-productive. One should never get the following types of whiskey chill-filtered:
- Single barrel whiskey – Single barrel whiskey has an interesting flavor profile as it is not blended from multiple vattings, giving it a singular personality. Chill filtering can be a major step down in flavor.
- Top-rack rickhouse whiskey – Rickhouse whiskey that ages at a high altitude has a great flavor advantage that can diminish if fatty acids are subtracted from its distillate.
- Whiskey aged over 20 – 20-year-old whiskey is relatively delicate, and a subtractive process as intensive as chill filtering can damage its flavor.
- Scotch whiskey – Scotch whiskey is notorious for its delicate clarity and is among the top ones to get chill filtered. Ironically, the drink’s taste is very highly influenced by its fatty acids and is best enjoyed with all its flavor elements intact.
- Oak barrel whiskey – Oak barrel whiskey develops an interesting flavor as a result of aging in an oak cask. This subtle flavor alteration is removed in the chill filtering process.
What Types of Whiskey Are Chill Filtered?
As mentioned above, chill filtration is usually applied to remove the possibility of a haze build-up when you chill down whiskies that have ABV levels lower than 46%. Since the decision boils down to aesthetics, the approach among distillers vary.
Not many distillers chill filter whiskeys above 46% ABV and even fewer apply chill filtration to those above 50% ABV. In general, this will mean that lower proof whiskeys, such as blended scotches, bourbons and sour mash, are more likely to be chill filtered, while stronger single malt Scotches are unlikely to be finished that way. However, there are exceptions. Some distilleries do chill filter many or all of their expressions, even those at higher ABVs. More on that below.
The opposite case is also true. While most distilleries tend to chill filter whiskies that are less than 92 Proof (46% ABV), there are some that offer non-chill filtered whiskies at between 42-46% ABV.
What Effect on Flavour and Taste Does Chill Filtration Have?
This is a topic of hot debate between people who do pay attention to whether their whiskey is chill filtered. First, the obvious. Chill filtration for whiskies that are less than 46% ABVs will remove the possibility of the haze or cloudiness that would normally occur when the drinks are chilled. Ergo, chill filtration produces a bright, clear whiskey on the rocks.
Even premium distillers sometimes pay homage to the distinction between a clear and cloudy drink. One thing that’s clear is that the compounds do not create the haze if the strength is higher than 46% ABV. The smokiness is created by what is known as reversible flocculation (“floc”). At higher strengths, the floc cannot form.
For example, there is the famous story of Burn Stewart’s master blender, Ian McMillan, who persuaded the distillery to raise the strength of its Bunnahabhain, Deanston, Tobermory and Ledaig single malt Scotch whiskies to 46.3% ABV – in order to save their having to go through the chill filtration process.
However, that is not the whole story …
Why Is Chill Filtration a Point of Contention? Does It Alter the Taste, Flavor and Aromas?
In his passionate condemnation of chill filtration, McMillan spoke of the “oily and greasy” residues, rich in aroma and flavor, that had been built up through the distillation process and mixed in with the sediment flavors from the cask. This forms the crux of the matter. Purists argue that chill filtering robs the whiskey of the floc which in fact contributes to the flavor, texture, aroma and “mouthful” – an essential part of the experience to serious drinkers who prefer to sip their whisky, rolling it around their tongue and savoring the taste on their palate.
Having said that, scientists are decidedly skeptical on whether or not chill filtration can substantially alter any of the flavor or aroma in whiskey. Double tasting studies conducted with scotch whisky experts have proved inconclusive. If any effects are produced, they are minimal and nowhere near as pronounced as the effect on color and clarity – that is, how chill filtering brightens the color by clearing up the haze in chilled whiskey. Skeptics also point out that even some of the absolute best whiskies, such as _Lagavulin 16_, have artificial coloring mixed in – certainly the effect of chill filtering would be much less pronounced than that.
But for serious drinkers of high-end Scotches, this is a debate worth having.
One final thing to remember is that whiskey which is above 46% ABV, but not by much, can easily be brought down to the concentration threshold by adding water. The threshold only works if the strength remains at 46% ABV or higher when you drink.
Examples of Chill and Non Chill Filtered Brands
As mentioned above, many distilleries prefer not to use chill filtration, or the lack thereof, on their labels. However, some specific labels are well known.
Commonly Chill Filtered Brands
Among the common brands that are filtered are popular US bourbon whiskey brands such as Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve (paper filtered only) and Knob Creek, all of which chill filter their low proof offerings.
Another distillery, Michter, chill filters all of their offerings regardless of their ABV. Some well known single malt brands chill filter offerings that are close to or below 46% ABV – examples include Talisker and Macallan.
Brands that Never Chill Filter
Whiskeys that remain non-chill filtered are considerably larger in number, especially among the higher-end single malt Scotches and good Bourbon producing distilleries.
In addition to the Burn Stewart offerings mentioned above, other examples include brands such as Aberlour, Bruichladdich, Arran, Ardbeg, Laphroig, Oban, Springbank and Glenfarclass among single malts. A number of bourbons also offer non-chill factored whiskey, including Makers Mark, Four Roses, New Riff and Bulleit among commonly found brands.
How To Keep Whiskey Clear? (3 Steps)
Chill filtering can alter whiskey’s taste in ways you might not like. Fortunately, it is not the only way to ensure whiskey’s clarity. Understanding why whiskey gets cloudy and preventing said causes can help you keep your whiskey clear. Follow the steps below to maintain your liquor’s clarity.
- Step one – Understand the causes of cloudiness – Cloudiness is caused by the fats, proteins, and ester in the whiskey solidifying or clumping together as a response to various temperature changes. Knowing this, you can minimize such changes and keep your whiskey at a temperature where it is clear.
- Step two – Keep whiskey out of direct sunlight – Most types of cloudiness are harmless in whiskey. But whiskey made cloudy by sunlight exposure can actually turn rancid. Sunlight can break down the contents of the whiskey, turning some of them evidently white and making the drink cloudy. You should keep whiskey away from direct sunlight to avoid UV-driven decomposition.
- Step three – Do not let whiskey stay at room temperature – Whiskey doesn’t get spoiled at room temperature. It does go cloudy after 5 to 6 hours of sitting at room temperature, though. To keep your whiskey from turning cloudy, you should keep it cold and serve it cold.
Final Thoughts: Is Chill-Filtered Whiskey For You?
Chill Filtered whiskey is a whiskey that is filtered after cooling to the point of solidifying fats, proteins, and esters. The result is pure whiskey that doesn’t get cloudy regardless of temperature changes.
It can be stored and poured clear. But many whiskey lovers assert that stripping the fats from whiskey affects the drink’s flavor negatively. Chill filtering might make liquor clear, but it does diminish its taste significantly.
Non-chill factored has become a marketing slogan for high-end whiskies, whether or not there is, in fact, any proven difference in taste, texture, flavor or aroma.
If you belong to the group of enthusiasts that prefer purity in everything whiskey-related, scan the labels or check with your favorite brand distillery to assure yourself that you are not buying chill filtered whisky. If, instead, you want a clear, bright whisky regardless of its strength, get a brand that does advertise a chill filtered offering.