by Father John Rayls
With apologies to Bill Shakespeare, whose side are you on? The facts really don’t matter. Just choose a side and argue the points loudly. Even if you don’t know the points, feel free to contribute to the fog. Marketing departments love passionate followers and love to create drama filled with passion, tears and anguish. Passion and drama sells products, which in this case happens to be whisky. Chill-Filtration is becoming a real hot-button in the whisky wars. A war that’s all about the all mighty dollar: your dollar to be more specific.
Chill-Filtration is a process where specific things like fats, oils and proteins are removed from the whisky before bottling. Initially, the whisky is cooled to a temperature between -10 degrees and 4 degrees centigrade. The ice cold liquid is then passed through some type of filter (varies by distillery) to collect these “impurities”. All of this is designed to prevent any kind of haze forming in our whisky when it’s chilled or mixed with water and/or ice prior to consumption. We all know through the pictures released by marketing departments we’ve seen that real whisky is never cloudy or hazy for any reason. I have to admit that I had concerns the first time the clouds showed up in my drink when I added ice.
It’s interesting to note that the cloudiness only affects whisky that’s bottled at 86 proof or less and only when it’s iced, chilled or mixed with water before drinking. This creates a perfect battle ground for marketing departments to hype their process regardless of what it is. If your company uses a chill-filtration system you argue vehemently that purity of our liquid gold is a very good thing and it doesn’t affect the taste. If your company doesn’t use a chill filtration you argue vehemently that yours is an organic process which must be better than an artificial system which is actually inorganic. It reminds me of my whisky interpretation of the Kate Davis version of “It’s All About The Bass”. Instead, I’m all about the taste, about the taste no trouble. You know my momma she told me please worry about the taste…
Of course when competing marketing organizations get involved, “obfuscation” becomes the magic word of the moment. It ties right in with the old cliche: if you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with BS which is exactly what’s occurring at this moment in an effort to capture your heart and taste buds. It’s absolutely true that the appearance of any given whisky will affect any consumer in somewhat unpredictable ways. Unpredictability is not a marketer’s friend. As a result, distilleries are trying to prove that their methodologies are the best. Unfortunately, the science is not really there to make a strong case either way.
Horst Luning wrote about a blind study a couple of years back involving 111 German whisky connoisseurs who were allowed to sample various tastings of both chill-filtered and non chill-filtered of the same whiskies. It was statistically demonstrated by professional experienced whiskey experts that the two are very nearly indistinguishable for them. For the rest of us that are merely enthusiastic consumers, it is virtually impossible to tell the difference in taste. It’s still interesting that none of this science stops us from choosing sides and arguing to the best of our abilities.
I have to say that I drink my whisky neat (almost exclusively). This, of course, precludes me from experiencing the cloudiness in my drink. In addition, I tend to drink mostly 90 proof and up which also prevents any haze from forming. However if you favor whiskies in the 86 proof range or less and prefer your whisky chilled, iced or mixed with water, you may want to begin thinking about your preference. It won’t affect the taste of your favorite whisky noticeably, but it probably will affect the appearance which may affect your overall enjoyment. Many distilleries are now labeling their bottles as chill-filtered or non chill-filtered. Cloudy or clear, whisky drinking is a very personal experience.