Hunched over a small white table with an eyedropper and two Glencairn glasses half-full of Four Roses bourbon, Master Distiller Brent Elliot conducted a science experiment. “A little cold water and you’ll see what I’m talking about,” he said.
Elliot dabbed five drops into one of the glasses, swirled and waited. “There!” he said. “You see that? That’s the cloudiness we’re talking about.”
The occasion was the release of Four Roses’s first new mainline bottle in over a decade, but the subject was the words emblazoned in capital letters on the bottleneck: NON-CHILL FILTERED.
During the fermentation, distillation and barrel-aging processes, spirits develop trace byproducts that take the shape of acetone, esters, tannins, fatty lipids and other particles, collectively called congeners. Non-chill filtered spirits are those spirits that have not had those naturally occurring congeners sieved from them — sort of like natural wine. The effects congeners have on taste is up for debate — some argue filtering them out is tantamount to limiting the depth of flavor, others say their effect is mostly imagined.
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Including Heaven Hill Old-Style Bourbon, a non-chill filtered spirit found only in Kentucky – for about $10.
In the early days of bourbon filtration, the chief concern was aesthetic: non-chill filtered whiskeys become cloudy at lower temperatures, leading customers to believe there was something awry with the whiskey inside. Chill filtering these particles out of the whiskey became been standard procedure for bourbon makers for 100-plus years hence.
“Some distilleries and brands will lock onto [non-chill filtering] more than others,” said Clay Whittaker, whiskey writer and frequent contributor for Men’s Journal, Town & Country and more. “These places are the ones thinking about authenticity — the most real version of the whiskey.”
Elliot believes non-chill filtering has an effect, but that it may be different — more pronounced or more subdued — depending on the person. “A lot of our customers feel that non-chill-filtered bourbon offers a more natural bourbon experience because nothing has been removed — you know, heavier mouthfeel, more woody flavors, but it’s not a question of good or bad.”
Because of the enormous cost associated with chill filtration equipment, the craft distilling community (that is, those craft distillers that make their own whiskey) has largely skipped chill filtration wholesale. Andy Nelson’s award darling of a distillery, Belle Meade, is one such company. And despite offering a full line of non-chill filtered juice, Nelson is on the same page as Elliot.
“Subtlety is the keyword. It’s fully dependent on the person tasting the booze. If you drink the same spirit side-by-side, one chill filtered and one non-chill filtered, you’ll feel it,” he said, “It’s a mouthfeel thing for me — like the difference between a well-marbled steak and a steak on the leaner side.”
With the new non-chill filtered Four Roses, Weller’s forthcoming non-chill filtered Full Proof and a swell of offerings from craft distillers forgoing chill filtration, it’s easy to call NCF bourbon a trend. Whittaker says it may be trendy, but it’s not a trend itself. Rather, he says, it’s a smaller part of a larger bourbon movement — portfolio diversification.
“Whiskey nerds, budding or otherwise, want to try variations of things. They want to learn by exposing themselves to as many versions of something as possible. It’s another tool in a distiller’s toolset, not an all-or-nothing thing.” Here are a handful of non-chill filtered bottles to get yourself acquainted to the category.
Bottles to Try
Four Roses Small Batch Select
Small Batch Select is the decendant of a transcendent bottle of bourbon. The Four Roses 130th Anniversary Limited Edition release stormed award shows last year, eventually claiming the title “World’s Best Bourbon” from the World Whiskies Awards. Small Batch Select is bottled at a similar proof (104 to 108) and is made with each of the same mashbill and yeast strains associated with the limited release (for more info on Four Roses recipes, go here).
New Riff Distilling Bottled-in-Bond
“Nonetheless, if New Riff is not on your radar, you need to follow them. They’re one of the most exciting new distilleries in the world.” Bourbon writer and personality Fred Minnick’s words on New Riff after earning itself some silverware at San Francisco’s World Spirits Competition this year. It’s Double Gold-winning Bottled-in-Bond bourbon is made with a 30 percent rye mashbill, imparting it with a tasteful blend of mellow corn and warm baking spices.
High West Prairie
High West was early in the craft distilling game, and it shows. The Utah distillery’s range of whiskeys embraces the atypical — a bourbon blended with peaty smoke scotch, a genuinely wild mix of very young and very old ryes and this vanilla-bomb of a mid-proof, sourced bourbon.
Belle Meade Madeira Cask Finish
Belle Meade just wants you to try their whiskeys in as many ways as they can afford to give them to you. The Nashville distillery’s madeira-finished bourbon is a blend of six- and nine-year-old high-rye whiskeys. You won’t get the madeira on the nose, but after the first sip it’s front and center with deep blackberry and dark cherry notes.
Bulleit Barrel Strength
If you’ve really acclimated yourself to Bulleit’s brand of bourbon whiskey, you’re in for a treat. The brand’s barrel strength offering is Bulleit with the pedal to the metal. Clocking in anywhere from 115 to 125, it’s the richest way to experience one of the most controversial bourbon labels in America.
Booker’s Shiny Barrel Batch
Booker’s is the grandaddy of all the high proof bourbons flooding the market. Introduced in 1988 at a then-ludicrous $40 clip, today it’s the first bourbon mentioned in any conversation around barrel strength booze. Released in quarterly batches, the Shiny Barrel Batch is one of the easiest drinking Booker’s in a while. As ridiculous as it sounds, its marked 124 proof is a good bit lower than the usual 130-plus. Sip it neat with a few drops of cold water to bring out its famed peanut-heavy foundational note.