Production

Why whisky shouldn't chill out

Anthony Troon puts forward his views on why chill filtering leaves the whisky enthusiast with a spirit that may well be a shadow of its former self
By Anthony Troon
You pour yourself a dram and add a splash of spring water before holding your glass up to the light. Seen through the clear glass of your Blender’s Malt Glass the liquid glows with a golden-amber brilliance – clear, pure and absolutely transparent.It’s getting late and your mind wanders: by savouring this luxury nightcap in an attempt to ease your way into sleep you are experiencing exactly the ritual your forefathers might have enjoyed. But you would be only partly right.The reason for this is that when your discerning grandparent added a splash of water to his Scotch early last century, the dram would go slightly cloudy. Holding his tumbler up to the light, he would see tiny particles suspended in the liquid, giving it a faintly muzzy, very faintly opaque, appearance. He would not, of course, worry about this in the slightest and would ‘take off’ his dram with relish and absolute confidence.In his day, Scotch whisky was expected to react in this way to the addition of cold water. In fact, the suspended particles could often be seen as soon as the whisky was poured from the bottle. They were simply visible evidence of the trace elements that gave each single malt much of its unique flavour and which were carried forward into the blends when blending malt with grain whisky gained complete acceptance around 1909.So what has happened to whisky between then and now? The answer is something called chill filtering, a process that is applied to almost all Scotch as it makes its journey from the final vatting to the bottle.On its way to the bottling lines, the whisky passes through a refrigerating section which reduces its temperature to zero degrees centigrade and sometimes even to minus five degrees according to the requirements of the client. For very often, the bottling of malt, vatted malt and blended whisky is contracted out to a company with specialised facilities. When the whisky has been chilled to the required temperature, many of the proteins and suspended elements in the spirit then solidify and can be filtered out. As a result, there will be no sign of the trace elements when the spirit is ‘reduced’ with water to the appropriate level of alcohol-by-volume and no cloudiness when the drinker adds water to the dram for its ultimate journey down the thrapple. But hasn’t something very important been lost?Many whisky-lovers who have experienced their drams without the chill filtering process believe that this treatment robs the whisky of much of its flavour. It would, after all, remove some of the elements which contribute to the uniqueness of each malt, whether bottled as a single, vatted or blended with grain spirit. Afterwards, the flavours are noticeably reduced. Once the whisky has been chill filtered and continues to the bottling lines, the bottler is left with a kind of sludge composed of fatty acids and solids which had been held in suspension down the long years of maturation. Here is the visible evidence of the whisky’s taste contributed by the water, the peat, the malt, and the cask. Immediately, though, the Exciseman is on the case. Regulations demand that these filtered-out solids have to be destroyed, otherwise who knows what use they could be put to by unscrupulous operators marketing some of today’s bizarre alcopoppish delights. So why do distillers believe that chill filtering is necessary? After all, simple filtering without the chill element would surely remove any unwanted debris from the whisky. The answer is quite a sad one: it’s done for cosmetic purposes. It’s simply a marketing ploy. Today, distillers do not want their product to show its trace elements in the bottle and believe that contemporary whisky drinkers would be discouraged when the spirit turned slightly cloudy with the addition of water. So in pursuit of cosmetic ideals, it seems, they are prepared to reduce the flavour of their product.You will come across various theories on when and why chill filtering became normal practice in the whisky industry. One explanation given to me was that until the 1930s a great deal of Scotch whisky was sold in opaque bottles of green-coloured glass and so any perceived ‘impurities’ were masked. Then, in line with the standard international marketing practice for spirits, Scotch switched over completely to clear glass bottles. Thus the distillers suddenly wanted their products to look bright and clear, and chill filtering was adopted in pursuit of that marketing ideal. But even as early as 1917 the chill filtering tendency had been noted and deplored by the distinguished medical journal The Lancet. It seems that for some reason, the strength at which whisky and other spirits could be sold to the public was decreed at that time in the Defence of the Realm Act. The level was set at 40% by volume, which you will find still applies in most standard bottlings although it’s no longer illegal to sell whisky in stronger form and even at cask strength. The Lancet, however, pointed out that Scotch malt whisky was not an ordinary spirit but “a complex containing certain by-products of fermentation and distillation, held in solution in the alcohol”. Just as with tinctures, the writer continued, the addition of water throws out oil and other active ingredients. Fatty substances, resins and other products contrive to make the spirit opalescent when water is added to reduce the percentage of alcohol. The writer continues: “The subsequent elimination of these substances by filtration carries out a material proportion of the flavouring substances derived from the malt and the ethers are to some extent destroyed by this process. This is what the merchants have been compelled to do. The result is that the whisky now supplied to the public is bright and clear and remains so even on further dilution, while much of the characteristic malty flavour has been withdrawn.”The cask-strength whiskies sold to members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society are not chill filtered. The very strong ones turn almost milk-white when water is added. But, so far as I know, only one commercial blender makes a virtue of bottling the cratur without chill filtering and these are “the Gaelic whiskies” of Praban na Linne, the only whisky company with its
headquarters in the Hebrides. To find out more, I travelled to Skye.The Gaelic whiskies are the brain-child of Sir Iain Noble, the Scots merchant banker and business entrepreneur who bought an estate on the Sleat peninsula in 1972 and immediately set about creating employment there and learning to speak Gaelic (“without which,” he said, “a door is always closed to you in the Hebrides.”) He was instrumental in setting up a college on Skye which teaches contemporary Gaelic studies. In 1976 he set up Praban na Linne and, working through a whisky broker and blender in Edinburgh and a bottler in West Lothian, began to market a range of whiskies labelled in Gaelic. These were Te Bheag (pronounced chey vek, The Little Lady or a wee dram), a vatted malt Poit Dhubh (potch ghoo, meaning Black Pot which Gaels interpret as an illicit still, which it isn’t) and a lighter blend Mac Na Mara (Son of the Sea).Until some years ago these whiskies were all chill filtered at the bottling plant. Then a friend produced a bottle of pre-war whisky for Sir Iain to taste, a standard blend of the time. To him, itwas a revelation of Damascus-road proportions. This whisky had not been chill filtered and, he said, the flavours simply burst upon his taste-buds. As a result, during the 1990s, he introduced non-chill filtered versions of his malt at varying ages, which he called Poit Dhubh Gaugers, and of the Te Bheag which has a malt content of “well over” 40% – it promptly won gold medals in the International Spirits Challenge Competition and at Selection Mondiale in Canada. The original chill filtered bottlings of Te Bheag are still being made available but Sir Iain and his American-born General Manager Skip Clary have become devoted advocates of non-chill-filtered Scotch. However, the Production Manager who handles their bottlings, Derek Hawes at Iain MacLeod & Co, Broxburn, feels the consumer expects Scotch whisky to be unclouded when water is added. “Not many whisky drinkers would discern the difference,” he argues.Nevertheless, because the Gaelic whiskies occupy a tiny corner of the industry (currently selling just 12,000 cases a year – a figure that’s rising), it may be that they have latched on to something that gives them a unique profile. During my visit to Skye a tasting was held for local hoteliers and bed-and-breakfast operators who might offer these whiskies to their guests. Skip Clary conducted the proceedings and was careful to ensure that the tasters understood the difference between the chill filtered versions of the Poit Dhubh and the Te Bheag. This wasn’t a scientific experiment under laboratory conditions but socially it could hardly have been bettered in any laboratory. The whisky which hadn’t been chill filtered won hands-down. Is this something the big distillers and blenders could take on board? I would certainly hope so.