Not too long ago I started noticing that some Scotches were described as "non-chill filtered." Aware of how marketing and branding works, at first I paid this no mind. I figured it could be essentially meaningless, similar to vodkas that brag about how many times they're distilled, as if past a certain point the drinker will notice anything, or, for Mad Men fans, how Don Draper came up with Lucky Strike's "It's toasted" slogan. But the more I noticed it, the more I became curious as to what it meant, so eventually I did my research. I was surprised: It's actually pretty important, and for a serious whiskey lover, it's pretty inexplicable.
Photo by Nath Pizzolatto An unfiltered, cask-strength whiskey, the Aberlour A'Bundah is richly colored from its time aging in sherry casks.
Without getting into the science of it, what you need to know is that chill filtering is a process that filters out certain particulates, esters and other compounds, in the whiskey after it's aged. The purpose of this process is so that the whiskey does not become cloudy after sitting on a shelf for a while. It's simple marketing.
Some of you might be asking, "What's wrong with filtering something?" while others of you are nodding along and seeing where this is going: Those particulates are the result of the aging process, and by and large, they're what flavor the whiskey! Filtering them out is essentially diluting the flavor and undoing the hard, long work of the aging process. Why people would choose to neutralize the flavor of their whiskey for appearance's sake is beyond me, but I suppose in marketing, image and perception matter more than quality.
Now that I knew this, I couldn't look at whiskeys in the same way. From what I could tell, all the major, notable labels didn't advertise that they didn't chill-filter their whiskeys. I had to assume they did, until I found out otherwise; this list of major scotches included my beloved Macallan 12. With that in mind, I set out to find a Scotch with a similar profile to the Macallan, but that explicitly was not chill-filtered. I settled on the Aberlour A'Bundah, and bought a bottle at Spec's to try it.
My biggest reservation about buying the A'Bundah is that it has no age statement, so I really have no idea how old the bottle I bought was, or how quality was maintained from batch to batch. But what sold me on it was, first, that it was matured entirely in Oloroso sherry butts, similar to the classic Macallan line and something that's rare (even many sherry-finished Scotches only spend a short time at the end of their maturation in those barrels). Second, it was not only unfiltered, but it was bottled at cask strength. These two facts meant it was about as "pure" and close to the original spirit straight from the barrel as it could be. It wasn't cheap, around $85 a bottle, but I figured that bottled at over 60% ABV, I could cut it with water to a more drinkable strength and make it go a long way.
Photo by Nath Pizzolatto For a comparison of color, I've placed the Aberlour next to the Glenmorangie 10 and the Macallan 12 (in the decanter).
Here are my tasting notes for the A'Bundah:More »