If you are a veteran bourbon drinker, you have probably seen the term “unfiltered” or “non-chill filtered” on a whiskey bottle. But what does that really mean?
When you buy a jar of organic, all natural, unfiltered peanut butter at the store, you fully expect a little oil to appear on the top of the peanut butter when you open the jar. You understand that peanuts contain oil. You understand that oils separate from solids. You understand that you just stir it up and you’re right back in business. When you buy a jar of commercially produced peanut butter, you will not see the oils (lipids/fatty acids) on the top of the peanut butter because the producer uses chemicals that dry out the oil. These chemicals also affect the taste and texture of the peanut butter.
Bourbon is an agricultural product just like peanut butter but it is made from grain, water and wood. The same exact situation occurs with organic, all natural, unfiltered bourbon.
One of the beautiful aspects of whiskey, straight bourbon especially, is the color. Straight bourbon has a reddish crimson tint that glistens, shines and sparkles when held up to the light. The color comes from microscopic sugar crystals floating in the liquid, much of which are derived from the White American oak barrel that the bourbon has matured in. When the bourbon is freshly dumped from the barrel it does not have that crystalline glossiness. It’s a little bit murkier and cloudy with char and sediment from the bourbon barrel.
To make it shine, most commercial whiskey distilleries will cool the spirit down to below 50 degrees Fahrenheit by pushing the whiskey through a heat exchanger. When bourbon is colder than 50 degrees, the lipids, fatty acids and oils in the spirit, which come naturally from the grain and wood, begin to clump together.
The commercial distilleries then force the liquid through a plate filter. The plate filter has cloth or paper pads in it. The acids and oils attach to the paper pads and are left behind in the filter. This is how you make shiny whiskey.
You are more likely to see fatty acids and oils floating in bourbon than in scotch whiskey. Scotch makers remove the solids (the shells and grains) from the wash before they distill the alcohol. This is called sparging the wash. They use a lauter tun to do it. They only distill the liquid. Most of the fatty acids, lipids and oils are removed along with the solids. I only know of one bourbon maker in the United States who does this. I have tried their bourbon and did not much care for it. It lacked flavor.
So for the bourbon connoisseur, it is a simple debate. Do you prefer bourbon that looks shiny but might have some of the flavor removed? Or do you want a full-flavored bourbon that might not be as shiny? Personally, I know my answer. I didn’t buy that bottle to hang it on the wall and show friends how shiny it is.
But there’s a downside to non-chill filtered bourbon whiskey. Recently, a retailer in Florida called me. “Your bourbon has been tainted,” he said. ”There’s something floating in it.” He was correct. His case of bourbon had been placed in an area of the warehouse with a serious draft. It was below 50 degrees. And what happens below 50 degrees? The fatty acids, oils and lipids clump together and it truly looks murky. I asked him to shake the bottle up. He did. And “ta da.”
If Garrison Brothers were to bottle all our bourbon at barrel proof – 135, 140 or 145 – that murkiness or clumping would not happen. But we like it at 94 proof, so we must add a little rainwater. That added water causes it to get murky when it is colder than 50 degrees.
If this ever happens to a bottle of Garrison Brothers that you’ve bought, please do not panic. Don’t go rushing off to the store to complain and please don’t send me the bottle; the feds won’t legally allow me to replace it or give you your money back. Instead, do this: Shake it!
(Shake it up baby now! Shake it up baby. Twist and shout. Twist and Shout. Come on, come on, come on, come on baby now. … Sorry, got distracted.)
As soon as you shake the bottle up, the cloudiness will disappear and that bottle of bourbon will taste and look delicious.