E-pistle 2009/37 – The Colouring & Filtering Experiment

By Bert Bruyneel, Belgium

Everybody knows the marketing-related talks of people from the Whisky Industry about chill filtration and / or colouring. This is something much ink and words have been spilled over. On the other hand: nobody has exactly been able to tell the exact differences that are caused by chill filtration and/or colouring by the simple reason that it was almost impossible to check this. The only way of finding this out, would be to find the same batch of whisky, worked out in 4 different ways: chill filtered and coloured, un-chillfiltered and uncoloured, chillfiltered and uncoloured, and finally un-chillfiltered and coloured.

I have been wrestling with this idea for quite some time, but never found anyone who was able to supply what was needed for this experiment: the 4 different types of whisky from one batch. When we started organising our Wild West Whisky Fest, we wanted to do something special, that wouldn’t have been shown on any other festival before. Soon the idea for an ‘experiments-stand’ came out. One of the experiments would be: tasting these four different types of whisky from one batch.

Only one week before the festival, the bottles arrived. I didn’t taste them at the festival, but asked some friends if they would be interested in tasting this ‘experiment’ at ease, in small company, and (important) completely blind … somewhere early July. We eventually planned the tasting in Haarlem at Michel’s place. The company was: Paul Dejong, Michel van Meersbergen, Johannes van den Heuvel, and yours truly.

We immediately made the following remark: all our conclusions would be correct for this particular whisky, but could in no circumstances be generalised. Every whisky will react differently on filtration / colouring, as whisky always remains a natural product. We could see some general lines in this experiment, but no so-called standard rule.

For having the tasting completely blind, we tasted out of our professional blue, hand-blown tasting glasses.
These wouldn’t reveal the slightest hint of colour, so no influence what so ever. The glasses were individually numbered (number towards the table), than one person poured the whiskies into the glasses and wrote down what whisky was in what glass. Another person put the glasses in a random line-up before the tasters.

It got silent, we were all four nosing and tasting the 4 drams. Johannes had a cold, so his nose was closed.
Because of that, he wasn’t able to give much relevant information. The other conclusions were the following:

For Paul:

In the first place, Paul thought the uncoloured versions were very similar: very young with an overflow of green bananas, grassy, weetabix, some liquorice, some mineral and dry. The unchillfiltered version had some more complexity, and seemed to contain less alcohol, although both were 43% ABV. Both not my taste however: modern, young, and middle of the road Speyside whisky.

Also both coloured versions were similar, with approximately the same basic differences. Both were on the other hand sweeter in the nose with (might be weird) some more bitter touches in the mouth, that seemed to give more body and depth to the product. Paul’s longest doubt was which of both coloured versions would be chillfiltered or unchillfiltered, but eventually, the one that was coloured and chillfiltered had a mouth feel that was more pleasant with a finish that was a bit longer. This made the coloured and unchillfiltered version my favourite.
Paul also remarked that:

1) at 43%, the difference between chillfiltered of unchillfiltered is minimal.

2) Caramel does give a clear and present difference in taste and nose, and not necessarily worse. My point remains however: caramel has nothing to do with distilling and is no basic ingredient to whisky, so it doesn’t belong in a single malt whisky. There’s only a small step left to ‘Canadian circumstances’, and it’s only a question of where to put the edge. In a blend, this is a lesser problem because a blend is more an artificial, consumer-oriented product. If it takes caramel to adjust the taste, it could perhaps be better to make changes in your production process before the spirits enters the cask. This might seem a very anorak-ish point of view, but I like an ‘honest’ product. The industry should try to deliver the best possible quality in every step of the process, and I’m afraid this will be difficult if they don’t want to do any admission concerning higher yield barley, shorter fermentation times, quicker (hotter) distillation, bigger middle-cut, …

3) This experiment was very interesting.
We learned a lot with it, but the conclusions are only valid for this whisky, and not necessarily applicable on other whiskies.

For Michel:

A well-succeeded experiment, with an outcome of which he had a slight suspicion…

The unchillfiltered and uncoloured was very ‘bold’ and unpronounced.
A middle of the road Speysider with lots of vanilla, some banana, floral notes, and some leather in the nose. In the mouth, there was some mineral, hot copper, banana, vanilla and a rather greasy and organic feeling.

The chillfiltered and uncoloured, had the same character, but with less organic tones, an additional herbalness, and a slight sharpness. Overall a bit more accessible and the sharpness gives it some more ‘bite’.

The unchillfilterd en coloured again, was the bolder version with again some more sharpness and a bit more spiritty. Also some coffee tones. On the palate, we get some additional tones of drop, leather, burnt wood, and the organical tones of the ‘bold’ version.

The chillfiltered and coloured seems a bit flat in the nose, some banana and some alcohol.
On the palate, it gets a bit sharp with coffee tones, vanilla, drop, and Buisman. From the four, this one has the most of ‘grip’

We may however not lose sight on the fact that we only tested one malt, and that the outcome only concerns this malt.
In this very case, as a bottler, Michel would choose for chill filtration and colouring.

Although the charm disappears partially, he still thinks this version would please me most in the end. It’s the most complete dram ‘with no worries’. As a good second, Michel would put the chillfiltered / uncoloured. Especially the fact that the organic tones seem to disappear because of filtration, is a good thing to this whisky, and gets it out of the corner of a ‘modern’ Speyside whisky and makes it a middle of the road whisky. This is a positive point in this particular case.

What can be concluded after this test is the following, according to Michel:
About colouring: he isn’t an opponent of colouring, when it is used correctly. The same goes for chillfiltration. In certain cases, it just makes a whisky ‘perform’ better. The only problem is that this would have to be checked cask per cask, and this would make it practically impossible, unless we would be accepting to pay a higher price. Still, in this market of (sometimes unnecessary) single casks, a return to the (e.g.) old Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice with bigger batches with colouring and chill filtration wouldn’t be a bad thing. Perhaps not so romantic, but the bigger average would profit from this, and as a nice addendum: the single casks would get more real again.

My own thoughts were the following:

I immediately found the four samples were clearly to devise into two groups: the coloured ones and the uncoloured ones (again, we were tasting from the professional, blue tasting glasses … so we didn’t see any colour). The ones that were uncoloured were more clean and mineral. They indeed had this distinctive ‘banana’ touch, lacked all depth and complexity, and felt like what I always call ‘modern whisky’. I put the glasses two by two: coloured together, uncoloured together. Next step would be to find out which ones were chill filtered, and which ones weren’t …

The trick to find out, was to take a good sip, make it go around the mouth, and than slide my tongue over the roof of the mouth.
The one feeling the greasiest would be the unchillfiltered one (more oils remaining in the whisky). This way, I could quite easily recognise the four different drams. Three of the four tasters did recognise them blind, but JvdH’s cold, with a closed nose as a consequence, was off course a valid excuse. A conclusion that immediately can be taken, is the fact that colouring this whisky made it deeper, more complex and much more pleasant to enjoy. It made me forget about the modern whisky thing. Again, I’m not telling that colouring a whisky is better by definition, but for THIS whisky, it was the best solution.

In my tasting-notes, I always pay quite some attention to the mouth feel, and in this case …
I liked the slightly greasier mouth feel of the chillfiltered version.

Again, the conclusions are only valid for THIS whisky, but still I dare to say that in my continuous quest for stunners (good whisky under 50,- Euro), I encounter always more ‘modern whiskies’. This means: whiskies that are clean, mineral, middle of the road. To say it short: boring. This is why I think we will go back to more colouring of whiskies. It just gives a boring whisky something extra.

On the other hand, I have to agree with Paul: caramel isn’t a basic ingredient of whisky, so it doesn’t belong in it. If the industry feels there is something not perfect about their product, they should indeed change something in their production process, and not to their end-product.

About the filtration, this whisky got a better texture, a better mouth feel when it was unfiltered, so  my winner was the coloured and unchillfiltered version.

The final verdict, our favourites:

Paul: the coloured and unchillfiltered version.
Michel: the coloured and chill filtered version.
Bert: the coloured and unchillfiltered version.

This was indeed a very interesting experiment. As I told in the beginning of my article: this experiment was to be discovered on our Wild West Whisky Fest, but only very few people took this experience. The weird thing was that ALL the people who took the test, liked the uncoloured unchillfiltered version the most. This was according to me a purely psychological reaction: I do have to admit that these people tasted the four samples out of normal tasting glasses, so they could see the colour. This shows that people think they have to like this or another whisky more BEFORE they even tasted it … and shows once more the importance of tasting blind. Example: we tasted entirely blind, and we liked the coloured versions more.

With this, I close this article…
I hope it opened eyes, and that now, you will think twice if you hear people speaking about this or that whisky being better/worse because it is/isn’t coloured/chillfiltered. For the people interested: the experiment will be available again on our W.W.W.F. on june 5th and 6th 2010.