Lesson 09: What does “Non-chill filtered” mean?

You may have come across the term “Non-chill filtered” (NCF) on the label of one of your whiskey bottles. The term does not really tell a lot, other than being something with filtration – and the “non-chill” part is confusing, at best.

But, everything will become clear in a few moments, as you read on.

During the distillation process, certain compounds are created in the whiskey, that has the potential to make the whiskey hazy when it is cold – or even when water is added to it. Those compounds include certain proteins and fatty acids esters (you do not need to know what these are to read this post).

Most manufacturers do not like to have their product on the shelves looking hazy and/or something that looks like sediment – and that is why some of them filters out the aforementioned compounds. This process is called “chill filtration”.

What is chill filtration?

As I mentioned, the haziness happens when the whiskey gets cold – and that occurs frequently during transportation. You chill down the whiskey (hence the name) to around 32F/0C or even a little below that. At this temperature, the compounds start to clump together – and you can (relatively) easy remove them with a filter. That is why this process is called “chill filtration”.

An example of an industry-grade chill filter

 

What is “non-chill filtered”, then?

You may think it is an alternative approach to chill filtering, where you do not chill down the whiskey. It is not – and simply means that the whiskey has not been chill filtered.

Why wouldn’t everyone chill filter?

There is a catch, however, in chill filtration. Some of the unwanted compounds unfortunately also contribute to the taste of the whiskey itself – especially the so-called esters. Since some of the taste resides with the esters, many companies choose not to filter them out.

For whiskey fans in the know, this is seen as a very positive thing – and the very reason why manufacturers write “non-chill filtered” on the label.

Besides the risk of loosing taste, there is another less known reason why the manufacturers do not chill filter some of their products: It turns out, that the haziness only occurs when  the whiskey is below 92 proof (46% ABV). This level is sometimes referred to as the “floc point”, since clumping is also referred to as “flocculation”.

So, in essence, the manufacturers have a choice between retaining maximum taste or make sure the whiskey looks clear if it gets cold (or have water added to it).

Are non-chill filtered whiskeys better than chill filtered whiskeys, then?

This is not an easy question to answer, but in general, almost everybody agrees that chill filtering will remove at least some taste from the whiskey. The major manufacturers claim that they are getting so good at chill filtering, that they almost lose no taste – while still remove the risk of haziness. Some of them even chill filter above the floc point.

Michter’s Distillery has a very special approach to chill filtering, as they adjust their filters specifically to their individual products. I have seen this process with my own eyes and the attention to detail around their filtration system is insane (and very expensive). They go through this process to create consistency and to make sure that they filter out the compounds they do not want and keep the ones they do.

Are there other filtration methods, besides chilling down the whiskey?

To allow the unwanted compounds to clump so that you can filter them out, I am not aware of an alternative approach to chill filtration.

But when it comes to filtering alternatives, all whiskey products are filtered when they initially leave the barrels – using a filter that is more like a normal filter/sieve that you know from your own kitchen. The primary purpose is to remove barrel char and other lager elements that you obviously do not want to have floating around in your bottles.

How can I see if a certain product is chill filtered?

There are no laws that bind the manufacturers to write on the labels what they do, regarding filtration. Since non-chill filtration is generally regarded as a quality measure, given the above, you can almost take for granted, that your whiskey has been chill filtrated, if the label does not say “non-chill filtered”. There are a few exceptions – and you may want to check the manufacturer’s website to be sure.

Example from the front label
Example from the back label

And that is all I had.

And that concludes this lesson.

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