Single Malt Scotch and Chill Filtration

Whisky makers tend to obsess over the colour of their product. That’s why some whisky makers add a touch of caramel to whisky in hopes that the darker spirit will lead to more sales. With chill filtration, the goal is to produce a liquid that sparkles with colour. 

Chill filtration removes fatty acids, esters, and proteins that  clump together at cold temperatures. When clumped together, the molecules are visible in the form of a cloudy tinge. This cloudiness is especially apparent when the alcohol content is below 46% ABV. Add ice to an unfiltered bottle of scotch, and you’re likely to see it. The argument against chill filtration is simple—chill filtration removes molecules that contribute to the flavour of the whisky. Further, it prioritizes vanity over flavour. 

While this is not likely to settle the issue, a new study has concluded that chill filtration does not affect the taste of whisky. sent 12 whisky samples to 111 whisky experts in Germany. The samples were paired into 6 groups where one was chill filtered and the other was not. The pairs of whiskies were  otherwise identical. Not only were these whisky experts unable to pick-out which whisky was chill filtered, they ranked the paired whiskies the same for quality and flavour.

Chill filtration is more of a barometer for the character of the distillery, than the taste of the whisky. Distilleries that use chill filtration are meeting the visual expectations of a richly appearing whisky. Distilleries that do not filter their whisky tend to bottle at a higher alcohol content to an audience less likely to mix with ice. 

I will admit that I am a touch surprised chill filtration had no affect on the flavour as observed in this study. There are many important steps in the whisky making process, and this is just one. There are plenty of excellent distilleries that do and don’t chill filter. This is neither good nor bad. When it comes to this label, it tells me more about the distillery and their target audience than the flavour profile of the whisky. 

For more in-depth information on factors that affect the flavour of whisky, labels, and what they mean, order my book: The Whisky Cabinet. 

Does Whisky Have Terroir "A Sense of Place"?

Excerpt from Mark Bylok’s upcoming book, The Whisky Cabinet, is revised as a stand-alone piece posted for feedback. 

Terroir’s definition is often simplified as “a sense of place.” Used when describing wine, the broader definition of terroir touches on the geography, geology and climate—the environmental factors that influence the way wine tastes. Less spoken of are the historical influences of terroir. While many traditional wine regions enjoy the benefits of a warm climate and rolling hills, many whisky regions are born out of harsh winters and the necessity of using and reusing local cheap grains and products. In whisky making, historical practises used out of necessity define each regional whisky. 

When it comes to wine, it’s easy to see how terroir romanticizes the notion of regional wines. Burgundy red wines are often made from Pinot Noir grapes. Burgundy Pinot Noir grown from the same genetic material is planted throughout the world, but red Burgundy remains the benchmark for Pinot lovers because it tastes unique compared to Pinots from other regions. The explanation for what makes that difference is the terroir of Burgundy. While wine and terroir are commonly brought up, it’s not the only agricultural products identified with a sense of place. Terroir is used to describe coffee, hops, tea, tomatoes and even processed products such as cheese. In fact, it makes for such an appealing story that it can often be skewed.

This is especially the case when we speak of the terroir of whisky making. Scotland, for example, has flavour profiles associated with each region. The most obvious examples are whiskies made on the island of Islay. There’s an expectation for them to be smoky. That is true of most Islay whiskies, but certainly not all. Many Islay distilleries choose to smoke their barley with peat (decaying vegetation) to keep with this regional character. 

To understand why Islay whisky is smoky, one must look at the history of Scotland. Islay is punished by a tough, windy climate that limits tree growth. Instead of wood, inhabitants of the island used peat as a fuel to cook their food. When it came to whisky making, the barley needed to be dried, and so out of necessity they turned to the cheap local fuel source peat to do it. This was true for whisky made through-out much of Scotland. 

The peat had the side-effect of smoking the barley, which gave the final product a distinctive smoky scent. Today’s Islay whisky makers use cheaper fuel sources to dry the barley, and they smoke the barley using peat and a smoker. It’s not a necessary step in the making of the whisky, but rather a decision made by the distilleries in order to produce a specific style of whisky. While much of Scotland’s whisky industry does not use peat or only lightly peated barley, most Islay distilleries have retained the traditional heavy peat since the second coming of Scotch in the 80s and 90s. 

Unlike grapes used by estate wineries, most distilleries source barley from various providers both local and distant. Many distilleries even have centralized the aging process, storing barrels off-site. There’s not a lot of terroir caused by close proximity to the distillery in Scotland, when it comes to the grains or aging of the barrels. Rarely are varietals of the grain mentioned, but distilleries do care about the grains used. Bruichladdich, specifically, comes to mind. The distillery is focused on local barley, local peat, local water and local bottling. For Bruichladdich, they spell it out clearly: “We believe terroir matters.”

Canadian whisky makers came from Ireland and Scotland. They were often traditional farmers with large plots of land. The by-product of malted grains is high on protein, and benefited their farm animals as an excellent protein-rich feed before the harsh Canadian winter. Many whisky makers also made wine, and small amounts of wine were often added to their whisky to create a sweeter, easier-to-drink product: historical terroir.

Manufacturing choices are not terroir, but when manufacturing choices were made hundreds of years ago out of necessity, and continue today out of tradition, to me that’s terroir. It is a sense of place. This is, perhaps, the best argument for peated whisky from Islay and Canadian whisky additives as being examples of a sense of place and history of the region, even if in today’s world, they are optional manufacturing choices.

There is evidence that the water used during production matters. Many Scottish distilleries talk about the way water influences their product. Initially Mike Miyamoto, master distiller for Suntory in Japan, had trouble making his whisky taste in the intended style of Scottish whisky. Japan models itself around the scotch industry, and so the end goal is to produce whisky with a similar taste profile. Mike Miyamoto was using the same varieties of grain, making and aging whisky just as in Scotland and yet when the product was ready, something was still off. After much testing, he realized it came down to the water. When water was imported from Scotland, the whisky was in the style of Scotch. This influenced Suntory to carefully choose the sources of water they use in their whisky making.

Perhaps a more obvious influence than water is the weather. Earlier I mentioned the way temperature and climate changes the chemical interactions within a barrel. Scotland has milder weather variation bringing about more predictable results, while Kentucky and Tennessee both have extremes in hot and cold weather. India’s climate is quite hot, and whisky made there will more age faster for this reason. Water and alcohol evaporate at different rates. That’s why alcohol content decreases over time; water evaporates more slowly than alcohol. Water evaporation is affected by climate—it evaporates far faster in dry climates than humid climates. This difference between evaporation rates provides its own regional challenges. It also demonstrates how terroir can be caused by climate.

In many ways, the law defining whisky is the biggest influencer on a whisky’s flavour profile compared to another whisky from a different region. Bourbon is aged in new oak because that’s what the law requires in the United States. This was initially done for economic reasons, to support coopers that were losing work in a world that had moved away from transporting everything in barrels. Single malt scotch is made of 100% barley because that’s the legal definition in Scotland, and traditionally it is made of previously used wood because trees were an expensive commodity (compared to the readily available trees in the United States), and reusing barrels was a common practice.

These legal definitions are based on the historical needs of the region. In the same way the Pinot Noir grape matured in the Burgundy climate became a benchmark, so too did the culture of whisky making in the different regions. When one looks at terroir from this historical point of view, there is absolutely terroir in whisky making. The regions are far larger, and often based on legally defined borders, but that sense of place is there.

As an example, American whisky is made with corn because that’s the predominant crop grown in the region. Single malt whisky is made of barley because while there are cheaper crops that grow in Scotland, whisky made with barley is more suitable to whisky making when barrels are reused. Canadians started adding rye to their whisky because it was cheap to grow in Canada, and it ended up adding a unique flavour profile that differentiated it from American whiskies at the time. Japan, while modelled after Scottish whisky, could only replicate a similar flavour by using similar bodies of water in Japan.

Wine drinkers often scoff at there being terroir in such a manufactured product as whisky. Today’s whisky industry is well controlled, sourced at a distance and legally defined. Rarely do historical influences make it into wine terroir discussions, but this is the mistake made in these discussions. In wine, history is less of a differentiating factor. In whisky, however, history has greatly influenced the drink we enjoy today.

Taste bourbon, single malt scotch, Canadian whisky, Irish whisky, and Japanese whisky. The borders are broader, but the sense of place is achieved. Whether or not you’re interested in specific regions of whisky, you can delve deeper into what makes those regions unique and enjoy them for their sense of place.


Pappy Van Winkle - Elusive, but with alternatives

The elusive nature of Pappy Van Winkle is part of its charm. Pappy Van Winkle is released in such limited quantities that a bottle listed at $300 will sell for three or four times that price. More importantly, it's almost impossible to find unless you know someone, or happen to be at the right place at the right time. The one time I enjoyed a full sampling of Pappy Van Winkle was entirely by chance, when the bar I happened to be at did a one-night-only flight tasting. 

For those that have had Pappy Van Winkle, they often mention that it is a rare smooth quality to the whisky not common in many bourbons. To be considered a bourbon, American whisky needs to have corn as its first ingredient (51% minimum). Corn gives the bourbon the thick, sweet notes. Most bourbons have rye as their second ingredient. Rye adds spicier tones to a bourbon that are predominant toward the middle and finish of a taste. Bourbons are often made up of around 10% rye, but rye-heavy bourbons (such as Bulleit) have up to 28% rye. Malted barley is the third ingredient, and it's used to aid fermentation. 

In place of the rye, Pappy Van Winkle's second ingredient is wheat. Wheat tends to mellow out the drink, bringing balance to the sugars of the bourbon, and cuts out much of the spice.  In terms of tasting, wheat smoothens out the middle of the palate just after the initial sip and before the finish. For those that find rye too harsh, wheat is an excellent alternative. 

Pappy Van Winkle is not the first wheated bourbon, but it shares a lineage with the first. W.L. Weller makes the claim of being the original wheated bourbon. The company started as a whisky reseller, and later W.L. Weller distilled their own alcohol. A salesman by the name of Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle worked for W.L. Weller, and eventually he purchased the company along with a co-worker in the early 1900s.

Julian Van Winkle released Old Rip Van Winkle wheated bourbon for the first time in the late 1910s. The whisky was distilled by W.L. Weller, and was considered a premium product from W.L. Weller's standard wheated bourbon. Unfortunately, prohibition put a quick stop to Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon when all whisky production halted in the United States. 

While W.L. Weller changed ownerships and rebuilt after prohibition, the Old Rip Van Winkle brand was largely dormant (with a few exceptions) until later in the century. W.L. Weller whisky continued to be distilled in the Stitzer-Weller distillery up until 2002. Buffalo Trace (its newest owner) moved all production to the Buffalo Trace Distillery, and closed down the Stitzer-Weller distillery at that time. All new releases of W.L. Weller whisky have since been made at Buffalo Trace Distillery. 

Before closing the old distillery, the last of the distilled alcohol from Stitzer-Weller distillery was purchased by the Van Winkle family (among others). This remaining supply of whisky goes into Pappy Van Winkle 23 (though likely not true for much longer), and it is the only original Pappy available from the the now-closed distillery. Otherwise, the rest of today's Pappy Van Winkle product is said to be distilled at Buffalo Trace distillery in agreement with the Van Winkle family. 

To put simply, Pappy Van Winkle was born of W.L. Weller's wheated bourbon. The mash bill (the ratio of corn, wheat, and malted barley) for Pappy Van Winkle is likely identical to that of W.L. Weller's 12 Years Old bourbon. The marketers will tell you that W.L. Weller gets rejected Pappy Van Winkle barrels. In all likelihood, Pappy Van Winkle barrels are aged at premium parts of the warehouse where conditions are warm enough to keep the whisky aging even through Kentucky's winters. This added maturation gives the whisky a smoother texture.  

These factors affect the quality of the drink. So does the alcohol content of the drink. Pappy Van Winkle 15, for example, is cask-strength whisky--it's not watered down. W.L. Weller's 12 Years Old is watered down to a respectable 45% ABV. W.L. Weller is sometimes referred to as "Poor Man's Pappy" because of its similarities. There are some that claim that mixing W.L. Weller 12 Years Old and W.L. Weller Special Reserve will give you a similar profile to Pappy Van Winkle 15. You can google for various recipes, though only W.L. Weller 12 is currently available at the LCBO. 

While Pappy Van Winkle is impossible to get, W.L. Weller 12 Years Old is available at the LCBO for $44.95. Aged for a minimum of 12 years, W.L. Weller is an excellent buy for the price (sidenote: this is even truer in the US, when you can find it for under $30 a bottle). It's made from the same distillery, using the same recipe (likely), and it is aged only 3 years less as compared to the Pappy Van Winkle 15. 

How does W.L. Weller 12 Years Old taste? On the nose there are familiar bourbon, vanilla and caramel notes, but there's a nice dusty hay sort of scent that comes through. If you dig a little too deep, you'll get leather-polish notes. On the palate, the drink is surprisingly complex. The wheat tempers the heavy sugars, providing for a nicely soft but interesting drink. It begins with light caramel, with the sugar mingling lightly on the tongue. The spicy notes are there, and they draw up through into the finish with a nice balance from the oaky sugars. For those that find bourbons too forward-facing on flavour, W.L. Weller will hit the spot. 

W. L. Weller isn't your only option for wheated bourbon. The original Maker's Mark and Maker's Mark 46 are both wheated bourbons. I'm especially a fan of the 46, which uses staves within the barrel to provide more oak surface area as the whisky ages. The results are excellent, especially if you like a deep oaky bourbon. The Heaven Hill distillery releases wheated bourbons under the Old Fitzgerald label (which actually has a history going back to W.L. Weller as well), but few of these make it into Ontario. 

It's hard to call Pappy Van Winkle over-rated. Rare luxury items are impossible to compare to their more available counterparts. From my brief tasting of Pappy Van Winkle, the 15 Years Old one wins out for me. Pappy Van Winkle 15 perks the palate by tempering the caramel and vanilla-forward flavours found commonly in most other bourbons. The longer-aged Pappy Van Winkle bottles take on too many oaky-vanilla notes, erasing any hint of wheat. They taste more like an old bourbon than a wheated bourbon, and while that's not a bad thing, it's a miss for me because the wheat is no longer being expressed.

I have no plans buy Pappy Van Winkle for my whisky cabinet. W.L. Weller 12 Years Old is a far more affordable and available. Maker's Mark 46 has the thicker mouth-feel that you'd find in Pappy. Both of these are relatively affordable at the LCBO. Comparing the two, Maker's Mark 46 wins out for me for its younger more chaotic nature, but W.L. Weller 12 Years Old is a welcomed addition to my cabinet as a smoother more mature wheated bourbon. 

Whisky Drinking Tips for Wine Drinkers

Note: Originally published on Spotlight Toronto

When writing about whisky for Spotlight Toronto, I make the assumption that many readers are predominantly wine drinkers who are whisky-curious. These are some tips I picked up along the way that can help in the appreciation of whisky:

1. Swirling is unnecessary

Although swirling any liquid inside the glass is fun, this isn’t necessary when it comes to whisky. In the case of wine, you swirl to produce more aroma because of the slow rate of evaporation and to encourage oxidation. In the case of whisky, it needs no oxidation and it is already evaporating at a quicker pace. There should be plenty on the nose without the swirl since whisky needs no additional encouragement to evaporate.

2. When nosing a glass, don’t take a deep breath

With wine you nose aggressively, but if you do so with whisky you’ll just get hit with the sting of alcohol. People ask me how I get ‘caramel’ nosing a 60% drink, but the trick is to take the barest whiff. The best thing to do is to hold your glass close to your nose, and let the aroma come to you. Breath in slowly, naturally, and let your sense of smell do the rest. Whisky is a strong drink; you need a gentle nose to get the full range of smells and flavours.

3. Warming the whisky makes it milder

As they say, the right way to drink whisky is whatever way it taste best for you. However, I suggest that instead of using ice, next time try simply holding the glass for five or ten minutes with the whisky already poured. Let your body temperature naturally warm the liquid. It’ll take the edge off of a young whisky, and open up additional flavours. Between warming and icing a glass of whisky, warming will make it milder without losing any flavour from dilution. Taste the whisky every little bit to see how the flavour changes, because if it’s too warm it might take too much edge off. There’s a reason why whisky drinkers take their time with a good drink. In this way, each drink will be different, and have an ideal temperature for your preferences.

4. Shorter sips are best

The higher the alcohol content, the shorter your sips should be. You don’t need to add water to your drink since saliva will naturally dilute the alcohol in your mouth. However, if you take even a half-size gulp (compared to wine) no amount of saliva will save you from a cask strength drink. Take shorter sips, and let the whisky wash over your tongue. The saying goes (though I’m far too impatient to follow this), keep the drink in your mouth one second for every year it has been aged.

5. Have the right glass

Although whisky can be enjoyed in any glass, the best glasses to appreciate the full flavour range of whisky is in ‘tulip’ shaped glasses. These narrow off at the top reducing the evaporation and concentrating the aroma. Glencairn glasses are the favourites amongst Scotch drinkers. Villeroy & Boch also produce a single malt whisky glass that takes more of the shape of a stemless wine glass, but is thinner and narrower at the top. Even a small wine glass will do. You’ll usually get whisky in a straight tumbler style glass in a restaurant, and that’s fine for casual enjoying, but switch to a tulip shaped glass when enjoying a drink at home.

Doing the Math on Whisky Pricing

When people talk about scotch, one of the main barriers frequently mentioned is the high price point. While a $40 bottle of Scotch is not too expensive, once you get in the $80 and $140 range things start adding up fairly quick. But the question is -  is $80 for a bottle actually expensive?

The thing to remember about scotch is that there’s no fermentation process within the bottle, and while Scotch will lose its flavour if left in a glass for hours, it will remain quite stable within the bottle. Your first and last glass of scotch will taste relatively the same, and a good bottle can sit on the shelf for years. (Sidenote: rarely do they last more than a few months at my home.)

A typical bottle is 750mL (though there are some that are 700mL) which has approximately 25 ounces of Scotch. Depending on your pour size (commonly between 1 to 1.5 ounces), you’ll get between 16 and 25 servings of scotch per bottle. This is compared to wine, which generally has just over four servings and lasts only for a few days once uncorked.

Being generous and using a 1.5 ounce pour as a basis, a bottle of scotch will give you four times the number of servings as a bottle of wine. Based purely on consumption, if you’re comfortable purchasing a $20 bottle of wine (or about $5 per serving), spending $80 for scotch is well within your range (the same price – $5 a serving). A thrifty 1 ounce pour brings you up to a $125 bottle of scotch equivalent in drinks.

So my advise is this: if you’re looking to expand your whisky cabinet, consider buying scotch that’s four to six times more than your usual wine purchase price, and adjust accordingly based on whether it will be a ‘special’ bottle of scotch or one that is more for every day drinking.

As we explore in the Whisky Cabinet series, for $60 you have a choice of excellent drinks and there are certainly finds for under that amount that are quite enjoyable. We’ll be looking at blended scotches that are in the $30 range and make for nice day-to-day drinks in future postings.

Note: Originally posted on Spotlight Toronto