On Chill Filtering and the Aberlour A'Bundah

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.

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.

Here are my tasting notes for the A'Bundah:

The Scotch appears nearly ruby-colored in a full bottle, although in a glass it's closer to tawny. Neat, the nose is very strong, with hints of raisins, dates, and cocoa. It's rich and full of flavor. The first sip retains those flavors, while adding a bit of butteriness on the front end and smokiness on the back. At cask strength, it's a little too potent to comfortably sip (although I suppose your mileage may vary on this point).

With a few drops of water, the rich butteriness on the initial sip is extended, and the jamminess of the mouthfeel becomes quite prominent. It's as astringent as ever on the finish, though. The longer I let it sit, the more pronounced the cocoa and roasted notes became on the back end, and the nose started to develop some aromas of caramel and toffee.

Cut to get closer to normal bottling strength-- just a little over 2 parts Scotch to 1 part water-- the A'Bundah's nose becomes much more sweet, with Christmas flavors abounding-- candied fruits and bitter orange in addition to the dates and raisins, and again the caramel notes return after some time to breathe. On a sip, the body is rich and creamy, buttery toffee, giving way to the roasted flavor after a few seconds. Once it's had a chance to breathe, it picks up notes of dark chocolate toward the back, as well. The finish goes down much more smoothly after the addition of some water as well.

All in all, the A'Bundah is a quality Scotch, rich in flavor at each point, and rewarding and opening up the longer I let it sit. In terms of sherry-aged Scotches, it's not quite as good as the GlenDronach 1995 I reviewed earlier this year (which, it should be noted, is also non-chill-filtered), but in terms of something you can reasonably find in a liquor store any time, the A'Bundah is a good choice if you're looking for a new sherry-aged Scotch and if, like me, you're concerned about this trend of chill filtration.

It's possible I would have been more content in my ignorance. Studies indicate that consumers can't really tell the difference between chill-filtered and non-chill-filtered whiskeys. But I feel there's a principle at stake here: We're being asked to accept a process that costs money and makes the whiskey less flavorful, all because someone is worried about how it will make the whiskey look. I for one care a lot more about how the whiskey appeals to my senses of smell and taste in a glass, rather than my sense of eyesight on a shelf.

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Nath Pizzolatto