Chill filtering in Bourbon has one primary purpose: to remove fatty acids from the corn and produce a clear whiskey. A Bourbon that has not been chill filtered will be cloudy but is thought to have more authenticity: stronger aroma, expanded flavors, oily mouthfeel and a more pleasing finish. It also emphasizes the skill and craftsmanship of the distiller, as fewer impurities will be removed compared to the chill filtering process.
Whether you prefer chill filtered or non-chill filtered (“NCF”) whiskey, there is a difference. Which is why a distiller that produces an NCF whiskey will identify it proudly on the label. When a bottle says NCF, you know it’s non-chill filtered. Now suppose a bottle (let’s call it “OWA”) that is typically chill filtered sometimes allows private barrel picks without chill filtering? There’s always a gold sticker with the barrel pick information on it, so there shouldn’t be any reason to question the filtration method used, right? I think you see where I’m going with this.
In the unprecedented state of insanity we currently find ourselves in, rarity drives up multiples in Gray Market Bourbon pricing. Private picks of Old Weller Antique 107 (let’s call it “OWA”) are already a hot commodity, but the rarer NCF picks of OWA fetch several multiples above their typical retail pricing around $30. The flippers know this of course, so if they can get their hands on a bottle or six, they know they’ve got massive profits in hand. Store owners and picking groups also know this, and if word gets out that they have an NCF OWA pick, they won’t be on the store barrels long.
As Buffalo Trace (OWA’s distiller) told me, “Some of the W. L. Weller Antique we have bottled as part of our Barrel Select Program have differed from our usual offerings in that they were non-chill filtered. This was done at the request of the buyer who selected that barrel.” Terrific. So all we have to do is check the gold sticker on the bottles, and we will know for sure which were NCF, right? Yes.
And no. Recently, I began seeing more and more people offering OWA store picks for sale or trade and touting them as NCF, with nothing on the label to verify it. “I talked to the store owner, and he told me it was NCF,” was their proof. I’ve also heard “They stopped putting “NCF” on the new bottles of OWA picks” from more than one person. And not surprisingly, people would blindly continue dealing with these assumptions. Of course, you can cool the whiskey, and if you can identify suspended solids in the whiskey, it’s most likely NCF. That’s only after you acquired the bottle, however. And if I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that whiskey traders and liquor store folks can occasionally be mistaken.
I’ve seen “UCF” (un-chill Filtered) on the sticker of a newer OWA pick, so apparently, they haven’t stopped doing this. Obviously, a company as large and respected as Buffalo Trace wouldn’t leave a detail like this so ambiguous, so I asked them to confirm that the stickers of actual NCF bottle of OWA will, in fact, carry this language. Then, I would be able to set the record straight and help clean up all this nonsense. So here you have it, right from Buffalo Trace:
“Any store offering a personal barrel selection should be able to let you know if that was a request that was made. If not, it’s safe to assume the product was chill filtered.”
Clear as mud.
It is possible that Buffalo Trace did make the decision to no longer allow “NCF” or “UCF” on these stickers. Perhaps they simply cannot honor this request for everyone, and made a deliberate decision to prevent the knee-jerk perception of inequality among the different stickers (“Oh, this bottle doesn’t say “NCF”, so that other one is better.”) I suppose it is also possible that stores simply (and unwisely) neglected to request the language.
Regardless, I simply can’t see the logic in Buffalo Trace not standardizing this important language for all OWA bottles that are NCF. For starters, it would more accurately identify the specific character of the product inside the bottle. It would also prevent their Barrel Select Manager from being constantly bombarded with requests to verify what someone had told them.
OWA picks are terrific, and if you can buy them at retail pricing, it’s tough to go wrong. Unfortunately, many people purchase these in the Gray Market at significantly inflated prices. Whichever group you fit into, you should be aware of the likelihood that the bottle is what you’re told it is. And the probability that it isn’t.