Glass of whiskey on barrel

Understanding the reasons behind cloudy bourbon

Imagine reaching for a special bottle of bourbon you’ve been waiting to enjoy, pouring a bit into your glass, and seeing that the bourbon is cloudy or hazy. That appearance is certainly not what you would expect from crystal-clear, golden-amber bourbon. It’s understandable if you think that means something in the bourbon has gone bad, is no longer okay to drink, or at least it has lost its optimal form. Fear not, however, and definitely don’t dump that whiskey: Cloudy bourbon is totally safe to drink.

Go ahead and add “cloudy bourbon is bad bourbon” to the list of bourbon myths you can stop believing. Only whiskey that has been chill-filtered won’t get a little hazy when it’s been diluted with water or has been left undisturbed for a few hours or more. Distillers chill-filter whiskey to avoid this haze entirely because it puts some consumers off. But the cloudiness is just some of the chemical compounds in bourbon mingling together — it’s not a sign of anything gone wrong or any unwanted flavors. Meanwhile, chill filtration can actually remove some of the signature, desirable flavors in bourbon, all for the sake of appearance, which is why many whiskey connoisseurs actually prefer non-chill-filtered bourbon. In other words, cloudy bourbon is a sign of bourbon that hasn’t undergone chill filtration, and that’s a positive thing.

Cloudy bourbon means bourbon with all its flavors intact

Bottle and glasses of whiskey

To chill-filter, distillers lower the whiskey’s temperature down to 28-to-30 degrees Fahrenheit, causing fatty acids, proteins, and esters — byproducts of yeast during fermentation — to clump together and easily filter out. It makes sense, then, that adding cold water or ice to your non-chill-filtered bourbon, where those solids remain, would perform the same clumping activity, known as flocculation. Just give your glass a swirl, take a sip, and enjoy, as you won’t taste any negative difference from that cloudiness. But if you’re drinking a crystal-clear bourbon even with ice in it, you’re either drinking a bourbon over 46% ABV — the reaction doesn’t occur at higher levels of alcohol — or you’re drinking chill-filtered bourbon. Chill filtration doesn’t mean a bourbon isn’t good or considered straight bourbon, bourbon made with certain restrictions. It just means that no flavor compounds are compromised. Bourbon’s best-known flavors include vanilla, wood, nuts, caramel, honey, maple, smoke, and a whole variety of fruits. You wouldn’t want to be missing out on any of those, would you?

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Next time you see haze in your bourbon, knowing about chill filtration may help you pick up on and enjoy more of the flavors present. If the clouds still put you off, try not adding ice to avoid plunging the bourbon’s temperature. A drop or two of water can even further open up whiskey’s flavors, but if you don’t want haze, keep the water closer to room temperature.

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