Willie Simpson

Belvedere Unfiltered vodka
Bold taste ... Belvedere Unfiltered vodka.

TO FILTER OR NOT TO FILTER, that is the question facing certain premium spirit producers. The peat-laden single malt Ardbeg and various cask-strength malt whiskies trumpet the fact they are ''non chill-filtered'', but Belvedere Unfiltered is something of a first among white spirit brands.

''Chill filtration can remove fatty acids, proteins and esters that could otherwise contribute to a richer and more expressive experience,'' says Claire Smith, Belvedere's Britain-based head of spirit creation and mixology, who visited Sydney recently to launch Belvedere Unfiltered.

''The practice of leaving malt whisky - or some fine wines - unfiltered is [relatively] common,'' she says. Unfiltered whisky will throw a slight haze when water is added and filtration has long been favoured by spirit marketers for cosmetic appearances. Certainly, many premium white spirits are ''triple filtered'', apparently to strip out unwanted flavours.

''With [our flagship] Belvedere vodka, filtration brings elegance and restraint,'' Smith says. ''Dankowskie Gold - the grain used in Belvedere vodka - has a higher starch content and a much bolder taste profile.''

Belvedere Unfiltered features a special Polish ''baker's grade grain'', which is somewhat shyer in character, according to Smith.

''Dankowskie Diamond Rye is lower in starch and delivers a wonderful texture [which is] silky smooth and sinuous, with notes of honeyed rye bread, sea salt and white peppercorn. In order to preserve the deeply viscous mouth-feel, and maximise the flavour of this fine grain, we chose to leave the vodka unfiltered.''

Unusually, Belvedere Unfiltered is distilled four times, which Smith says ''will ensure only the positive characteristics of this grain are retained, and the spicier or more aggressive notes are restrained. We are not in the business of creating a neutral grain spirit; rather, we're looking to be inspired by the unique flavour of the rye.''

Esquire magazine recently described Belvedere Unfiltered as ''the whisky drinker's vodka'' and Smith likes the sentiment. ''The vodka is wonderful on the rocks, with a splash of soda or simply chilled,'' she says. ''I hope drinkers enjoy it as unadulterated as possible.''

Nonetheless, Smith presented three cocktails based on the new vodka while in Sydney, talking up the superior taste of rye vodka, as opposed to those made from other grains - most commonly, wheat.

Jim Beam is another spirit producer apparently targeting Scotch whisky drinkers with its ''small batch collection'' of bourbon, a quartet of 50-millilitre miniature bottles packaged with Christmas in mind. Jim Beam Small Batch is barrel-aged for between five and six years then, curiously, bottled with a dash of port. The other bourbons in the collection are aged for a minimum of seven years; Basil Hayden's is a mellow drop made with double the usual portion of rye, but the higher-alcohol Baker's and Booker's are more likely to appeal to hardcore malt whisky fans.

TASTING NOTES

Belvedere Unfiltered Vodka (40%)

Clear, oily ''tears'' roll slowly down sides of the glass. Nose: aniseed, mint, linseed, spice and fruity notes. Palate: oily texture, hints of freshly crushed mint leaves, white pepper, red currant and dried mandarins; finish is delicately complex, with a lingering salty note.

Baker's Bourbon (53.5%)

Deep golden-brown. Nose: vanilla slice, dark chocolate, orange, toasted oak. Palate: sweet, vanilla-laden malt notes initially; chocolate and grain characters in mid-palate; long, luscious, honey and hickory smoke finish.

Booker's Bourbon (65.6%)

Chestnut. Nose: vanilla, toasty oak, marmalade, burnt toffee. Palate: rich toffee at first; vanilla, dried apricots and dates; long, complex finish, with rich toffee, dried fruit and spice notes.