(Author’s note: Wow. NAS whiskies are more contentious than even I thought. Not only are there disparate views between the insiders (industry) and the outsiders (consumers), there are a crazy amount of ways to tackle the issue (or avoid it). All, though, are relevant to the discussion. My own take on the subject has more to do with disclosure and relative value for outlay; not necessarily objection to the idea of young whiskies. But we’ll get there in a minute.
Sincere thanks to all of the good folks who shared some insight below. An email asking for others’ input was sent out far and wide. It is as interesting to note who responded and who didn’t, as it is to read the opinions themselves. In the words of John Lennon: “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey”.
I hope this isn’t too rambling an affair. It could have been a good chapter in a book if I’d really cut myself loose. One day perhaps. Bear with me…)
Aside from the rising cost of whiskies, there is likely no topic in the greater whisky-sphere that garners more discussion of late than that of the trend towards No Age Statement whiskies. To be honest, I’ve almost felt rushed to publish this piece simply to keep up with the times. The fact of the matter is that whisky is changing. Fast. This is a very dynamic age for our choice beverage. Many of these changes are highly beneficial to the industry and consumer alike (the rise of global markets, educated and diverse consumer bases, rapid dissemination of information…though of course this last can be double-edged, etc…). Some of the changes occurring are not so symbiotic however. The only one I want to tackle in any depth here is the rising tide of No Age Statement whisky, or ‘NAS Whisky’ as it is colloquially known.
While the concept of NAS is not new, there has always been a bit of a resistance to the producers not declaring the age of the ‘whisky in the jar-o’, if not to the actual malts themselves. Let’s say this is more of an undercurrent than a true revolt, to be fair. The thing is…whiskies in this style seem to be gaining an awful lot of momentum lately and have suddenly become the new black. This is the reality of the market today. There simply aren’t the mature stocks available to support the ever-expanding market for good whisky. You can call this a lack of planning and foresight if you like, but the reality is no one foresaw a boom of such magnitude. No one. Ok. Acknowledging the trend is one thing. Accepting it is another.
I must concede to both having enjoyed many NAS whiskies, and to buying them. A few in particular immediately spring to mind: Aberlour a’bunadh, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Ardbeg Uigeadail, Glenfarclas 105, Macallan Cask Strength, etc. Great whiskies, all. However…I want to draw attention to one thing: in no way are they made any better for the consumer by not having a number on the bottle. We know they’re young. We accept it. Big flavour drinks (sherry bombs and peat monsters) tend to do well in youth. So…having launched these brands and made them highly successful with legions of adherents, why not come clean and share the ages now? What is there to lose? We already love the whisky.
A couple recent releases have been huge sources of ignition in this ongoing debate, and for my own wading into sullied waters. Laphroaig Select, Highland Park Dark Origins, Talisker Storm, any Ardbeg in recent years and probably none moreso than the Macallan 1824 color coded range (‘The Stripper Series’, as my mate calls it, based on the rather peeler-esque naming conventions). This Macallan series seems to be sort of the ‘jumping the shark’ moment for NAS releases, wherein the brand is now using color as a measure of quality. To a degree I came out in defense of this range. Not because I supported the NAS (or color) concept, but because I disagreed with the negativity and presuppositions running rampant without most people having actually tried them. The malts aren’t all that bad. In fact the two more premium ones (Sienna and Ruby) are actually very good. In hindsight…maybe I should have stayed quiet though. I still stand behind the marks, but now admit I have to face up in opposition to the concept behind their creation.
Unfortunately, at the root of it all the reluctance to embrace NAS whisky (and essentially volunteer to put blinders on…tacitly at least, through our purchasing) is a problem that can be laid directly at the feet of the brands themselves. For years we’ve been led to believe that older was better. And that age justified high prices. And as a logical extension, that high prices were indicative of maturity, quality and placement in the elite echelons of whisky. What the industry is now asking is that we forget that decades long indoctrination and accept on faith that they will continue to put good whisky in the bottle and that the price points will be justified even if we no longer know what is in the glass.
Here’s the thing…
Most of us know there are overhead and ROI (return on investment) concerns for the distilleries to mature whiskies into their twilight years. That has always been a point used to justify the luxury pricing of single malt whisky. As an example, if we know that the greedy angels have taken half a cask over the years via evaporation, we don’t feel so bad about paying a slightly inflated price when we buy. It makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is being asked to accept on faith that the price points being levied now (especially in an age of increasing sticker shock) are fair when we are missing a part of the equation we have always used in determining what we’re willing to spend. We can easily find out what an empty sherry or bourbon barrel costs…or a ton of barley…or what the dollar to pound rate is…or what fuel and transport is running in this age…or maybe even what the average distillery worker is being paid. We’d also previously been able to make some assumptions (dangerous, I know) about fair market value by watching age-stated whiskies across the brands (i.e. the average price of an 18 y.o. is ‘x’ dollars). In short…we’ve been on somewhat solid footing to buy in an educated manner.
Now…suddenly…we find ourselves in a position where the rug is being pulled out, and we’re stumbling a bit.
The most feasible long term solution to help smooth out the booms and busts is in the industry working to correct the misconception that 10+ years instantly equates to the quality marker for drinkability. The goal being to alleviate malt snobbery, I’d think (though they’ll want to bring this concept back again in a decade or two when the bubble bursts and we’re again being told that age does indeed matter). The powers-that-be could do this by accepting the reality of some short term expenses in whisky education for their younger malts, but instead, sadly, they are taking the easy way out and opting to simply erase the digits from the bottle. Sorry, guys…but we’ve noticed. This was never gonna just fly under the radar.
One night not long ago, my good mate J Wheelock and I were sipping drams and discussing this very issue. He hit upon something that struck me as utterly brilliant. As we were excitedly hopping up and down in celebration of our brilliant tête-à-tête game-changer of an idea it occurred to me that Ardbeg had already done exactly what we were proposing. J’s idea was for the brands to put right on the label a little graph/chart/what-have-you that would speak to the percentages of the aged casks in the release, without actually committing to just one number as a statement. Light bulb moment! Ardbeg did exactly this with Rollercoaster a few years back, when they showed on the back label the proportions and ages of each respective whisky in the vatting. Brilliant. Utterly brilliant.
It begs the question…would most people not feel better knowing that while some of the whisky in the bottle is young and vibrant, it is married with enough old stock to bring out some depth and subtlety? Would it not be a perfect middle ground, allowing distilleries to use some younger stock and cushion the impact on valuable maturing barrels, while also helping consumers suspend the cynicism that they were being foisted nothing but unripe barrels? J puts more flowery verbiage to this below than I ever could. You can read his comments near the bottom of this piece. To me though, this is the ultimate win-win, short of the bottle simply stating ‘aged to a minimum x-number of years’.
Another question that begs to be answered is where the heck is the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) in all of this? The self same organization that has turned folks like Compass Box’s John Glaser into a bit an antihero crusader? This is the uptight organization that has set undeniably rigid standards over the years (well…excepting cases where the issue at hand is contrary to their own interests). If age clarity in labeling were an SWA-mandated initiative, the playing field would be levelled. As it stands, what is the carrot that leads a distillery to buck the trend and take a new tack on this one? Nothing.
Here’s an All Things Whisky prediction for you: the distillery(s) that steps up and leads the charge by proudly proclaiming that they stand by the quality of their malts, even in youth, and will ‘man up’ (or ‘woman up’) to putting lower single digit ages on the bottles will be lauded and more than amply rewarded by discerning whisky enthusiasts.
Let’s pause a moment and go back to discussing my personal favorite distillery for a moment. Ardbeg. Ardbeg could conceivably step up as pseudo heroes in this sort of market scenario. Can you imagine if the distillery did a right turn with their marketing approach and began throwing true low age statement numbers on their standard releases such as Uigeadail and Corryvreckan? If they came out with a stance such as ‘we haven’t bottled anything over 12 years in age since the mid 2000s, and look at the awards we’ve won with our young malts. Now we feel it’s time to share the information with our fans’. Grand…slam! Game over. Instant credibility on both sides of the fence. We consumers would love the honesty and clarity, while the industry would have a successful and well-laid precedent to fall back on.
The argument has been made (I believe by our anonymous mate at My Annoying Opinions) that bloggers are the new marketeers for the brands. If that’s so, and the brands want to continue to rely on us to spread the word, then they need to put the information in our hands and allow us to speak from an educated platform, instead of culling together information, suppositions and occasionally leaps of logic. Hey…we all make mistakes when this happens.
So, ultimately why am I so opposed to the NAS trend? Simple really. Knowledge is power. Put the information in front of me and let me make up my own mind. Don’t hide the relevant details because it suits your agenda (which…again…is contrary to what the initial ‘age is better’ stance Scotch has always rested on). There really is no justification for NAS whiskies that I can get behind or align myself with. The sole purpose for their existence is to mislead the consumer. On the one hand…the brands have a blank cheque to bury youthful ‘unripe’ barrels in blending, and on the other…it shows that they take a condescending attitude to consumers by believing that we will always be swayed in our buying solely by the number on the label. This is insulting really.
This is an industry I have supported in all of its facets. I buy young whisky. I like young whisky. I’ve bought lots of NAS releases too, even though I do so with a bit of a grudge. I do this because the malts are good. No one is saying we shouldn’t sell young whisky. Just that it should be done with full disclosure, much like all other mandates for required information on consumables. I like to think I have been crystal clear in all I’ve said about it privately and publicly. The hundreds and hundreds of bottles that have crossed my doorstep have proven fidelity. My commentary comes from a place of love and intentions to hold pure, and to high standards, something we love and covet. All facets need to work towards help both sides maintain trust and cordiality, ‘cause, man, I tell ya…there’s a lot of cynicism in the blogosphere right now.
Here is my personal take on it: let’s back the industry into a corner. We’ve done it before and seen positive results such as higher bottling strengths, and a move towards natural color and away from chill-filtration. This NAS issue can be handled the same way. Speak out…and vote with your dollar. Either the brands can concede that the only reason they won’t release low number age statements on bottles is because they believe the consumer lacks the logic and rationale to accept the whisky as such, or because they want to maintain the ability to continue to pull the wool over our eyes by hiding grossly undermature spirit in large vattings, while leading us to believe it’s not as young as we fear; or…they can start having the same faith in us that we are supposed to have in them and their NAS approach, and believe we’ll buy smart and continue to give them our hard-earned dollars (pounds). I think it was Ralfy, a long while back, who mentioned that if he didn’t see something on the label, he assumed the worst (regarding coloring in this case, I believe). Hate to be contrary to my usually optimistic outlook, but I’ll reluctantly take the same approach with NAS.
I also recall Jim Murray reviewing Ardbeg Still Young in the Whisky Bible a few years back, wherein he expressed similar sentiments. And I quote: “Go on. Be bold. Be proud say it: Ardbeg Aged 8 Years”.
My opinion here is just one of many, though. I thought it would be interesting to let a few others weigh in on this one. So as I mentioned in the author’s note above, in the interest of allowing all sides to have a voice, and to make it a more balanced (and hopefully entertaining read for you), I sent out an email to many of whisky folk from all facets of the industry. Producers, blenders, writers, bloggers, ambassadors, agents and, of course, knowledgeable consumers. What came back is what you can read below.
Thanks to all for taking the time and sharing the benefit of your knowledge. We may not all agree, but I can think of no better bunch to make this journey with. Slainte!
Finally…Dear Readers…feel free to drop a line in the comments section below. You never know who’s listening…
– Curt (ATW)
Thoughts from some others:
“When we bottle a product specific to whisky geeks or connoisseurs we have no problems in listing out the age as most of them will understand how whisky matures in India. In contrary, if we got to target the main stream consumer base, we got to go for NAS route as age is the generally perceived bench mark; although not true in reality, of quality. In this case we had better to go on NAS route as educating all of them is a painstaking process. This is specific to Indian single malt whisky. It is all about our love affairs with angels of Bangalore” – Ashok Chokalingam (Amrut, Brand Ambassador and the kindest heart in the industry)
“Not Aged Sufficiently, Never Ample Stocks, Negligible Advertising Spend; Nothing Anywhere Similar, None As Supreme, Nearly Always Superior, Naturally Added Sophistication. Depends who, how and why. The tyranny of the age statement can create unreasonable – and unsustainable – price points; it can prevent optimal flavour profiles.” – Mark Reynier (former CEO…and much more…Bruichladdich)
“Some people talk about NAS whiskies as an issue because of the perceived risk that some companies may abuse it, but how come no one is talking about whiskies with age statements that suck or are otherwise poor value for money? At the end of the day, people judge whisky based on brands that are known for putting good quality liquid in the bottle and offer good value for the money. If some companies use NAS whisky as a way to compromise on quality while enhancing their profit margins, they will eventually be caught out by consumers and their brands will be tarnished.” – John Glaser (Compass Box, Founder, Master Blender and creative genius)
“NAS stands for No Aged Stock 😉 It really is what it says : It’s a means for distilleries to sell us young(er) malt, for more money, having exhausted most of their old stocks. It also means : more profit, and indeed more flexibility in creating whisky to a certain profile without having to worry about keeping enough stock of a certain age to continue a line of whiskies.” – Gal Granov (Whisky Israel and unstoppable Twitter force)
“NAS whiskies fall into two categories
1: Scotch whiskies that due to limited supply of aged stock and burgeoning Asian markets are now re-branded without an age statement. The Scots (bless em) have spent a century educating the consumer that “older is better” now slowly but surely they are repositioning themselves and trying not to lose face or credibility with those same consumers that are still largely un-educated about the true nature of whisky. Most customers around the world willingly follow whatever is fed to them by the marketing powers but it seems already that there is resistance to this change if the feedback I have been receiving from retail stores is any indication.
2: NAS whiskies that by climate and location age at a much faster rate than in Scotland. These whiskies by their nature should be NAS as the consumer would take any Age Statement and filter it through their Scotch taught knowledge that young age equals inferior whisky. Any of these distilleries that put an age on the bottle would be dooming their product to collect dust on the shelves. Angels share at 3% per annum versus 6%, 10% 12% or even a whopping 18% has a big impact on how quickly a distillery can create a delicious and balanced whisky, potentially at a much younger age.
In the long run there will always be Scotch whiskies produced that will have an age statement even if in much smaller quantities. The movement of Scotch Whisky distilleries to go NAS will really play into the hands of distilleries worldwide that are making great whiskies in a much shorter timeframe. The playing field will slowly become more level and whiskies will be judged more on their merit and less on if they come from Scotland or not. This is underlined by the prices that the Scottish NAS whiskies are still fetching. For value, consumers will slowly but surely move over to flavorful and balanced drams from climates that allow the magic to happen faster.” – Jonathan Bray (Singlemalting.com, El Presidente PVI Global)
“It’s become as contentious (and misunderstood as ‘sulphur’). Age is not a determinant of quality.” – Dave Broom (Whisky Journalist and Author Extraordinaire)
“Like acid wash or skinny jeans, everything comes back into fashion. Some are good, some are bad. NAS whiskies are no different.” – Johanne McInnis (Whisky Lassie and she of the Whisky Fabric fame)
“NAS is like any other whisky: there are good examples and bad. Ultimately whisky should be judged on what it tastes like, the age is increasingly irrelevant; and if the price is to your liking, or preferably free, then all the better.” – Ruaraidh MacIntyre (Charton Hobbs/LVMH Ambassador – Ardbeg and Glenmorangie…and Ardbeg. Did I mention Ardbeg?)
“A little research (or an aged uncle) will reveal that until the 1960’s most Blended Scotch was sold NAS preferring the use of the terms ‘Standard’ and ‘de Luxe’. We should not forget that, at that time, Blended Scotch represented over 98% of all the Scotch Whisky sold. On the other hand AS were available on Single Malts from the early part of the 20th Century.
We should all accept that Father Time is the less important part of the maturation process; Mother Nature (cask influence) has greater importance.
Both are essential but, like human reproduction the Father’s contribution is simply ephemeral.
Have the confidence to choose what you like in terms of taste and be proud of your selection. Leave the AS importance to those who need to justify the price.” – Ronnie Cox (Brand Heritage Director, Berry Brothers & Rudd, austere wit)
“With some existing NAS Whiskies, there is a “back story” of sorts that articulates the component malts in the vatting. Yes, there may well be liquid within that is younger than what would be considered an industry “standard”, an invisible cut off age that we somehow cannot dip below. Is it 12 years old? 10? Many brilliant cask strength Whiskies would fall under that magic mark, themselves.
If the heart of the argument is disclosure, why not then disclose away? If we understand an NAS malt to contain “Whisky that is upwards of 15/18/21 years old” or higher, would a formal percentage satisfy? Let’s give consumers a graph, a pie chart that tells them what they seem to want to hear – “This bottle contains 12% malt that is old enough to drink itself, 58% has more than earned its right to play on the team and the balance is to remind you that youth is to be cherished.” – J Wheelock (Brand Ambassador, BenRiach, GlenDronach, Glenglassaugh, Jura, W&M…and far too humble whisky geek)
“I think there is a lot of mistrust surrounding NAS whiskies. Some of it justified, some of it not. While there has been a notable shift towards them in the last few years, they aren’t exactly new. The Aberlour A’Bunadh, Macallan Cask Strength and Auchentoshan 3 Wood are all NAS whiskies, and have been around for a decade or more. And all three have been popular with consumers. The recent shift towards NAS whisky is the industry’s attempt to meet demand while keeping prices down and managing pressure on their stocks. Is this bad for the consumer? Not if the quality of whisky remains high, and the consumer feels they are getting value for their dollar. If they don’t feel they are getting value, then they will put their dollars elsewhere.
There will be more NAS whiskies in the years ahead as demand continues to put pressure on maturing stocks. Some recent releases like the Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Glendronach Cask Strength (released in batches) and Tomatin CuBocan have been widely accepted. Others have stirred controversy. My advice to consumers is to try before you buy. If you enjoy what you are sampling, and feel the price is fair, then who cares if it has an age statement.” – Andrew Ferguson (Ferguson Whisky Tours, Manager Kensington Wine Market, All ‘Round Whisky Guru)
“NAS whiskies are nothing new.
It’s impossible to guess how much whisky you will need in 10 or 12 years, let alone 21, 30, 40 and 50 years, and this industry is constantly moving between ‘Boom and Bust.’ Sometimes we have to much and everything has an age, at other time we don’t have enough (now) and ages have to be removed. If the industry continues to grow and everything else remains constant, you could be another 20 years before there is stock to allow age-statements to return. Alternatively the demand could collapse tomorrow, leaving distillers with surplus stock that they can’t sell, which would be left to age on until the cycle begins again.
Many distilleries were closed for long periods in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and the release of NAS whiskies like Bowmore Darkest, Springbank CV, Glenfarclas 105 and Aberlour A’bunadh enabled Distillers to vat younger and older casks, produce excellent Single Malts and hit a nice price point, despite the irregular production 10 years earlier.
For the last 25 years, the large Single Malt Brands have focussed on marketing Age-Statement as the only measure of quality (OK, maybe colour as well!)
The average consumers assume that older and darker automatically means better, and this simply isn’t the case. Whilst time in cask is important, it is just one of many variable that contribute to the quality whisky you have in your glass. Cask Quality, Cask Type, 1st, 2nd or 3rd fill, vatting ratio, peating level, bottling strength, marriage time, chill-filtration and colouring amongst others are just as important, and I’m glad that the industry is now putting more time into education on all these aspects, and not just age.
At Duncan Taylor Scotch Whisky, our Big Smoke 46% and 60% are NAS, however at the moment the youngest Islay Malts we are using is these whiskies was distilled in 2000. We also have whiskies that contain casks much older than the age on the bottle. Black Bull 12 year old currently contains a high percentage of whiskies over 18 years old, and the Black Bull 40 year old contains whiskies up to 46 years old, so there are still bargains to be found if consumers shift their focus away from purely buying based on age statement.” – Peter Currie (Global Sales Manager, Duncan Taylor and a man not afriad to share an opinion…thankfully)
So…now have your say, friends…