Let’s get NAS-ty!
Welcome to the jungle! The NAS whisky debate rages on, and gleaning any useful information above the din can be a challenge. MIXOLOGY enters the lion’s den of the controversy and survives. But not without a scratch or two.
My Dad’s old. “Like a good whisky”, he says. Whisky, wine, wisdom — it’s common knowledge that when it comes to the “3 W’s” the older, the better, right? Really? After all, old wisdom tells us that the earth is flat, supported by pillars in the heavens. And even the finest vintage wine, stored improperly, frankly tastes like last week’s dishwater (don’t ask how I know that). So let’s try some other “W’s”. “Why?”, for instance. Who says that only a whisky aged and matured over a long period of time is good? And what does “good” mean, anyway?
Rarely has a topic been more hotly discussed among whisky aficionados than the relatively recent introduction of NAS — or “No Age Statement” — whiskies. Today’s whisky producers, retailers, marketers and most importantly, whisky drinkers suddenly find themselves caught up in a whirlwind that’s challenging the conventional wisdom and splitting opinion into different, often surprising, camps. NAS advocates and detractors alike approach the argument from a variety of perspectives, all of which claim some degree of credibility. So who’s right, dammit?
For the love of money?
As I initially began to delve into the question it seemed fairly cut and dried. Just like companies offering goods and services in other industries, whisky producers are also in the business of manufacturing demand to generate growth, increase sales and create new markets. In addition to advertising and promotional activities, this also involves coming up with new products to pique the interest of loyal customers and grab the attention of new potential target groups (see Apple, Coca-Cola and any major automobile manufacturer).
At first glance, the recent practice of adding NAS blends to the product portfolio alongside respected 8, 10, 12-year and older single malts can seem driven by the most primal and familiar motivation in the endless battle for greater market share, our old and trusted friend, greed. Given our affinity for age statements, this impression is reinforced by a look at the price tags on some of the more expensive NAS additions (e.g. Ardbeg Supernova, Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013, The Balvenie Tun 1509 and others). Dutch whisky blogger Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer even admits, “I just can’t bring myself to spend € 140 on Glenmorangie Signet, although it’s good”. So they want to make money. Fair enough, who doesn’t? But as I looked deeper I began to discover that this only tells half, if that much, of the whole story.
“Old and Improved”?
Whisky consumers and retailers are wary, and justifiably so to some degree, but maybe not entirely for the reasons that you, I or even they might have suspected. We’ve all grown up knowing that with whisky, “older is better”. This is practically written in stone, and we’ve faithfully repeated the mantra and perpetuated this perception. Funny thing is though, age statements are historically a fairly new development, as Diageo’s “Head of Whisky Outreach” Dr. Nicholas “Nick” Morgan explains. “In the nineteenth century age statements were a rarity. Up until the middle of the 20th century, blended Scotch whiskies and single malt Scotches were judged for quality on taste alone, and by the reputations of the blender and brand. In recent decades, age statements have been used by blenders and distillers as the principal signifier of quality for whisky”. Hmm. OK. And why? According to Talisker distillery operations manager Stuart Harrington, “Age was a thing that the industry peddled basically, because we had a lot of aged stock sitting in our warehouses, so we told everyone that the older it is, the better it is. That’s not always true. Actually, age can be limiting at times”.
Anyone over 40 can tell you how limiting age can be, but lying about it is usually aimed at painting a younger picture. In any case, such a straight-up confession is surprising. Nick Morgan corroborates the testimony adding, “When the rush towards single malts occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the easiest thing to create a credential was putting numbers on bottles. It justified higher price points and it gave them integrity. We decided to teach people that age equated to value, so in some ways, the challenge we face today is a situation of our own making”. A-ha! So our obsession with whisky age is little more than the product of some Mad Men-type marketing stroke? “Old and Improved”? And there we were, about to condemn NAS as the gimmick which may nonetheless also be at least partially true. At any rate, there’s more than a little irony in clinging to “old” because we’re simply too young to know any better.
The “ageless” conflict
While the NAS trend applies to whiskies of all kinds, the most controversial debate by far revolves around Scotch. Like Scotch drinkers, Scotch producers are a proud breed. They take the object of their pride very seriously, and they’re understandably tight-lipped about how they create their various premium potions. They’ve also been very successful in recent years. Scotch sales have increased by 35% in the last five years alone, a record by no means limited to lower-priced blends. “Whiskypedia” author Charles MacLean calls it “the biggest boom in the history of the industry”. So what’s the problem? In a word, arithmetic.
I’m sorry, what? Dave Broom, the author of “The World Atlas of Whisky”, explains it better. “Single malt distilleries are, by their nature, limited in their production. Yet demand is rising and 12 years ago your production levels were low. Do the math.” Math was never my strong point, but I get the picture: The Scotch market boom that took off five years ago continues unabated, but the age on a single malt Scotch label is a declaration of how long it’s been maturing in casks. And there’s no shortcut to ten years or 12 or more, not even for good behavior. So there’s a fundamental discrepancy in the ageless conflict between supply and demand. Sam Simmons, the Brand Ambassador for The Balvenie who also blogs under the name “Dr. Whisky”, nails it when he says, “The only reason we have any wonderfully matured whiskies at all today is because 20 years ago everyone was drinking vodka”.
“To arms, comrades! We’ve been duped!” Well, yes and yes. And no. What can’t be denied is the quality of our favorite age statement whisky classics. We know they’re good, not only because at those prices they damn well better be, but also because we’ve been drinking them loyally for decades. Whether consumers originally bought into a marketing ploy or not, the goods are good. “101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die” author Ian Buxton was quoted in 2014 as saying, “The dirty little secret of the Scotch industry is they’ve become addicted to high prices, but they’ve run out of old whisky”. So how can younger NAS alternatives be just as good? This is where the skepticism, particularly among Scotch drinkers, enters the picture.
And why not? Call it a reverse trust deficit. After years of (literally) selling consumers the idea that only age brings quality, the industry now seems to be saying “Just kidding!”. Those in the know sing NAS’s praises citing things like maturity- accelerating improvements in modern cask management and elaborate blends of mature young and old whiskies. Chivas Master Blender Colin Scott was already around when the very first age statements were introduced in the 60s. He provides some historical perspective. “Age was a non-issue before the Scottish Whisky Association began regulating the industry. You could have blends of different malts ranging from 15 to 30-years old”, says Colin. Fast-forwarding to the present he adds, “In blind taste tests more than 50% preferred the youngest product”. Diageo even refers to their NAS blends as “Flavor-led”. Noah Walsh, owner of Berlin’s “NEU! Bar” and a well-versed whisky man himself, brings the point home. “Most of the diehard whisky drinkers we get know full well what they like, regardless of the age printed on the label. They’ve tried enough to know their tastes, which is all it really ever comes down to, your own specific taste.” So wait a minute. All this noise boils down to a matter of taste? Surprised?
Incidentally, the current supply bottleneck with mature age statement whiskies is by no means limited to Scotch. “The same goes for Irish, Japanese and bourbon by the way”, Dave Broom points out, “but no one seems to be accusing them of making poor quality whisky!” So people are gradually getting used to the notion that age isn’t everything. Fine. But things start to get sticky again with the issue of price. And the frontline troops in that battle are the wholesalers, retailers and bartenders who have to persuade consumers to part with their money. Rafael Topf from Vienna’s largest liquor wholesaler Del Fabro GmbH is a believer in NAS quality. But he balks at young whiskies that hit the market “with prices like they were decades old”, correctly noting that “shorter storage times also mean reduced costs for producers”. And Reinhard Pohorec, bartender at Tür 7 in Vienna and contributor to Whiskyexperts.net, also confirms that “the top priority has to be what’s in the bottle”. Echoing Rafael, Reinhard also rejects “taking young whisky, smacking a fancy Gaelic name on it and then charging 200 Euros a bottle”.
Necessity is the mother of invention
You know how it ends once the dust settles, right? Low stockpiles and proud prices go hand-in-hand. With the brand recognition, market share and the prices producers have achieved over the years with their flagship age statement whiskies, there’s no way they’re going to simply “replace” them. If anything, the whole debate illustrates just how effectively their whole “age = good” strategy has worked. And what’s a little white lie between friends, huh? But the makers still have a thirsty, growing market to serve.
So they’ve become inventive. And as long as the quality is guaranteed they can look forward to continued growth with new, younger products. Diageo’s Nick Morgan is optimistic. “As NAS whiskies become established, and as whisky drinkers discover – as they will – that many of them are outstandingly good, then I hope that people will progressively come to give greater weight to the reputation of the brand and the distillers and blenders behind it than to the number on the bottle.” Age statement sticklers will get what they want, and more open-minded whisky fans will find their own favorites, side by side on the whisky shelf. Inferior products will be weeded out by natural selection and the market will settle and gently expand. And once it does and the producers eventually get caught up on the current mature whisky shortage, you know what? If I were them, I wouldn’t tell a soul!
So who’s right?
There, got it? Me neither, not really, at least not completely. At the end of it all, in a state of head-spinning general confusion feeling far more informed but none much the wiser about the pros and cons of NAS whiskies, I decided to consult the one source with more than five decades of solid whisky experience I know I can genuinely trust: my old Dad. While admittedly his whisky expertise doesn’t necessarily extend much beyond a real liking for his Turkey, he is a reliable source of what might best be called nuggets of some of that “old wisdom”. So I called him up and reeled off the bullet points of the various arguments while he listened patiently, adding the occasional “mmm-hmm” to our chat.
Finally out of breath, I awaited his usual incisive dissection of the issue at hand, expertly highlighting its most critical factors. And that’s exactly what I got. His take on the whole NAS versus age statement whiskies dilemma? “After the third one it doesn’t matter anyway.” There you go. If you like it, drink it. You’re the customer, and you’re always right.
Author’s note: Many thanks to Roland Graf for his invaluable assistance on this article.