NO AGE STATEMENT WHISKY: FOOL’S GOLD OR THE NEXT GOLD MINE?
As time and demand catch up with the declining stock of aged whiskies worldwide, Master Blenders are bringing out No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies that are younger than the whiskies they are replacing, but decidedly more expensive. In Scotland, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman and Bunnahabhain from Islay and Talisker from Skye have quite a number of expensive NAS Whiskies on the market, making the most of the peated-whisky boom. Benriach and Tomintoul from Speyside are also into peat as are Jura, Edradour, Springbank’s Longrow family and other distilleries, not only in Scotland but also across the globe. Highlander Glenmorangie, with its extra-maturation, innovative wood finishes and exotic Limited Edition Single Malts (SM) has more NAS expressions than age labelled and adds a couple or more every year. These are just a few of the 130-odd distilleries with 2016-17 NAS expressions in Scotland. The balance has evidently tipped towards marketing at the cost of the consumer.
In 2009, Seven years ago Chivas Regal, along with Glenlivet and Ballantine's launched a global campaign, “Age Matters… Look for the number. Know the age. Know whisky.” But today, they have the Chivas Regal Ultis, Extra and Mizunara Blended Malt NAS Whiskies to combat the JW Blue, Island Green, Gold Label and Double Black NAS Whiskies. Their Icon is more than three times the price of JW Odyssey Blended Malt. NAS is evidently more than just an acronym and cannot be wished away by mere pronouncements.
Chivas Regal started off as an extremely successful expensive 25 year old (YO) Blended Whisky in the USA in 1909, a quintessential symbol of early 20th century luxury. Chivas closed shop during Prohibition in the USA (1920-33) and reappeared there only in 1939 as the most expensive 12 YO, nearly twice that of its competitors, prompting the unique theory explained below. Chivas Regal 12 YO was the most expensive Blended Scotch in its class in the UK post WWII, but at a drop in price to accommodate a clientele slightly out of pocket due the war. The Chivas Bros 21 YO blend, Royal Salute, first produced in 1953 using most of the aged whiskies left over once the 25 YO faded into memory, was also the most expensive in its class.
The Chivas Regal Effect: One interesting note from popeconomics/marketing culture is the ‘Chivas Regal Effect,’ which occurs when a product sells more because the price of that product has been increased. The Balvenie 12 YO Doublewood has seen a price hike of more than 50% this year and a 15% increase in sales. Since people often equate price with quality, consumers, who otherwise would not have purchased a product, might choose it because it is more expensive (and thus ‘better’ quality). Wine (St. Emilion 1982 @ US$ 220-2,200) is a good example of this effect in the world of alcohol and LVMH in branded consumer goods. NAS whisky distillers were canny enough to implement this concept, which left many consumers in an ambivalent frame of mind, with some annoyed enough to hurl brickbats at NAS whiskies.
Glenlivet, which campaigned along with Chivas Regal in 2010, announced in 2015 that they would belaunching an NAS Whisky called The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve to replace The Glenlivet 12 in Germany and the UK. Pernod Ricard issued a statement: “The Glenlivet 12 Year Old remains, and will remain, the biggest reference in The Glenlivet portfolio globally and the core reference for the brand.” Necessarily so, since Drumin's George Smith built his life and the eponymous brand on this very word. As may be recalled, 21 other distillers in the Speyside region took Glenlivet to mean Speyside and tagged that word as part of their brand name. They added that some countries would stock both and other countries one or the other. As an explanation, they said that they felt they owed 'loyal fans' something new, a Long John Silver explanation, at best. Their other NAS, the Master Distiller's Reserve of 2011 has since sold out.
Ballantine's have two NAS Blended Scotch Whiskies, the time-honoured Ballantine's Finest and the new Ballantine's Hard Wired, first produced by Chivas Regal for owners Pernod Ricard in November last year (2016) to provide their 'loyal fans' some novelty with a masculine whisky (??) Ballantine’s Hard Fired whisky is named after the hard-fired finishing casks for this blend. The whisky is extracted from its second-fill American oak barrels, which are then charred by hard firing and refilled ̶ as soon as they simmer down ̶ with the very same extract and stored for 6-8 months. An interesting twist using a legal loophole: nothing is added to the contents, which would debar it from gaining the sobriquet 'Scotch Whisky', but the container is modified! All perfectly legal.
The furore stoked among some aficionados by the preponderance of No Age Statement whiskies may no longer be sustainable, now that it is known that stocks of malt whisky older than 11 years have been reducing by about 6% per year since 2011. Such an outcome was anticipated decades ago by prescient producers such as Ardbeg and Glenmorangie, where Dr Bill Lumsden is the Master Blender. As said, the increased demand for old age single malt whisky stocks have left the whisky baories running a little dry, but it is the perceived lack of transparency that has infuriated a few. The labels on the bottles and the artistic presentations on the cartons have little to reveal to those who believe that old is gold.
Diageo’s PRO Nick Morgan agrees, “There’s increasing demand for Scotch malt whisky, but it is a finite product, and in the face of increasing demand, it becomes increasingly difficult to guarantee a supply of aged stock.” Companies – including Diageo – are responsible for the notion that age = quality: “When the rush towards single malts occurred some 40 years ago, the easiest thing to create a credential was putting numbers on bottles. It justified higher prices and gave them 'integrity'. The industry decided to teach people that age equated to value and now it’s bouncing back on us. The bond of trust between consumers and distillers is breaking.” That said, he thinks most critiques are based on ill-informed views emanating from puritans who don't understand the working of the whisky industry. Must comments are driven by impetuous ignorance. This is one factor that I, from past experience, must agree with.
“We’ve successfully been releasing NAS whiskies for20 years with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg and they are doing very well,” says Lumsden, who has blended a plethora of successful NAS whiskies for both LVMH brands. His theory is simple: if you have the makings of a good whisky, all you need is good wood to make a good barrel or acquire a bespoke barrel. The Ardbeg Kelpie, Corryvreckan, Uigeadail, Ardbog, Galileo, Supernova, Perpetuum, etc., from the Islay stable and the Glenmorangie Signet, Bacalta, The Tarlogan, Dornoch, The Duthac, Companta, Astar 2017 and many more from the Highlands distillery have kept their tills ringing while accumulating awards galore, proving his posit. Their Ardbeg Uigeadail, a cask strength multiple award winner, reportedly has 6 and 15 YO SMs in its make up, as I've heard so often. Lumsden, however, states that it contains only 8-12 YO whiskies. He should know more.
For Glenmorangie, he makes copious use of the Devil's Cut, or ‘indrink’, the liquid absorbed by the wood during maturation mainly in the Sherry industry. Some distillery workers used to make “swish” by putting hot water into the barrel and rinsing out as much of that whisky as they could for “unofficial” use. Today, distillers use steam to deliberately extract the remaining whisky from barrels, then blended that back in with the rest of the whisky to get a slightly woodier taste. But canny Master Blenders leave the Devil’s Cut intact. Nearly 60L of Sherry awaits the whisky in a 500 L Sherry barrel finish, in a 2 YO Sherry barrel. He adds a note of caution, “Regardless of what you are doing, young whisky in bad wood will be ruthlessly exposed.” GlenDronach, MacDuff, Macallan, Highland Park, Aberlour, Glenfarclas, Dalmore, Ardbeg, Tomatin, Balvenie, Strathisla, Glengoyne, Knockando, Bruichladdich, Glenlivet, Kavalan, Yamazaki and numerous other distilleries are producing excellent Sherry finish whiskies, both NAS and with Age Statement.
There is palpable fear among consumers that the arrival of a new NAS whisky presages the death knell of a much-loved bottling: Macallan’s 1824 Series spelled the end of the 10, 12 and 15 YOs; The Founder’s Reserve is replacing The Glenlivet 12 YO in the UK and Germany; The Talisker 10 may soon disappear, now that the Talisker Skye has followed Talisker Storm, Dark Storm, Neist Point, 57° North and Port Ruighe into the NAS market. Morgan denounces the ‘rumour’ vociferously.
People from the industry like Morgan believe that NAS whiskies were born out of necessity and make life easier for distillers and blenders. The flexibility of producing NAS whiskies gives them much greater creativity when producing a blended single malt – 99% of single malts are ‘blends’ anyway. It is undeniable that age-statement SMs and Blended Scotch are increasingly becoming rarities in an NAS world. Almost 80% of Scotch whisky sold does not have an age statement. All basic Blended Scotch brands rarely spell out their age, although there are many that do, including 3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10 year olds and more. Almost all 12 & 12+ YOs do, barring a handful. Also, creating NAS whiskies is one way of preserving stocks of aged whiskies for the popular age-stated brands, a concept hard to digest, but true.
George Grant, Sales Director, J&G Grant, disagrees. “Twenty years ago we told people what made Scotch whisky different from Cognac and Rum, etc., and why we were putting an Age Statement on the label: We wanted the customer to understand what they were buying. Of our 71 brands, only one is an NAS (?). When we ran out of aged stocks, we pulled our 30 and 40-year-olds off the market until we had enough. Compared to Cognac with its vague terms like XO and VSOP, I think age statements have been a huge strength for Scotch." So how can one turn 180° and tell the same people that one's whisky no longer carries an age statement? The interesting aspect I foresee is that in another few years, these distilleries will have aged stock again, lots of it. How will they cloak this change? Rediscover age statements and put them back on? Or carry on regardless, blending SMs in the €100-200 and more price range?
There are many reasons to justify NAS whiskies, but in some cases the whisky hasn’t come up to expectations in terms of quality. Taking younger but good SMs and blending them with older ones is not a problem, since technological advancements over the years have markedly improved distillation and wood management techniques, but the whisky still needs to be satiating in a market where the customer is king and has become picky and demanding. Reviews of single malt Scotch whiskies between August 2015 and July 2016 confirm that age is a good indicator of quality – but not necessarily a perfect one. Whiskies 6-11 years of age are capable of scoring as high as far older whiskies. In other words, age does tend to improve whisky – but exceptional younger whiskies are capable of very high scores. “People should make a judgement on quality alone and not be swayed by the importance of age,” says Euan Mitchell, MD at Arran Distillers, a distillery that is just 21 years old and already pushing for NAS Whiskies.
I am not prepared to accept Mitchell's "summing it all up" statement. There are far too many brands out there, veritably slugging it out in a tight market, a major portion of which is reserved for the VIP Brands. If NAS whiskies will actually help ensure the long-term survival of those classic age-statement whiskies – I’ll gladly raise a toast to it. But I cannot get over my nagging fear that there is bound to be the less scrupulous distiller or private bottler who will cut corners. Such products that do not meet quality standards dictated by their price must be brought to book. But how? Who will dictate or define standards, as one man's uisge could be another man's hooch?
Macallan is an active proponent of NAS Whiskies, so I’ll let Ken Greer, Creative Director at Macallan, who faced derisive remarks on the introduction of the Macallan’s 1824 Series, have the last word. He says that his Master Blender has carte blanche in picking out any whisky for bottling in every category. This is done when he feels that the whisky is at its peak, like picking an apple when it is ripe, and not on some pre-decided date. For Greer, Scotch Whisky is about exceptional quality. It is about the integrity of the Scotch Whisky owners, distillers and producers, who, as guardians of that precious elixir, make sure that the right quality goes into the appropriate bottle at the right price point, whether it carries an age statement or not. Nobody will try to to hoodwink some poor soul. That remains to be seen, doesn’t it?