Whisky Advocate

Age statements: how important are they?

April 9th, 2013

JB_Distillers_InBoxYesterday I received a review sample of Beam’s new Distiller’s Masterpiece: an “extra-aged” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey barrel finished in Pedro Ximénez(PX)  sherry casks (pictured). I put a mention of it up on Twitter and Facebook.

One person (from the U.S.) on Twitter asked me if there was an age statement on the bottle, which there isn’t. I’m just told that it is “extra-aged.” Then, another person on Twitter (not from the U.S.) tweeted: “Is it just me, or are Americans stuck on age-stated whiskies? Why do most American tweeters I follow seem to be so focused on age statements?”

Well, I don’t know if Americans are more (or less) focused on age statements than the rest of the world, to be honest. I never really thought about it. But what I did start thinking about is the importance of them. Especially now.

In a perfect world, all the whisky companies would make the perfect whisky, regardless of age, and it would always stay perfect. Age statements wouldn’t matter at all, and there would be no reason for wasting our time with them. In fact, they would be a hindrance because, in theory, the perfect whisky could include some young whiskies in the mix.

But it’s not a perfect world, is it? And age statements on whiskies are dropping like flies. Wild Turkey, Macallan, Johnnie Walker, Dalmore, etc.: it seems like everybody is jumping on the NAS (no age statement) bandwagon, choosing to give the whisky some sort of cute or clever name instead.

Why would a whisky company go NAS? That’s an easy one. It doesn’t just give them more freedom and flexibility to deal with gaps in production (can anyone say “Bruichladdich?”). It also allows them to make use of some very young whisky that’s still hasn’t reached puberty yet.

This is very important. Demand has outstripped supply, so every distiller and his brother has cranked up production, and they will be chomping at the bit to get the whisky on the market, meet demand, and bring in a healthy revenue stream. Do we expect a Scotch or Irish whiskey company to put a four-eight  year old whisky on the market and give it an age statement as such? Absolutely not. But you can be sure that they will be happy to blend the younger stuff in with the older stuff and go NAS.

This has been going on for some time now, and it will only continue to become more prevalent. The whisky companies aren’t stupid. They are forward-thinking. They aren’t going to wait until they have new legal whisky coming on the market. They are planning ahead, going NAS now in preparation.

Again, in a perfect world, none of this would matter. They would just continue making the perfect whisky. We would be happy to pay for it, and the world would be such a happy place. But for some companies–and their bean counters–the temptation to “not wait for the perfect whisky” might be just too great, and you–as the consumer–need to be aware of this going forward.

Another thing you need to watch out for is what I will call “NAS age drift.” When a producer first goes NAS with a brand, it might taste just fine. But, after time, as their ratio of old to young whisky nosedives, they might be just too tempted to “tweak” the formula, slowly and gradually so most of you won’t notice, getting more of the younger whisky into the mix.

Yes, this happens more than you think. I once had a blender, when the company the person works for came out with their first NAS release, tell me “be sure to get a bottle of the first batch because I don’t have enough stocks in my warehouse to maintain the age and quality level of the brand going forward.”

So, do age statements matter? Sadly, in a realistic world, I think they do. On the young end of the age spectrum, anyway. An age statement doesn’t guarantee quality, but it can make me feel confident that I’m not getting ripped off paying too much for a bottle of whisky with a lot of young whisky in it.

 

127 Responses to “Age statements: how important are they?”

  1. David G. says:

    I’m willing to bet there are folks out there who think a movie that’s rated R (18 and above) is better than a movie rated PG-13 (age 13 and above), and that both those are better than movies rated PG or G. Age statements are a quick and simple way of framing quality. Age statements are also used by novices to compare malts. Put two bottles of different age statements out, and there are those who will choose the older one very time. I constantly stun people when I tell them I think the Glenlivet 15 is better than the 18, but that the 21 is better than both. I tell them whiskies are like people – older doesn’t always mean better.

    • John Hansell says:

      Over the years, I have generally liked Macallan 18 more than 25. But I liked 30 more than the 25. That’s just one example.

      • Bill (Dutch) Groot says:

        Of course, the differences in the aged whiskeys names isn’t just the age of the whiskey, but the barrel and aging process also, if the 15YO, 18YO, 21YO (etc) were blended from the same mixture of barrels, it would make it a more equal taste test.

        • John Hansell says:

          Indeed, when it comes to David G’s reference to Glenlivet, they are different barrel types.

          • David G. says:

            Correct, but the novice doesn’t know that, either.

          • Jeff says:

            No, David, older doesn’t always mean better, but it ALWAYS means more expensive (so much for the age doesn’t matter argument – age doesn’t matter except at the checkout).

            John is absolutely right here, and I’m glad to see it stated unequivocally as a warning to consumers. Age-drift is a real concern (as per his quote from that blender) and the industry people who champion the ideas that “age doesn’t matter” and “young whiskies aren’t immature, just different” don’t drop their prices on their aged expressions to match NAS pricing, nor are they THAT proud of their young whisky that they’ll tell you just how young it is. The whole goal of NAS is to push younger and younger whisky or, at the very least, enable it to be used to “pad out” entry-level expressions (many of them now losing their age statements as a result).

            There is no coincidence that as soon as Bruichladdich showed that a whisky could be sold NAS with an interesting story instead of an age statement (and made a huge amount of money in the process, so much so that they were bought out), others jumped on the bandwagon. And this is not entirely about “meeting demand” either – quicker turnover in the warehouse means less expense per liter and higher profit margins – so the degree of “necessity” in NAS is suspect at best.

            Although I do not always agree with John, I certainly do commend him for taking a stand on this issue in the interests of consumers. John’s last line says it all and, in a perfect world, age statements would be mandatory (if you’re not ashamed of your product, tell me what I’m drinking), because more information ALWAYS benefits the consumer.

          • John Hansell says:

            Jeff, I don’t always agree with me either. :)

          • Jeff says:

            Too funny, John – you’ve made my day – twice.

          • Nobody says:

            Industry people who champion the ideas that “age doesn’t matter” still know marketing, specifically

            1) People wouldn’t give a whisky labeled as young the same chance as a NAS.

            2) Aging whisky has it’s costs, and – more importantly – people will pay extra for it. Pricing products less than the market will bear isn’t the best way to make money.

    • Adam Mimran says:

      I agree also, a friend of mine (a whisky beginner) says he likes more mature whisky and equates an older age whisky w/ better quality. I do however enjoy younger whiskies more as well as NAS whiskies as well. If price weren’t an factor i think i would still prefer a relatively young whisky (15 years or less). I think amateur whisky drinkers enjoy the “smoothness” of older whisky and equate younger whiskies w/ being of harsher spirit quality. I don’t like your example of using glenlivet since (as far as i know) the 15 is finished in french oak and 18 in sherry, they are two pretty different whiskies (i do enjoy the 15 more than the 18 though). otherwise i think you are spot on, older doesn’t always mean better.

      on the same note, what will happen when stocks are depleted? are distilleries in danger of falling behind on demand? will prices for young whisky go up based on it or will compromises be made among quality (see the short lived maker’s mark debacle)? how will it effect prices on aged whisky, will 25 year old whisky in 5 years from now be the same price as a 40 year old bottle today?

  2. Danny Maguire says:

    I think they do matter, there are too many companies jumping on the N.A.S. bandwaggon and in many cases the produce is not worth the money being asked. If the purchaser was more discriminating in what they buy the companies would consider more carefully what they did, at least in the more mature markets. Unfortunately there are too many immature markets where they will buy anything that has a well known brand attached. Equally there are some markets, like Italy, where they like young whisky. Unfortunately I think we’re stuck with those N.A.S. bottlings untill stocks have built up again so if you don’t want them you’re going to have to buy indipendent bottlers offerings. Either that or cultivate somone in the companies who can tell you how old the stuff in the bottle really is.

    • Chris says:

      I’m confused. How does the lack of an age statement affect your enjoyment of a whisky?

      • Danny Maguire says:

        In some cases it doesn’t, depending on what whisky is in the bottle. On occasions I’ve drunk it because I’d bought it and I won’t buy it again because it’s not worth the money. Some times the’ve made a good job of blending a N.A.S. whisky, in others they haven’t, it really is down to the skill of the blender and the stocks they’ve got available to them.

        • Chris says:

          So the actual reason you wouldn’t buy such a whisky again has nothing to do with an age statement or the lack thereof, just that it wasn’t good enough for the price being asked? How does this differ from an age statement whisky?

          • Tadas A says:

            Chris, I’ll be happy to leave NAS whiskey for you to buy :)

          • Danny Maguire says:

            It’s the same, if I decide it’s not worth the money I won’t buy it. There are a few whisky’s I don’t like and no matter how cheep they are I won’t buy. I won’t mention them here since some of my friends work for the companies concerned. If a whisky is worth the money I’ll buy it regardless of what it is.

          • Alex says:

            Chris, one of the problems is the greater gamble in buying a bottle of something without an age statement and knowing whether it’s worth the asking price. I’m much more reluctant to spend $60 on a new bottle of whisky I haven’t tried when I don’t even know how old it is, precisely because the marketing people cannot be trusted. If, as John said, this were a perfect world, every bottle would contain high-quality whisky. However, the marketing and greed drives the companies to skimp on what’s in the bottle, knowing that some people won’t know the difference, and even the people who do know the difference might buy one bottle before realizing it.

            With so many special release bottles coming to the market now, I feel like the goal of the producers is to quickly sell everyone at least one bottle before they realize it’s not worth it, and then move on to the next special release. It’s this game of “gotcha” that disappoints many, I believe.

          • Jeff says:

            I agree – the marketing is becoming more and more like that of movies, with its emphasis on opening weekend numbers: get them in the seats before reviews and word of mouth tell them the product’s no good.

  3. OK, I hear a few of the comments from around quite a big bit of the world.

    Look, if some companies (probably the big ones) choose to go down this route……so be it!
    They have absolutely no “Feel” for the profession.

    Profession is what we are, and THEY ARE NOT..

    It is a matter of identity, of who you are and what you are.

    Big companies have totally lost the plot so far as this issue is concerned

  4. Rush Thrift says:

    What bothers me is the emphasis Beam places on the phrase “extra-aged” If the age is not going to be given, or doesn’t matter then why the marketing language in regards to aging. It infers that this makes the bourbon better somehow, and if it does, I as a consumer would like to know how old it is for compassion, like to the standard Beam product, or the 6 year black label.

  5. Andrew Ferguson says:

    This is a thorny issue and Macallan is about to throw itself right into it. They don’t have the stocks to continue meeting demand for their 12, 18 and 25 year olds, let alone the even older expressions so they are transitioning to NAS for their core range. This new range is being launched in Canada in the next few months. I’ve had a chance to sample them, and by and large they are pretty good. Whether the age of the whiskies and their quality dips with time is another matter. Most crucially, how will they be received by consumers? Time will tell.

  6. Steve says:

    Three things: a) I’d love to see all whisky have an age statement. b) I’d love to see some mixed age whiskies be more transparent (i.e. 50% 12-year, 20% 20-year, etc) wouldn’t that be cool? c) I would love to see all whiskies come clean on coloring.

    • Jeff says:

      Bingo – full disclosure! If you’re not ashamed of it, tell me exactly what it is. And the reason they don’t is…..?

    • adam m says:

      very well said steve. its amazing how many whiskies don’t even tell you what kind of casks they use. i.e. balvenie 15 single cask, can’t find it anywhere! i assume its bourbon though. it would be great if they gave all the information, but i guess a little mystery adds to the aura of it all. can’t blame distilleries for that.
      I don’t think anyone will stop drinking whisky b/c it doesn’t have an age statement. and there is no such thing as a bad whisky either but it would be great to be able to compare similar products which use similar methods.

    • B.J. Reed says:

      Didn’t Ardbeg get in trouble by doing that on their Rollercoaster Label?

  7. Tom D says:

    I will start by stating that I will drink any whisky at any price point (of course, that assumes I can afford it), whether it has an age statement or not, if I like the whisky and think it justifies the price.

    I am just tired of all the NAS stuff being marketed in a way to justify a ridiculous price point at the time of introduction, especially when they are replacing bottles that previously had age statements. If you factor in the idea of age drift, the prices become even more obscene.

    Steve and Jeff hit the nail on the head. The more information the better. If you are proud of the NAS product you made, that is fine. You should not be afraid to provide the relevant information to the consumer.

  8. thebitterfig says:

    I don’t care one fig about age statements. I do care, however, about age obfuscation, and I’m dead against it.

    Age isn’t magic. Adding a year or two doesn’t make a whisky miraculously better. Casks are too mysterious things to behave linearly. When it comes to what I want to buy, age statements are nearly irrelevant and I rely instead upon reviews and reputation and price-point. There are plenty of young, cheap whiskies which are pretty decent, I know they are young, and I personally wouldn’t mind if they tell me exactly how young they are, particularly since it isn’t really secret with a lot of young whiskies.

    However, I dislike the lack of respect shown in pricier, age-obfuscated whiskies. Distillers ought to have enough respect for their customers to tell them how old their product are. The product I like to cite as doing it right is Balvenie Tun 1401. It doesn’t have a “proper” age statement, but neither does it obfuscate the age of the whisky. You don’t need to slap a big “Five Years Old” in bold letters in the front of the label with a mix of 5, 15, and 25 year old casks, but put it in a booklet, put it on the website. Just don’t hide the age.

  9. H.Diaz says:

    For crying out loud, NAS Single Malt should not push the $100 mark. No matter the cute and clever name and/or story. Good grief.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      Depends on what they’ve put in the bottle, if they put a teaspoonful of 3 yo into a cask of 50 yo they’d have to call it 3 yo, so sometimes they put N.A.S. on it for ease.

  10. Morgan Steele says:

    How important are age statements? My answer: not as important as they once were. Years ago, age statements assisted me in quickly ordering (with good reliabiity) unfamiliar whisky. Now, with far more experience, and the power of the internet on my smart phone, an age statement plays only a nominal role.

  11. William says:

    I just assume that NAS means the stuff is too young, and the brand felt that it wouldn’t sell as well if showed its true age, I have no real issue with that as long as the quality is there, but when it’s not, I do feel cheated, at least with an older bottle it did sit for a bit, that’s gotta have cost them something.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      Yes, the longer it sits in the warehouse the more it costs them, doesn’t necessarily make it a better whisky.

      • Jeff says:

        No, but wouldn’t the great majority of whisky being sold NAS these days benefit from additional aging? People, both inside the industry and out, are using the “older doesn’t necessarily mean better” argument to defend the non-aging of whisky in cases of product where it would actually help. For most whiskies, the point for which further aging is no longer a quality enhancement doesn’t occur at ten years or less.

  12. William says:

    What really ticks me off is a brand that goes and sells a NAS saying that it’s fantastic, implying that the age is not important, and then they charge obscene prices for their older whiskies, touting the important of age cough Macallan cough

  13. two-bit cowboy says:

    Two recent “storied” examples offer a counter argument to most of what you all have said.

    Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix and Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt. If either had used an age statement it would have been in the low teens, ya? Never mind the “story” behind the whiskies, if either had printed 13 years old Scotch Whisky on the label, it wouldn’t have been the same. Love or hate either whisky, it’s likely neither would have flown off shop shelves with an age statement. Oh, by the way, both were delicious. Were they worth their price? Only the buyer can say.

    These are two extreme examples and can’t compare to Founder’s Reserve, Select Reserve, or any of the other generic and less-than-compelling recent NAS names. They do, however, point out that bashing every NAS is without foundation.

    Arran Devil’s Punch Bowl Chapter 1 set the industry standard for disclosure. Unluckily there wasn’t enough of it to intimidate other distilleries to follow suit.

    Don’t bash NAS for the sake of bashing something. Give credit where it’s due.

    Bob

    • Jeff says:

      Snow Phoenix IS pretty good, Bob, and Glenfiddich says that there is 30-year old in there someplace, just as legend holds there’s venerable whisky in Blue Label (although in what concentration is deliberately left to speculation), but, in my opinion, neither is really that exceptional. I would agree that they (and others) are “good” NAS whiskies, but obscuring their age only enhances their sales, not their quality, and there is no reason that they could NOT carry age statements, except from the industry’s point of view. As a consumer, whether or not a whisky flies off the shelf because it carries a “13” isn’t my worry (and 12s still show strong sales) – and maybe if some distillers cared more about what they made, and less about how they “positioned” it, they wouldn’t have to worry either. As for the “stories” surrounding many of these whiskies, I’d be more than happy to forget them – if producers would do so first, and not substitute anecdotes and adjectives for hard facts.

      NAS isn’t being bashed here for the sake of bashing something – there are serious concerns with the NAS approach to marketing, not least of which is the fact that the whisky in the bottle can become younger (and cheaper) without notice – and without changing the label. When a blender tells John, point blank, to buy now because the quality of this stuff is going to slide, there IS an issue to be addressed.

      I’ll always give credit where it is due, but I give credit for honesty and clarity as well as quality.

    • John Hansell says:

      Unfortunately, the typical consumer doesn’t have the luxury of tasting a whisky before they buy. Yes there are good NAS whiskies and not so good NAS whiskies. Some are fairly priced and some aren’t. The frustrating part for the consumer is buying the bottle and then discovering that it was overpriced or underaged. Then, you’re stuck with the bottle.

      Yes, this can be said about any whisky. But perhaps there’s a greater margin for error with NAS whiskies.

      • Danny Maguire says:

        If you go to a supermarket that is very true, if you go to a specialist retailer they will frequently have some bottles open that you can try, then you can make an informed decision. It is truehowever that the specialist will usually cost more than the supermarket. (A) they don’t have the buying power, and (B) you’re paying for the service.

        • John Hansell says:

          Danny,don’t necessarily assume that what’s true for where you shop is the same where other people shop. In some places it is illegal for a wine and spirits shop to offer tasting samples. Where I live, here in Pennsylvania, it was illegal until recently.

          And even now, the only sampling that is done is by a company who gets approval to pour samples. (I assume they pay for this privilege.) If I went in and asked to sample the new Highland Park Loki, they would look at me as if I had two heads.

          • Danny Maguire says:

            John, The first part is fair comment, the second one, doesn’t it depend on the policy of the store? Some places will have a sampling bottle, and allow for it in their pricing.

          • John Hansell says:

            The entire state of Pennsylvania is run by the state government. There are zero sample bottles anywhere in any store.

          • Danny Maguire says:

            That’s the law as it applies in Pennsylvania, there are another 49 states plus D.C. in the U.S. In the world around another 200 countries, in some the law will be stricter in others not as strict. If the law where you are lets the retailer have sample bottles try before you buy, but you can still be told no.

    • thebitterfig says:

      I don’t quite agree. No, Snow Phoenix doesn’t need a “13” or “11” or whatever on the bottle. It doesn’t need an “age statement,” and sticking a big bold low number on the bottle would be a bad move. However, it wouldn’t hurt the magic if it came with a book with a listing of various cask ages, or if they were on the website, or somewhere else where they were public knowledge. Expensive whiskies shouldn’t be secretive and obfuscatory.

      • Jeff says:

        I know that we’re, overall, on the same page about the availability of age information but, given that putting an age statement on Snow Phoenix would not change the whisky in any way, for whom would this be “a bad move”? Maybe for Glenfiddich in terms of sales, but if they didn’t want a 13 ON the bottle, they didn’t have to put a 13 IN the bottle. I admit that I have a hard time generating sympathy for distillers and their problems, but, recently, they seem to have a similar issue generating sympathy for me and mine.

        • theBitterFig says:

          Mostly it was a marketing thought.

          A bold number would give folks the impression that the bottle contains almost exclusively that age of whisky, rather than a “well-curated mixture of different vintages.” Marketing, sure, but potentially getting at more of the truth of a bottle. Maybe Snow Phoenix isn’t the best example, and I don’t want to get hung up on the particulars of that one bottling. I know a bunch of other distilleries have “decades” type bottlings, with a few casks from each year of distillation. I don’t mind them being a bit coy, wanting to relegate the smallest number to a public knowledge to a booklet. I don’t really have a problem with distillers marketing whiskies, but I want honesty, too. Maybe that’s hair-splitting of me. But then again, I think we’re mostly just haggling over where they ought to put the number and how large the font should be.

          • Jeff says:

            Oh, I understand the marketing angles being played, but unless producers are actually willing to share the age and proportion of contents (and good luck getting that), I can’t be convinced that an age statement is not necessarily a better picture of what’s inside than the description “a well-curated mixture of different vintages.” – what does this mean (trust us, we know what we’re doing, this is good whisky?), and to whom? Again using Snow Phoenix (sorry), but only as an example, Glenfiddich already tried to create the impression this whisky is much older (in net age) than 13 by mentioning that it contained some 30 – if they want to tell me that it’s MOSTLY 30, there’s nothing stopping them – if they’ll go on the record. As for fonts, I think you’re right, but I do think the information needs to be made mandatory and available at point of sale, not just somewhere on the internet.

          • theBitterFig says:

            I’ll describe a hypothetical malt. Let’s call it Glengaryglenross Ice Roc (since it’s an even bigger bird than a phoenix). It’s made up of 21 casks between 8 and 10 years old, 29 casks between 10 and 15 years old, 17 between 15 and 20, 5 casks over 20 years old, with the oldest being 33 (and that listing would satisfy my labeling curiosity). Mean age is about 15 years on the improper presumption that all casks contain the same volume, but just bear with it. Median age is probably about 12 years old, so let’s just suppose it is for the thought experiment.

            When it comes to naming, GGGR could call it Ice Roc Eight Years Old, which to me pretty clearly implies that most of the whisky is pretty damn close to 8 years old. This is deceptive since the average age (be it mean or median) is 12-15 years old, and it has enough older whisky to substantively change the character away from a full-young 8 year old. They could also call it Ice Roc Multi-Vintage, which tells me, that it’s probably mostly young-to-average, but has both old stuff and very young spirit in there. They could just call it Ice Roc, and put a smaller subtitle reading the nearly pure marketing drivel “a well-curated mixture of different vintages.” I wouldn’t fault Glengaryglenross for not going with “Eight Years Old,” so long as they put it in a booklet in the box, or I’d potentially be fine with a fact sheet that is online and distributed in the cases for store staff. Mulit-vintage, as nonsense as it is, tells me that they intend something else than an “all one age,” and while I don’t trust that if it’s on its own (give me the cask facts), I do think it’s a bit more informative about the nature of the spirit.

            A lot of it, for me, comes out of knowing that ages are bunk. There isn’t necessarily a difference between 9 and 11 year old whisky due to cask variation (some casks are slower than others). The non-linearity of cask aging is key. I mean, Laphroaig Quarter Cask would probably lose a bunch of sales if it was labeled “Laphroaig Six Year Old,” since then someone who doesn’t understand that ages aren’t magic will look and see “well, that’s got to be half as good as Tomatin 12.” I don’t fault anyone for prefering one to the other, but the age-number can be pretty misleading. There’s no substitute for experience; age statements can be almost as misleading as anything which is purely marketing. That’s why my bag is “age obfuscation” rather than “no age statement.”

          • Jeff says:

            Thanks for the reply, its detail, and the many good points that went into it. As you point out, there are many legitimate ways a multi-age can be described, all with different emphasis.

            The information rendered by an age statement IS very limited, and part of the problem this creates is found in the additional information that people try to read INTO an age statement – but that doesn’t make the age statement itself misleading. Taking your example of the Ice Roc (great name), you say that “GGGR could call it Ice Roc Eight Years Old, which to me pretty clearly implies that most of the whisky is pretty damn close to 8 years old”, and I can see how you and others could read it that way, but that is not a claim which the age statement actually makes. I know that, of course, you know this (and I’m not trying to strawman you), but my point is that at least part of the value of an age statement is found in knowing what it does NOT tell you – and that is an issue with the consumer, not with the statement. Similarly, anyone who would automatically assume that Laphroaig 6’s “got to be half as good as Tomatin 12” is substituting age statements for review numbers and, until they can tell the difference, I don’t know how much even a product book would help. On the other hand, I do think that many, if not most, do understand that “ages aren’t magic” (although “ages are bunk” seems rather broad to me), and so they wouldn’t be as misled by widespread age statements as you and the industry might fear.

            I agree that the age statement information I want is much less sophisticated (and potentially more harmful to sales, though I’m still not sure why this is my concern) than the more extensive information you want, but, like you, I do hope that more information of some type is forthcoming.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      Snow Phoenix is a one off, the casks they salvaged from the warehouses that were damaged in the bad snow a couple of years ago. So once it’s gone, it’s gone.

      • Jeff says:

        I do realize that Snow Phoenix was a one-off. I was referring to Glenfiddich’s choice to release it NAS at the time, not as a choice somehow “going forward” (“choosing” not to put an age statement on it “now”, when it’s no longer being made). Maybe I should have said “given that putting an age statement on Snow Phoenix would not HAVE CHANGED the whisky in any way, for whom would this HAVE BEEN “a bad move”?

  14. Tadas A says:

    Bravo John!!!! I wouldn’t have said it better!

  15. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    we had discussions along this line in another forum.

    http://www.whiskywhiskywhisky.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=5453

    http://www.whiskywhiskywhisky.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=7076&hilit=new+whisky+category

    Let’s say I have been active there.

    But what angers me about this development is in a few words this.

    What are the hard facts about a bottle of whisky you buy?

    Size of the bottle, abv or proof, straight or not, Scotch bourbon or Irish and age – if there is one.

    The real hard facts are bottle size and proof everything else can be somewhat unclear. As we well know.

    Now the age statements have seen a steady process of being diluted since the whisky boom took of.

    As long as we were bathing in the whisky lake – especially with Scotch – you bought a bottle of 12yo whisky and the contents of said bottle had an age up to 20 years and more to give this standard OB depth substance and volume.
    If you buy a standard OB 12yo today there is not much else in the bottle but 12yo whisky – and if it is emphasiszed there is nothing older in the bottle than about 15 years or so. To an unknown extend.

    The other thing that angers me is that age statements were used to drive prices. The level of whisky pricing of today can not be explained without age stated whiskies of 20 30 and more years age. Those real old bottlings were used to raise the prices in the standard aged segment,

    Today NAS – which in my eyes are seldom stand alone whiskies as older casks or specially treated casks or whatever are mixed in to “lift” them to drinkability – are going about to hold this high level of pricing without the detour of being aged a proper time.

    That is what I call dishonest fake whiskies. The part of the young whisky contained is too young or harsh to be bottled alone. The “treated” or much more mature part in a NAS bottling is “watered” down.

    What do I care as long as it is good and tasty, you ask? I care because there is no full disclosure and you do not know what you really pay for.
    ith NAS the only hard facts that remain are abv or proof and bottle-size. You are in the dark about a possible margin of profit the bottler can make with such a bottle and can not really calculate if the bottle is worth the price you have to pay.

    What would you rather be willing to spend money on – a Glentowbullin 15yo which contains some older Glentowbullin and cost 50 $ or a Glentowbullin “Pride of the Distiller” NAS which contains 5 year old whisky at its core lifted by some 10 year and 15 year old Glentowbullin at a ratio of 90:10 young to old and costs 50 as well?
    No matter – as long as it is tasty???

    Greetings
    kallaskander

    • Chris says:

      I’d buy whichever whisky I like better, assuming that I actually like it well enough to spend $50 on it. Why would you care about the profit margin? Using your example, are you seriously saying that you’d automatically buy the bottle that cost the distiller more to make, rather than the bottle you enjoy more?

      • Tadas A says:

        Please understand that most people do not have a chance to try whiskey before they buy the bottle. I travel around a world and very very rarely I find any samples in the stores I can try before buying.

        Profit margin is very important for quality. If profit margins is high it usually means that either a product is very unique so they can command that high price; or they are selling a product that is inferior in that price rage and you can buy similar thing from another distiller cheaper. Please understand disliller too. They sample barrels during aging for quality control. If they keep something aging for 18 years, they make sure it would be good, since if it was bad whiskey why would you keep it 18 years when you realise that it peaked and is not getting better.

      • Jeff says:

        Why would I care about the profit margin? Because it comes out of my pocket! Given the young whisky content, the overall quality and the lack of information available concerning NAS products, I really don’t see why producers should be making higher returns on these bottles – they are simply not that good or that expensive to make. In short, Chris, I care because we’re being gouged.

        • Chris says:

          Sorry to resurrect this thread, but I clearly didn’t make my point. My point about profit margin was limited to a very specific scenario. That is, if you like a whisky, and feel that the price is fair given the quality, why would a high profit margin bother you?

  16. Par Caldenby says:

    Let’s just agree on two things (I hope): firstly, that a NAS whisky can be absolutely great (think Ardbeg Uigeadail first batch) and secondly, that the category of NAS whisky is very much open to abuse. However, this is not the same thing as younger being inferior to older whiskies. If people did take due care about their purchase of good quality casks AND then of the proper cask selection for their bottlings, then NAS and/or really young whiskies would be absolutely cracking. I know it is perfectly possible. But some casks and indeed some whiskies just need a lot more time to reach a good level of maturity and character. The bean counters would likely have some difficulty in realising this…

    • Jeff says:

      I’d agree that some distilleries might well be able to make young whiskies of decent quality, but we’ll never be able to judge, for the most part, while much of this young whisky is being piggybacked onto older malt (or even bottled on its own) and sold NAS. I do believe that age usually has a big effect on quality, particularly at anything under ten years (compare newmake to three years to seven), but what’s “good” is in the eye of the beholder. Some NAS whisky is good, but it is not good BECAUSE it is NAS. NAS is a producer marketing information choice, not a production procedure or process – distilleries have been blending malts of different ages since their inception – and the choice made is to provide the consumer with as little information as possible, and that is to help the producer, not the consumer.

    • Tadas A says:

      Ardbeg Uigeadail is actually a good example of a NAS whisky being excellent first and going down the hill with subsequent batches. The biggest reason it had depth was – that the first batch had sherried Ardbeg from the 1970s in the blend. Current batches long ago transitioned to a juice all made post Ardbeg reopening. And the taste profile changed to a harsher and younger tasting. They basically do not have enough of old sherried Ardbeg to use for the NAS blends and were forced to transition off using it for Uigeadail.

      Check out an interview with Dr. Bill Lumdsen, the master distller at Ardbeg on this subject:
      http://klspiritsjournal.libsyn.com/k-l-spirits-journal-podcast-25-dr-bill-lumdsen

      • Henry says:

        Very much appreciate this information about Uigeadail. I had wondered if the change over a period of years, some of which were spent without any Oogie in the cabinet, was due to my palette or the composition of the whisky. Now I have a better idea of the facts.

        As for the NAS “controversy,” it never ceases to amuse that some whisky drinkers will make comments on blogs such as this one as if they have abandoned their own self-interest; as if they identify with their corporate masters more than themselves; as if they themselves are the ones profiting from the sales of the spirit. Such sophistication!

  17. WhiskyWriter says:

    Interesting article. As others have said, older whisky doesn’t automatically equate to ‘better’. But at least age statements make it easier to understand price differences between bottles. The costs associated with producing older whisky (storage, money lost not selling it earlier, rarity value) mean that they’re more expensive. And whilst the prices aren’t always justified they are at least easier to understand. The potential problem with NAS is that it gives producers wiggle-room to start mixing in younger (therefore cheaper) whisky and it’s harder for consumers to know if they’re paying over the odds, the ‘age drift’ the article talks about.

    • Chris says:

      Wouldn’t it be better to have the label state the percentages of whisky by age? That is, 60% 12yo, 15% 13yo, 15% 14yo, and 10% 19 yo. Otherwise, you could have a bottle that is 99% 25 yo, with 1% 3 yo, and the age statement would have to be 3 yo. A simple age statement doesn’t really tell us anything, it only has meaning in combination with other information, (type/size of cask, etc.).

      • Jeff says:

        Your theoretical “99/1” whisky made me immediately think of Blue Label and all of the urban legends around it: that every bottle is just jammed with ancient whisky (60 years old if you watch West Wing), but the age statement is “regrettably spoiled” by the tiny amount of young whisky necessary to provide some vital nuance. JW does nothing to confirm these stories, of course, but does equally nothing to deny them because they help sales. Which is part of the problem with NAS: that in the absence of real information, people will tend to make stuff up to justify their purchase, and then pass this BS on.

        I’d find NAS a more debatable issue if it were actually an aspect of whisky itself instead of essentially a case of substandard labeling. Because unlike chill and non-chill filtration, triple distillation, small cask maturation, ACEing and cask strength, NAS IS NOT a process, a finish or even a type of whisky. It is a type of LABEL, and not a very good one at that, because it lacks what, to many, is important information. NAS represents the simple withholding of information from the consumer and that withholding, like the addition of E150, is a deliberate attempt to obscure the characteristics of the whisky to enhance sales without enhancing quality in ANY way. Remove the age statement from the label of any whisky and it becomes, by definition, NAS. It is still the same whisky, good or bad; the only difference is that now you don’t know how old it is. Those who think that age, like colour, don’t matter can ignore these aspects if they like (and where would Macallan drinkers come down on THAT issue?), but the information should be there for those that want it – and not just somewhere on the internet – but on the label at the point of sale.

        An age statement tells us precisely what it claims to tell us, no more, no less. Inferences about quality are, as always, a matter of opinion, but at least the age statement itself does not represent opinion – it represents fact. Your idea about age content by percentage would be an improvement even on age statements, but given we’re dealing with producers who are currently comfortable telling you next to nothing, maybe we should push for widespread use of the wheel and lever before the jet engine.

        • WhiskyWriter says:

          A couple of people have said that if it tastes good then it’s worth it regardless of what’s inside. I’m not sure that entirely holds true – I love drinking beer and some of the craft ales are truly wonderful, but I know enough about the brewing process to understand there is almost nothing in making of beer that could justify any one bottle costing more than a few £ in a shop. It shouldn’t cost you more just because it’s nice. I think price should be related to cost of production.
          As has been pointed out elsewhere, I think we’re just looking for a bit more honesty. Full disclosure might be going a bit far, it could be a bit misleading – 12 year old casks from the same distillery do not necessarily produce the same tasting whisky – but something to help link the price to content would be welcome.
          As a side note, I think that Bruichladdich are actually pretty open with most of their bottlings from post-resurrection era (the Organic, Octomore, Port Charlotte etc), whether the prices for young whisky are justified or not is another issue but I think they’re OK on provenance.

          • Jeff says:

            I appreciate the reply. I don’t really see how full disclosure might be “going a bit far”, except maybe in our expectations of the industry, or how, in and of themselves, age statements can be misleading. It’s true that an age statement can’t account for, much less correct, issues around consistency in cask performance, but no label modification could. As for Bruichladdich, while age statements and information are making a stronger appearance going forward, for every Organic, Octomore and Port Charlotte, there was also previously an NAS Infinity, Laddie Classic, Peat, Rocks and Sherry Classic.

  18. patrick says:

    ncie article, thanks!

  19. Joe Hyman says:

    I like to sample whiskies from different eras side by side to compare them…well, in most (if not all) cases, the earlier bottlings are superior. Back when, it was common to blend in a lot of older whiskies, so a 12 year old had a significant portion of 15-18-20 year olds. Now, I doubt the bean counting exec’s would allow anything 13+ in that 12 year old. Unfortunately, the trend will continue: a) demand outstrips supply, and b) growth in demand is outpacing growth in production.

  20. Dr. J says:

    John, one thing is missing here: How did you like Distiller’s Masterpiece? I just read on the internet it is available only at the distillery for $200! Is it worth it?

    • John Hansell says:

      Yes, it’s $200 and only available at the distillery. I didn’t offer an opinion because I’n on some nasty antibiotics for a short spell which have screwed up my taste buds.

      • Dr. J says:

        I was just at the distillery on Apr. 13th. The staff there said they have not been allowed to sample it, nor the public. No I did not puchase one. I did buy a 375ml of “Old Tub” in a cool prohibition medicinal style bottle for $17.

  21. Randy Perrelet says:

    I think that NAS whisky is largely a result of the corporate takeover of the spirit industry as a whole. As part of that takeover, corporations aren’t just interested in selling whisky, they are selling a lifestyle. They are trying to create a brand that differentiates them from competitors and hopefully creates brand loyalty. They have marketing departments that work on product names, logos, pricing and placement strategies. That is what corporations do. So now we have Highland Park Thor, Auchentoshan Valinch, and BenRiach Authenticus. And by using a NAS strategy, they now have what corporations cherish, flexibility. Welcome the new world of whisky.

    • H.Diaz says:

      While HP Thor and Loki are all cute and clever names and stories, high strength, nice packaging….they at least had the Gonads to put an age statement on the label. Now, $200 for a 15 y/o or 16 y/o, that’s another story.

  22. politicalidiot says:

    As Jeff noted in an early post: age matters at the register. When distilleries annd IBs start selling based soley on quality, then we will all be impressed. I’ve had plenty of mediocre 20+ year old bottlings. The truth is, NAS is a profit motivated strategy. Will prices go down? Nope…This trend is the best news IBs have ever received.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      I would have said that I.B.s are quality driven, they only need to bottle one bad cask and people will remember it. Their reputation is dependent on what they bottle.

  23. Ted Pappas says:

    What I’ve seen now in the US is whiskey distilleries (small and large) taking advantage that they know COLA does not verify age when an age statement is left off a label. If under 4, it should be clearly stated on the bottle. 4 and over, it’s not required. If everyone played by the rules, it would give the consumer the necessary information. I’ve marketed a 2 year old bourbon and got a lot of flack by stating the age on the label and not using “aged less than four years” on the back. So be it – it was my choice and I wanted the consumer to know what they were buying. It’s up to us (producers) to maintain the integrity of our products and companies. Age statements should either be on there clearly or left off. Don’t confuse the consumer – just the facts.

    • Mr Manhattan says:

      Yeah this is a very unfortunate trend. I can no longer assume a NAS American whiskey means it’s a minimum of 4 years old. One reason a really tend to shy away from so-called “craft distillers.”

      • Ted Pappas says:

        Well, it’s happening with the big brands too. All I can say to encourage you to try craft distillers is to get to know the maker. I won’t compromise my integrity for a buck and there are plenty of us who feel the same.

  24. Barry says:

    We are not putting an age statement on our bottles for a more practical reason. As a micro-distillery our bottlings are very limited, with only single cask offerings. We are handwriting the cask number, bottle, etc. on each bottle and writing an age statement is that much more work (especially given our poor penmanship). The package design would also make it difficult to include the age. That doesn’t mean we don’t believe it is important. In fact, we want to disclose as much about our whisky as possible to the consumer, so have decided to put our complete inventory on line with all details on casks and bottles like casking strength, date, tasting notes, etc. This can be found at http://www.caskbook.com.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      Why not just add the in-cask date and the bottling date?

      • Barry says:

        Consumers we talk to ask for all sorts of information. They want to know as much as possible. This also will allow people to share tasting notes, impressions, etc.

    • Tadas A says:

      Very nice! Even a picture of every barrel and all the info about it.

    • Jeff says:

      So you’re already handwriting all this other information on the label, but leave off one number, which you acknowledge as important, on the basis of excessive labour and poor penmanship?

  25. Justin D says:

    I work in the whisky industry in the UK, and the fixation on age statement whisky is certainly not just a US consumer thing. It seems the industry has shot itself in the foot in this regard. After years and years of preaching older is better in marketing campaigns, they’ve fooled the masses into believing this and now when I tell them older certainly does not always mean better, many people are very sceptical.

    I’m very interested going forward to see how things change: will people eventually let the age statement dogma go? However, I think people get stuck in their ways and it may be the distilleries with the most older stock left who profit from all of this. On the front lines, I have already seen people turning away from Macallan in favour of a whisky that they perceive to be better because of age, Glenfarclas, Glendronach etc

    In my opinion, I don’t like this trend of secrecy, I don’t mind a younger whisky – Kilchoman 100% Islay is one of the best malts I’ve enjoyed so far this year for example – but I do want to know what’s in the bottle! I am worried about whiskies like Glenlivet Alpha turning up more and more in fancy packaging, expecting a lot of money for what may be mostly young whisky from cheap refill casks etc.

    • Jeff says:

      So long as “older certainly does not always mean better” is not translated into “age doesn’t matter”, I’m with you. Because, to be fair to the hoodwinked masses, age maturation does matter; it’s difficult to argue that most whiskies presently considered “good” at 10 years or less couldn’t be improved with additional maturation. That a particular 27 is better than a 25 or 21 IS a different issue. By the same token, many don’t want to see age statements retained (or even expanded) out of a dogmatic belief that a number guarantees quality – they’d just like to have some more factual information on the label at the point of purchase against a trend in an industry that is going in the opposite direction.

  26. Chris A. Lockhart says:

    Age => Experience and Experience yields Taste!!!! AGE DOES MATTER when talking about Kentucky Bourbon….

  27. Bones says:

    I like many different types of whiskies just as I like many different types of music. Depends on my mood. I do think mentally somehow we are conditioned to think older is better. For me it’s whatever type of barrel its aged in really makes the difference. Having only really started drinking the brown stuff for 4 or 5 years now maybe I still don’t know what I’m talking about. Still haven’t met a bottle I didn’t like!

  28. sam k says:

    None of us have ever gone through anything like this before, nor have the current distillery owners and managers. Since the boom and bust cycles of this industry take decades, every one of us has come of age in an era of excess stocks. How do you market whiskey when you have loads of it? Age statements, and we’re led to believe (and for good reason) that they matter.

    Once demand overcomes supply, as is inevitable, nobody on board is quite sure how to handle the situation. None of us, not one, has been there before. Those of us with 30+ years of legal consumption behind us grew up with the luxury of increasingly older whiskeys on the shelf. Now the tables have turned, and there is no institutional memory to guide the distillers, nor the consumers.

    This is uncharted territory for each of us, and the learning curve increases exponentially. The increase in demand not only must shorten the aging cycle of whiskey, at least temporarily (but probably longer), it also makes the manufacturer realize that prices can increase despite the decrease and even elimination of age statements.

    We are a part of the dynamic Brave New World of whiskey. We’ve got to navigate our own way through the challenges it presents and come to our own conclusions, because one thing’s for sure: none of us will ever enjoy vast quantities of old whiskey at the prices we remember, ever again in our lives. Best of luck to our children and grandchildren!

    • Jeff says:

      I do like your image of us all wandering forward together, essentially in the dark. What I don’t understand is people’s tolerance of whisky producers to keep us there with respect to age. Demand is high, but age statements are created in the marketing department, not the still or the warehouse. This information exists; the ability to share or withhold it has nothing to do with demand. If prices are indeed to continue to increase, so should the emphasis on the consumer’s right to know what they’re buying.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      I remember when many Scotch Malt Whiskies were sold with an 8 year old age statement, it didn’t seem to harm their sales then, would it now?

      • Mr Claw says:

        Well, until fairly recently 80s-90s many producers standard bottlings *were* NAS bottlings – often sold as ‘pure malt’, etc.

        I have some 60s-70s Glen Garioch, Glenfiddich, etc that bear no age statements. Then again, these would have been very cheap at that time (not so cheap for me buying them today!). Similarly in the 60s-70s many indie bottlers like G&M would put out malts at a roughly uniform 8YO. Once again, though, they would’ve been very cheap (a couple of £s).

        The points well raised by commenters here are that the industry (its marketers and the global corps that own most distillers nowadays) has been pushing “age” as a synonym for “quality” for a long time, and using it to push up prices; now that demand has outstripped supply, high prices are retained while we are now told age is unimportant. Indeed, some NAS whiskies cost a damned site more than the entry-level bottlings from the same distillery that *do* maintain an age-statement of, say, 10-12 years!

        Another reason that we have been given for higher prices (ignore, for a moment, what the UK or US Exchequer levies in taxes) is that we have been told that older whisky is effectively an investment for the industry: they can’t get a return on the distillate for years – all the while it sits in dunnage/bond costing them cash that they have to wait X-number of years before they can recoup.

        Personally I have had some excellent young whisky (the BBR 4.5YO Ledaig from a couple of years back springs immediately to mind – although that *stated its age*), so I think that young whisky *can* be great. Sometimes youthful exuberance, aggression and rough-edges are what’s charming about a whisky, and sometimes a whisky is so delicate that too much time in cask would kill it (e.g. I find I tend to like younger Rosebanks more than older ones on average). However, young whisky shouldn’t cost as much as older whisky as it doesn’t require the kind of warehousing costs that older whisky does.

        Frankly, I fear that the whisky industry is disappearing up its own a*se in much the same way that the Cognac industry already has – ridiculous crystal decanters, lack of age-statements, ludicrous marketing campaigns, etc. And this would not be surprising, given that the same Corps that bought-out and marketed-to-death the cognac maisons now own most of the whisky industry. Hey – if it worked for cognac it’ll work for whisky right?!

        If this were realised to the extent that it has been with France’s once noble spirit then it would be very sad indeed (how long until ‘liquid wood flavouring’ becomes an acceptable legal practise in whisky like it is in France?).

        Full and transparent labelling giving ages and proportions of casks used is really not too much to ask given the amount of space given over to spurious guff about how a whisky was “forged deep in the mysterious, misty mountains of X where only the brave warriors of yore dared to venture, using a time-honoured Y”, etc.

        As has also been pointed out, the move towards NAS whiskies does seem *deliberately* duplicitous since the message that age is important continues to be emphasised, whilst we are denied knowledge of what that *actual* age is! Hence the rise in terms such as ‘double-matured’, ‘extra-aged’, etc. Such terminology has long been found on obfuscating cognac labels. I also tend to find that the “age is not important” argument only seems to come out when NAS whiskies are questioned – .

        A little honesty is really not too much to ask – is it…?

        • Danny Maguire says:

          I remember Glenfiddich as an 8y.o. then it went N.A.S. then it went to a 12y.o. I’ve no doubt there will be others that have done the same.

  29. Dave Baxter says:

    Obviously this is a divisive issue, but clearly the whisky industry is NOT going down this road to benefit the consumer.

  30. Jeff says:

    So you’re already handwriting all this other information on the label, but leave off one number, which you acknowledge as important, on the basis of excessive labour and poor penmanship?

  31. DeanE says:

    Thanks for the article, John, and for the robust discussion everyone!

  32. John W says:

    Thanks, John. Great to see yet another piece about NAS and the surrounding controversy—it is not going away!!! I just think it is ironic that after decades of promoting older age more or less synonymous with increased quality, the industry is now saying en masse (there are exceptions), that age does not matter or even confuses people (those ignorant beings called “consumers”). However, even that is a half-truth from their side, as they will still happily market ultra-exclusive bottlings on basis of their (old or very old) age. Is this not rather hypocritical to say the least? Fact is that most producers (and not just in whisky) want to blend the truth as much as possible with some clever marketing and spin—for most people that is just fine. That is why these types of pieces have to keep coming!

  33. Thom says:

    Great article John – my thought is that the market will correct for this over time. This is a golden age of whisky, and whiskey, and production capacity is increasingly being maxed out or added by building new distilleries. In the US new distilleries are coming online every single month, globally new whisky distilleries are being built in many countries. Yes, it will be years before the price/quality ratio of those new producers hits the sweet spot but I would argue that the price rises we’ve seen year-over-year by the large producers and big brands is actually creating space for many of these new producers to survive, something that would not have been possible in the 80s or 90s.

    Additionally given the growth of the Bourbon consumption globally – the price of used barrels will decline over time making it more economical for new US distilleries to make Malt whiskey. Look at what happened with Beer in the US – the US was a wasteland of good beer in the 70s. Good beer almost always meant an import. But the explosion of craft beers over the last 20 years has now put the US into a leadership role as a producer of exceptional and interesting beers – to which the UK, Australia and other countries are responding to – thereby benefitting the consumer everywhere.

    Taking the long view – I think the bubble will burst and the consumer will vote with their dollars. The good NAS whiskies over time will survive and the dreck will fall by the wayside. Despite the best efforts of many producers to obscure information about a particular bottling or brand, the consumer has never had more access to tasting notes and reviews than now. (I’ll leave for another time the value of those reviews).

    To paraphrase the old wine quote – “Life is too short to drink bad whisky”. And price is a component of what makes a whisky good or bad, at least for me. If I buy an out-of-favor bourbon for $15, I’m much more forgiving than if I pay $75 for the current hot bottle.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      Couldn’t agree more, some of the nicer ones are the unsung heroes.

    • Jeff says:

      Re: “Despite the best efforts of many producers to obscure information about a particular bottling or brand, the consumer has never had more access to tasting notes and reviews than now.”

      While the above is true, and reviews might well aid people in voting with their dollars to let “the dreck” die on the vine in favour of the “good” NAS products, to me, this isn’t the issue at hand – it’s about the facts producers already owe to paying customers about what they are drinking. Personally, I want more facts, not more opinions, and the latter cannot replace the former because reviewers really “know” as little as everyone else about NAS products in terms of what goes into them.

      • sam k says:

        Though I agree with most of what you say, Jeff, I don’t feel that the producers “owe” their customers the detailed facts. It certainly would be nice, but there is no obligation on the part of the distillers to provide the information most of us would appreciate. As long as their products are selling, why rock the boat? This is not only pervasive in whiskey, but in most alcohol beverages.

        All consumable products in the U.S. are required to list every ingredient in order of greatest quantity to the least. They are also required to provide the nutritional facts of those products. Alcohol is not required to list those ingredients and they are forbidden to post any nutritional facts that might be associated with these libations.

        Until a few short years ago, American brewers were prohibited from even listing the alcohol content of their products, while wine and spirits were required to do the same. It’s a crazy, mixed-up world we live in.

        Oh, and this is post number 100 on this topic. I always like to see that number achieved in the discussions on John’s blog. Congratulations, all!

        • Jeff says:

          I appreciate the reply. They can keep the nutritional analysis, Sam, and I know producers ARE toeing the line with regard to the letter of the law, but, although we may disagree, I think real obligation in this case is for the marketplace, not the courts, to decide… and people will vote with their dollars if producers don’t measure up. Cheers!

          • Edward Willey III says:

            Too true, Jeff.

            I think that we are being pulled in 2 directions. On the one hand, age statements can help the customer to ensure – broadly speaking – that a producer is not passing off a 4 year old whisky as an ultra-premium bottle. On the other hand, NAS whiskies of a good quality probably should merit reasonably high prices. After all, the market should theoretically value superior NAS whiskies more highly than just decent age statement bottles, right? It makes sense. Is this risky for the consumer? Perhaps. Yet I don’t think that we should cry too loudly.

            I would draw a comparison to wine. We all know (or should) that selecting a wine is even more difficult for consumers than selecting a scotch or other whiskey. There are literally thousands of wine producers sometimes offering a dozen or more bottlings each, and their products naturally vary in quality, collectibility, and value from year to year. This represents literally millions of wine options on the market globally speaking at any one time. A consumer must do extensive research – or find an honest advisor – to get a great bottle for a decent price. Given that a wine bottle will provide around 6 servings (full, not tasting flights), and that most truly good (not great) bottles cost at least $40-50 each, even a “premium” whisky (around $100) is not necessarily a bad value. If a standard US bottle provides sixteen 1.5 ounce pours, a $100 whisky costs about $6.50 (after tax) per serving. Yet a $75 California cabernet would cost you about TWICE that amount per serving. My delicious bottle of Black Bull 30 – surely the peer of a $200-250 cabernet from California or perhaps an Antinoria Solaia – costs about the same amount per serving as the $75 California cab!

            Using this comparison, it seems obvious to me that whisky still represents a good value overall for the consumer. Would I prefer a less industrial approach to whisky production and marketing than I see in Scotland (and other places) these days? Yes. Will I stop drinking whisky? No.

          • Jeff says:

            Very interesting points, and many I agree with, but there are two where I have reservations. On the point of the extra value consumers should place upon quality NAS products, this is essentially the world we have now, with producers commanding relatively high prices for many of these expressions and customers being told to play along. Yes, this is risky for the consumer, made more so by the intentional withholding of information attached to these offerings. Again, there are good NAS products, but none is good, or somehow made better, simply because it doesn’t bear the age statement it COULD otherwise carry (NAS itself being a type of label, not a type of whisky). For you, pricing maybe should be based on a theoretical evaluation of quality for NAS bottles vs. decent age statements. For me, I prefer to have some information about the contents and the relative cost of production so that, in turn, I can have some idea what margin I am being asked to pay on top of that production cost FOR quality. Even a great NAS bottle can be significantly overpriced and it’s overpricing that’s my central concern. If producers have discovered a magic formula, through the inclusion of large amounts of relatively young whisky, to somehow make exceptional expressions at relatively low cost (an objective value), I don’t know why the benefits of this magic should be theirs alone and not passed on to the consumer in the form of lower prices, instead of producers trying to justify higher prices on the basis of quality (a subjective value). Or, even to look at it from the producer’s point of view, if a product’s quality is thought to justify a high price (and, potentially, an even higher profit margin), then let it do so ON the basis of its quality alone and not partly on that of the “benefit of the doubt” often conferred by obscuring age and production information through NAS. And as overpricing is a definite possibility for great NAS bottles (or, more probably, the entire point of this type of marketing), this is also certainly true for other more “risky” NAS offerings as well (passing off a 4-year-old whisky as an ultra-premium bottle), which is why we need (and deserve) age statements or other even more extensive types of information.

            The second point that gives me pause, personally, is that of comparing the whisky market to that of wine in that it might cloud the issue as much as it provides context. The cost per serving of drinking wine vs. that of drinking whisky says nothing about whether any changes in pricing are justified in either case, only how they stand with relation to each other. Taking this linkage further, price increases in one market could be used to justify price increases in the other (hey, we’re still a better value than wine), which, to me, is hardly the point either. To say with confidence that “whisky still represents a good value overall for the consumer” is based, at least in part, in this context, on being able to say that “wine represents a fair value” – which is something you do not say (but not because you wouldn’t or can’t), but on which I have no opinion. I think the relevance of the one market to the other is tenuous at best and only as relevant as one perceives and considers drinking wine as a direct substitute for drinking whisky (and vice versa) – which, for me, is no contest.

  34. Great article! I find the age topic interesting. On one hand, I think a lot of folks like to have a bottle of “the old stuff” as a way to seem a bit elitist. It’s funny to see someone get caught up about the age of a whiskey, rather than the complex taste and what it delivers.

    I couldn’t agree more about the downside of marketing, and watching a whiskey start to nosedive and mess with a perfectly good blend.

    I am all for claiming an age on a bottle, to me it’s like that batch’s personal history that I get to experience. It just shouldn’t be the sole focus of a brand. Stick to quality blends/batches even if the “age” displayed ends up being young.

  35. Edward Willey III says:

    There are a couple notable examples of NAS and very young whiskies on the market with consistently high quality. I am of course talking about Ardbeg Uigeadail and the numerous releases of Kilchoman. I’ve yet to taste a bottle of Uggie that I didn’t like. I also have really enjoyed numerous bottles of Kilchoman. A group of us here in Dallas recently went crazy over a special Binny’s cask of Kilchoman that was worth every bit of 80 some dollars..and was not even 5 years old. Likewise, the fairly young Ardbeg Corryvreckan has varied in taste since coming out in 2009 but is still good – I think that the latest version is smoother and more delicate than past bottles and would drink the you know what out of it even if the 2009 bottle was a standout and superior whisky.

    As far as Macallan is concerned, the quality has already gone downhill so much that I am not totally convinced it would matter much. The difference between a 1990s bottle of 12 and the 12 on the shelf today is remarkable. I’ve had drams from newer bottles that tasted of sulfur. Moreover, my friend heard firsthand from the national brand ambassador the true story of how/why they created Fine Oak range. I do like the 15 well enough, but at that price point I can think of better bottles.

  36. Randy Perrelet says:

    Something that I read at the WhiskyIntelligence.com site:

    “Bruichladdich has confirmed plans to double its Scotch whisky production to meet distribution targets set by new owner Rémy Cointreau. The Islay distillery will increase its annual output from 750,000 litres to 1.5 million litres by moving to a 24-hour production for five days a week.”

    Yikes. Sounds like each bottle should not only include an age statement, but also the time of day.

    • Jeff says:

      Yeah, it’s easy to imagine the high-level meeting around this:

      “Yes, 24/5 – and you may have to go 24/7 down the road – your marketing here has worked far beyond anything even WE could imagine.”

      “Sure, but I think we need to talk about that – right now, our positioning is sort of that of an outlaw craft distillery that runs against convention.”

      “So? That’s good, it’s what brought the distillery to this point of success – great job.”

      “But the website still says: At Bruichladdich, we believe the whisky industry has been stifled by industrialisation and self-interest – huge organisations have developed that require a stable status quo to ensure that their industrial processes can run to maximum efficiency, producing the maximum “product” with the minimum input and variation, all to the lowest unit price.”

      “Well, websites are websites – keep it, junk it, change it – but get production ramped up. “

  37. alligatorchar says:

    As the saying goes…where there’s mystery, there’s margin.

    • Jeff says:

      Exactly – Producers want consumers to give them the “benefit of the doubt” as to the validity of their pricing on NAS bottles, but it’s doubt that producers themselves create in the first place, and for this purpose, by simply withholding information.

  38. Raj says:

    John
    As you are aware we represent a number of distilleries that do not use Age Statements. Their decision to do so is based on the fact that their whiskies at 3/4/5 years is a quality whisky that can be enjoyed as is. Their decision is further driven by trying to compete with a general consumer mindset that a whisky needs to be 10/12/15 years old before it is good enough to drink.
    At trade shows, blind tastings and master classes folks are impressed in what they taste – tasting is believing. I am also confident that most of these newer distilleries will continue to produce and release whiskies that are consistent. Once you have loyal consumers the last thing a distillery should do is change their formula.

    • Michelle C. says:

      Great. Then I expect the distillers to stand behind their product and place an age statement on the products in question.

  39. Randy Perrelet says:

    A little something from WhiskeyIntelligence.com:

    Bob Dalgarno, Whisky Maker, The Macallan, said, “The Macallan world of colour is the true inspiration of the 1824 Series. Using colour to drive and define a whisky differs dramatically from the conventional age approach, allowing us to explore different casks and take a more flexible approach to our stock. We have been able to work creatively with the full range of matured stock available, rather than working to a pre-determined character based on age. For me, the key thought in this range is that a great single malt doesn’t need to be 30 years old to taste like a 30 year old.”
    By drawing on his broadest range of skills in cask selection, Bob has been unshackled by the need to draw on casks selected first and foremost for their age. His expert skills ensure consistency through the effective management and selection of the casks which provide the spectrum of natural colour and character essential to The Macallan.

    Sounds like Steve Reeves in “Hercules Unchained”, doesn’t it?

    • When I look at the recent ads for the “Macallan world of colours of the 1824 Series”, I cannot help but wonder if marketing first decided on the palette of colors, and then the blenders had to use various colorings to match the colors of the packaging.

      • Michelle C. says:

        With the rising trend of NAS scotches, do you suppose caramel coloring will make a comeback, considering the percentage of younger single malts within an expression will increase rapidly within the foreseeable future?

  40. To me the trend towards NAS is fine. Some of my favorites are NAS: Nikka From The Barrel, High West, Glenmorangie Sonalta.

    However, the trend toward more expensive NAS is really annoying.

    Age may not mean quality, but it means expense to stock, warehouse and pay interest to the banks. Young Whiskies have cost the producer less money, and that should come through in the price, not the reverse.

    In my mind Whisky is akin to jewelry. One does not need gold to make beautiful jewelry. but if I buy a piece of jewelry made of copper, then I will expect it to cost less (or at least no more) than a comparable piece made of 18K gold.

  41. Michelle C. says:

    I find the NAS trend disturbing.

    As some of the sharper commentators on this thread have noted, NAS labels allow for flavor shifts to occur WITHOUT notifying the consumer (this is already well documented with NAS single malt scotchs). In effect, changing the product while the distillers try to maintain the illusion that the expression in question has not changed at all (i.e. the labels does not change, which implies consistency the way that an Age Statements does).

    I enjoy surprises on my birthday, not in my single malts ! I want consistency from bottle to bottle of ANY given expression, not dismay on my palatte because the flavor is off.

    I have nothing against young scotches, but I also like to know what I’m getting and an age statement (region being a given) is a solid indicator of what I’m purchasing

  42. Wolf Wittenburg says:

    All fine, the discussion of NAS vs age listing. I see Jim Murray rating a 12 year old of a certain distillery high a few years back and not-so-high now. How can you determine which of the two bottlings you are looking at on the shelf of the retailer without tracing the bottle’s timeline? Is ‘age’ really that much clearer to indicate quality? Any suggestions, answers?

  43. Danny Maguire says:

    Wolf, Age is not an indicator of quality, it is however a pretty accurate indicator of cost. The longer you keep a whisky in the warehouse the more it costs you, doesn’t necessarily make it better. With regard to your comments on Jim Murray, if the process and ageing hasn’t changed then it’s his opinion that has. I don’t really have much faith in any reviewer because I like to make up my own mind, but him least of all.

  44. Wolf Wittenburg says:

    Thanks, Danny, yes ultimately it comes down your own smell and taste perception, but just in case there was a change, maybe they did use other older whiskies. How could you determine what is what, seeing two bottles with the same age beside each other?

  45. Danny Maguire says:

    Most bottles, at least from the major producers, have a bottling code on them. Short of knowing those codes, you can’t. It would be interesting to get hold of a bottle of the whisky you referred to from each of the years concerned and do a comparison. Might just tellus more about Mr Murray than it does the whisky.

  46. Wolf Wittenburg says:

    You are right about the code, checked a few bottles in my cabinet of different producers,although it requires some sleuthing and at times a magnifying glass. But as you say, without knowing the code you can’t tell. I I guess all we can know is that when you see an age of say 10 years, the youngest whisky in that bottle is not less than 10 years old, the rest: quality, consistency, is up to the skills of the blender…
    You could still have changes because of changes in the process or, as an earlier blogger posted, sulphur which passed undetected, by the way one of the bogeybears of Mr. Murray.
    So an age statement is just that then, it says nothing more, as you rightly pointed out. Maybe the producers should also state clearly, not in code, the date and ID of the bottling. That would provide more clarity and do away with speculation on alleged differences in the same types of whisky and of the same age and bottled by the same producer.

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