Age statements: how important are they?April 9th, 2013
Yesterday 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.