No-Age-Statement Whisky's Bold Statement of Taste
Are 9 in 10 whisky fans wrong about no-age-statement Scotch...?
HALF-A-DECADE ago Chivas Regal advised Scotch drinkers to: "Look for the number. Know the age. Know whisky," writes Tom Bruce-Gardyne for WhiskyInvestDirect.
The 12 year-old brand's global 'Age Matters' campaign followed a survey of 2,000 whisky drinkers in nine countries from Brazil to China. Apparently over 90% believed that "age is an important indicator of quality" and that – while all Scotch whisky must be cask-matured for 3 years minimum to earn the name – "older whiskies are superior".
Indeed, 89% of those drinkers claimed they actively look for an age statement when buying whisky.
Five years on however, a growing band of single malts have joined the NAS camp – or 'no age statement' whiskies. Those producers are therefore touting a rather different message. In this case, "Don't look for the number, because you won't find it."
Removing the age statement from whisky labels is proving controversial, not least because it goes against received wisdom. For decades the industry promoted an 'older the better' mentality and backed it up with pricing. It became set in stone that single malts and posh blends begin at around 12 years old, and steadily improve further thereafter.
If that 2010 survey was accurate, educating drinkers about the sanctity of age appears to have worked. So why the sudden U-turn? Well, in the words of Harold Macmillan: "Events dear boy."
There has been an explosion in demand for premium aged whiskies that few in the industry were able to predict. Malts like Macallan have become a victim of their own success. So it has been slowly erasing the digits from its labels to become a NAS whisky, with its 1824 Series based on colour – starting with 'Gold' from where you can trade up to 'Amber', 'Sienna' and 'Ruby'.
The official line is that it's not about any shortage of whisky stocks, but about releasing the creativity of Macallan's whisky maker from the shackles of age. And it is perfectly true that age is no guarantee of quality, because that depends on the quality of the wood used during maturation. Spirit filled into a knackered barrel with nothing left to give will never properly mature. A barrel fresh from Kentucky after two years full of Bourbon, in contrast, will age a Scotch whisky much faster.
Today most single malts have NAS variants, from Jura Superstition to Talisker Storm. In some duty-free shops they apparently account for half the sales. Macallan's colour-coded approach feels more mainstream in its home market too. So much so, that today the cheapest age-statement Macallan left in the UK is the 18 year-old retailing at £135.
Yet in Asia and America, most bottles still carry a number. There are dark mutterings on the whisky blogosphere about 'age drift' – where a premium blend or malt will gradually reduce the average age of its whiskies while retaining the same label and price. There's an obvious incentive to bottle younger, with those pesky 'angels' at Scotland's cask warehouses hoovering up the equivalent of 150 million bottles of Scotch a year through evaporation. But how far distillers can push it will depend on the strength of their brands.
There are certainly reservations in the industry about all this. To abandon the well-accepted, if imperfect benchmark of age demands huge trust amongst consumers. Having taught whisky drinkers to value age statements like the 89% surveyed above, the industry is now saying "Forget all that – the future is NAS".
Will whisky drinkers swallow it? I'm not so sure.
Award-winning drinks columnist and author Tom Bruce-Gardyne began his career in the wine trade, managing exports for a major Sicilian producer. Now freelance for 20 years, Tom has been a weekly columnist for The Herald and his books include The Scotch Whisky Book and the new Scotch Whisky Treasures.
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