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The Ageless Revolution

by Oliver Klimek on February 27, 2013

A spectre is haunting the whisky world – the spectre of No Age Statement whisky.

This week seeks the introduction of a new Scotch whisky range from Highland Park, the Warrior Series for travel retail. Yet again the bottles will not carry age statements. Instead they are named after ancient Norse heroes. In the press release it says:

“The range is driven collectively by their flavour, for the first time allowing Highland Park to take the palate on a taste journey like no other.

Initially exclusive to European Travel Retail, the Warrior Series offers a spectrum of flavour grounded in Highland Park’s gently smoky but surprisingly sweet character.  Beginning with lighter vanilla and citrus flavours and moving to more complex, richer and sweeter flavours, the palate experiences a full flavour journey from start to finish.

This taste journey has been achieved by increasing the quantity of European oak sherry seasoned casks as you move up the range thus delivering the distinctive Highland Park signature taste.  Due to the premium nature of these specific casks, they are comparatively scarce and their contents rare.”

Reading this I felt reminded of Macallan’s revamped “1824″ range. Macallan too center their new philosophy around the scarcity of sherry casks. The difference is that they have a rigorous “darker is better” approach, while the colours of the first three new Highland Parks look astonishingly similar.

Here we see the continuation of a trend that has been going on for a while. And the travel retail market seems to be a particularly popular sandbox for testing the reception of NAS whiskies. Johnnie Walker with the new Explorers’ Club, Bowmore with Springtide and 100 Proof, Auchentoshan with Springwood and Heartwood, Balvenie with the recent Triple Wood range and so on.

You read a lot about wood these days.

In a recent Pete & Jack cartoon on Whiskyfun NAS is translated with “No Aged Stock”. And this really hits the spot. What other than this can be the reason for the intruduction of more and more NAS whiskies? The global whisky market is booming, especially in Asia, and producers have a hard time to cope with rising demand. Building new distilleries like Roseisle or the new Imperial is one thing. But people want their whisky now, so the distillers have to find a way to supply them.

For decades whisky makers had been telling us “older is better”. Which is of course only a very crude approximation of reality. But in the good old days at least the price of a whisky was rather strictly correlated with its age. After all you can sell two 10 year olds in a 20 year interval, so a 20 year old has to be at least twice as expensive. Paying more for an older whisky is an acknowledgement for this logical consequence, regardless of the actual quality in the glass.

Now that time has become too precious for whisky, it is the wood that has to do the job. Focus on wood extraction over the spirit/air interaction – which is impossible to speed up – is the driving force behind most if not all of these new whisky releases. The whisky market is flooded with pseudo-mature oak extract, and all kinds of reasons are presented why the more expensive NAS whiskies have to be more expensive than the cheaper ones. Because the age has lost any relevance.

In a time when consumers demand more and more information about the ingredients for industrial food products, the whisky industry takes the exact opposite route. Instead of giving us proper information about age, colouring or chill-filtration on the label, they tell us Norse legends and fairy tales about colour.

Of course the buyers of whisky play their part too. So often I hear and read from whisky ‘connoisseurs’ that they don’t care about what’s in the bottle as long as it tastes good. I wonder if they have this philosphy also when they buy their food.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Gal Granov February 27, 2013 at 10:34 am

Well oliver, this trend has been going on for quite some time now, and a lot of big names are playing it (macallan with the colors series, HP etc).
Bascially i dont see any bad in it, as long as the end product is of high quality, and this is not just a way for selling young whisky for way too much.

One thing i would ask that if they are going to be feeding us NAS by the kilo in coming months, at least they can bottle them at a higher ABV (say 50%) so we’re not just loosing here but gaining something. younger whisky can easily be bottled at 50% and costs should be lower too.

what say you ?

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Johnny Berggreen February 27, 2013 at 10:51 am

I was, strangely enough, thinking of you Gal, while reading the article. What your views might be on this matter. ;)

I’m a tad surprised though, as I would, at least, have expected you to point out that, while young whisky might not, necessarily, be bad, the price should relfect the age though.

Seems destilleries, as I see it, release younger and younger whisky, and still price it, as if it were 10+ bottlings.

I have nothing against young whisky, as long as the quality is there, but I do mind paying for it, as if it was an older bottling.

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Johnny Berggreen February 27, 2013 at 10:54 am

Uhm, I’ll add an addendum to my previous poist, seeing as you actually DID mention costs. My bad.

Mayhaps one should not comment on things, while working at the same time ;)

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Gal February 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm
Nick Kiest February 27, 2013 at 10:56 am

I think there are two different things going on with NAS. One is the issue you talk about above. But the other is the use of punchy, young, and often peated casks to blend with older, calmer stocks. Arran’s Devil’s Punchbowl, for example, with a mix of 16 to 6 year old casks, tasting wonderful (IMHO). If you gave that an age statement, it would be “6 years”, but it tastes a lot better than that. Ardbeg and others are doing similar things to great critical acclaim.

Although I understand the legal reason for requiring the age statement to be the youngest whiskey included, I think it has limited the good blenders. And after years of whiskeys being released with nothing more than a single number as their “name”, many consumers don’t know how to tell anything besides age numbers.

So these distilleries are left with two options: The one Arran took with Devil’s Punchbowl, and list the age and provenance of every barrel, informing the consumer, OR, keep the product labelling simple and call it a made up name and process, as detailed above.

I know what we whiskey geeks would prefer, but I am not sure that approach works as well for some of the target market.

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Oliver Klimek February 27, 2013 at 11:06 am

Take Kilchoman for example. Everybody knows that the whisky is young because the distillery is young. It is excellent and they can charge high prices for 3, 4, or 5 year old age statement whisky. There are some excellent 5 year old Ledaaig single casks out there, Master of Malt recently issued a 5 yo Aultmore. It is possible.

If the industry really is serious about consumer education, they can explain it. There was a time when distilleries proudly wrote “over 5 years” on the label.

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Bernhard Rems February 27, 2013 at 11:17 am

I think that the NAS trend is not a good one, since – as you said it, Oliver – it is used to cloak what is in a whisky. It’s even worse than that finishing thing, as it even cloaks the use of finished casks.
As The Devil’s punch bowl was mentioned: They did a clever and good thing – they were upfront with what was in the bottle. I liked that (and I liked the dram, btw).
My dream would be that the whisky industry changes the rules about how labeling has to be done: On each bottle, the whiskys used should be mentioned (16yo 35%, 12yo 50%, 6yo Sauternes finish (3 months) 15%).
Thankfully, there are the single casks from independent bottlers – my main source of enjoyment. Without them, my interest in whisky would fade…

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kallaskander February 27, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Hi there,

“In a recent Pete & Jack cartoon on Whiskyfun NAS is translated with “No Aged Stock”. And this really hits the spot. What other than this can be the reason for the intruduction of more and more NAS whiskies?”

Don’t forget good old greed and abstract terms like “faster cash-flow” or “earlier return of interest” and whatever the bookkeepers and controllers think of when you say “whisky”.

The problem is that the whole whisky industry is moving away from the things whisky needs to keep its status quo as the cult drink it is.
You say no? You say it is a contradiction of terms?

The controllers who are the real powers within the drinks giants who control the whisky industry are on cloud nine in Cloud Cuckoo Land and dream of ever expanding markets and never ending demand. Who cares if they steer their CEOs away from the original nature of the product they sell. As long as it sells, they are right, right? For a controller the world is in order as long as the shareholder is happy.

But we can learn and take hope from their mistakes. Not all calculations and equations the controllers set up do work in reality.

Take the Macallan fine oak range for example. The above mentioned new 1824 range is a confession that something went wrong with this best laid plan.
Now owner Edrington tries to go one step further and makes things worse. We will see how this NAS nonsense will work out.

But it is not only the NAS problem. It is the pricing of whisky in general that makes whisky customers and whsky producers drift apart more and more.

And it is not only the drinks giants. Other smaller companies like Ian McLeod with their new Glengoyne range have a lot to account for with their new pricing.
Why ist the step from the Glengoyne 17 to the new 18yo a step of 16.- € a bottle? Because of the fancy marekting yarn? Spare it and sell your new range a a more sensible price point.

Greetings
kallaskander

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Jeff April 13, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Exactly, what about greed?! Many commentators, even those who take exception to NAS marketing and want more bottle information, are simply taking it “as read” that NAS is the new trend because of a lack of aged stock. Demand is high, and producers WOULD have you believe they are resorting to these products because of low stocks, but few mention how (coincidentally?) lucrative NAS bottlings are – even as, at the same time, they are quiet as to why a lot of NAS is priced similar to many 10s and 12s. The margins on these products, using as they do a lot of whisky which is 10 years or less, are HUGE compared to the entry-level age statement expressions they are replacing.

Gal’s comment, “Bascially I don’t see any bad in it, as long as the end product is of high quality, and this is not just a way for selling young whisky for way too much” is simply too optimistic to inspire any enthusiasm for NAS in me going forward. Because even if you don’t believe that this is what’s already going on (and I do believe it), the industry already clearly sees the potential to debase quality for profit through NAS, and it’s just a matter of time until the beancounters throw the switch.

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Oliver Klimek April 14, 2013 at 8:23 am

I just noticed John Hansell has published a critical blog post about NAS whisky a few days ago that shares a similar view. http://www.whiskyadvocateblog.com/2013/04/09/age-statements-how-important-are-they/

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two-bit cowboy February 28, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Great analysis, Oliver. As ever. Good, rational points from all responders too.

Arran raised the bar to a new high with Devil’s Punch Bowl. I hope we’ll see others follow that lead. No gimmickry, but rather full disclosure.

Like Bernhard, I am coming to appreciate, more and more, the independent bottlers. They tell us the age, they tend to bottle at least at 46%, and many are giving us cask strength. Do we pay more for that? You bet. But we do so without feeling we’re being bilked with colors and fairy tales by the comptrollers and marketing geeks.

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ribonucleic February 28, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Your “what are they putting in our food” analogy is misleading. It’s not a question of whether the company is adding a chemical that does who-knows-what. It’s a question of whether they’re making the french fries with 2 month old Maine potatoes or 3 month old Idaho potatoes. Would you fault the french fry eater for not caring as long as they were pleased with the taste and price?

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Oliver Klimek February 28, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Of course there is no health concern with whisky, but I don’t think your french fries analogy does justice to the issue (side note: You can use some pretty nasty fats for frying, and I would not be too keen to feast on those even it it tastes good).

For a $1 bag of fries I would not care too much about the pedigree of the potatoes, that’s right. But when spending big bucks on a bottle of booze I do prefer to know what exactly my money buys me.

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WhiskyBrother Marc March 1, 2013 at 8:27 am

I don’t find anything wrong with NAS releases but agree the price should be adjusted, and like Gal I think they must be bottled at a higher ABV. To me it seems NAS releases used to be more exciting, but now they just seem like watered down boring examples of the older aged expressions in the same ranges.

If we imagine another scenario: due to lack of aged stocks, if distilleries didn’t want to release NAS whisky, surely their current aged expressions would increase quite dramatically in price? I wonder if whisky drinkers would prefer that? (Obviously the solution is a balanced approached, which some do not seem to be doing.)

(Just to clarify, Oliver you mention Balvenie Triple Wood as an example of travel retail NAS expressions, but all three of the Triple Woods releases have age statements…?)

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Oliver Klimek March 1, 2013 at 8:38 am

Indeed you are right with the Balvenies, Marc. sorry for the confussion.

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Barry March 1, 2013 at 8:39 pm

I have tasted quite a few NAS whiskies that were excellent. In fact, I often find age statements irrelevant to quality as well as price. The trend will only continue as more craft distilleries (i.e. true micro distilleries that produce less in a year than the big producers likely spill in a day) release their young whiskies. We agree, however, that giving the consumer more information is important. We realize, however, that putting a lot of detail on the label is not always practical, especially for single cask offerings (other than cask number and bottle number). We think we have found a solution, however. We have put our entire inventory (albeit tiny) of aging casks online, including casking strength, cask type, etc.. We will keep it up to date with bottling information and tasting notes and even allow customers to add their own impressions. You can see what we have started and will build upon at http://www.caskbook.com.

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Jeff April 14, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Saying, as you do “I often find age statements irrelevant to quality as well as price”, you must shop in far different stores than I do, because I almost ALWAYS pay more for a 21 than for an 18 than for a 15 than for a 12. Only NAS products are immune to this system of pricing, but only because producers do not, by definition, disclose age information. It seems I’m supposed to pay more for young whisky because age DOESN’T matter and more for old whisky because age DOES matter. And it’s because whisky producers think they’re clever enough to sell me on this nonsense, and because they think I’m stupid enough to believe it, that I have the reciprocal level of respect for producers that I do today.

There are good NAS offerings out there, but they are not good because they are NAS – because NAS is a type of label, not a type of whisky – and all could carry age statements (the producers DO have the information), but they don’t because admitting the age of the young whisky many of these bottlings are padded with would (and in many cases, should) hurt sales, and because of the further questions it would raise. If you admit that the minimum age of the whisky in your $80 bottle is 7 years, the question then becomes “how MUCH of it is 7 y.o.?” and, for all the information producers supposedly WANT to give consumers, the industry doesn’t want to answer those questions.

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politicalidiot March 3, 2013 at 7:31 pm

NAS is fine but I will never be the first to buy. I’ll wait until you fellas, with your huge net worths, buy and tell me how good or mediocre it is.

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