Oh dear, what has become of No Age Statement whisky. Once this proud category was defined by staples such as Usher’s Green Stripe, Balvenie Tun 1401 and the Sainsbury’s house blend. Leading whisky writers even began to write obituaries for the misleading age statements slapped on bottles like Loch Dhu 10 year old, Macallan 18 year old or cans of Scottish Spirits 3 year old single grain Scotch whisky, age statements that are surpassed in meaninglessness only by mentions of the types of casks a whisky was matured in.
But now NAS whisky has not only become subject of vigourous rants which you undoubteldy have noticed. It has even become the ridicule of the whisky world, being used as a subject for April Fools jokes by more than one whisky blogger.
And also the omnipresent Dr. Nick Morgan, Diageo’s “Head of Whisky Outreach” – a job title that never fails to make me chuckle -, has weighed in now. He is quoted in a recent Esquire article about the boom-induced shortage of aged whisky we are currently experiencing. By the way, this article is suprisingly good for a non-whisky publication, given that so many others are full of factual errors and inaccuracies.
“There is a huge demand from retailers for novelty to try to keep the energy and excitement in the category. For most brand owners, in terms of single malt, your core brand is your 10 to 12 year old expression and it’s going to be 85 to 95 percent of your business. All the other stuff is about raising awareness.”
Of course the statement is generalised and also includes the fancy expensive stuff. The logic behind this is that people may look at the shiny decanters and say “I can’t afford this but maybe I’ll try their standard”.
But of course this statement also is valid for the affordable end of the whisky market, and the “huge demand from retailers for novelty” part is strikingly reminding of the passage of the recent anti-rant on Caskstrength that describes the pressure from Travel Retail to continually come up with new exclusives.
Here you have it, black on white, by one of the most influential figures in the whisky busines between Venus and Betelgeuse: All those fancy-named “inventive” NAS bottlings released by distilleries in rapid fire mode are just… novelties. They are marketing tools themselves, designed to direct consumers towards their bread-and-butter whiskies, their workhorse bottlings. Bloggers who are sent samples or are invited to launch events of those whiskies are degraded to second order marketing tools; their task is to promote a marketing tool designed to promote the core brand.
These novelty whiskies don’t need to be very good. They are only supposed to stimulate interest. Of course they should not be so bad that they act as a repellent, but making them too good would risk to dilute the significance of the core brand. And reading between the lines it becomes clear that the “we get rid of age statements in order to be able to pick the best casks” claim loses further credibility. Would they really give away their best casks for promotion of the whisky that is most important for their business? So we should take them for what they are, advertisements for the proper stuff, not more and not less.