Diageo Officially Confirms NAS Whisky Is Just A Marketing Stunt

by Oliver Klimek on April 1, 2014

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.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

kallaskander April 1, 2014 at 10:35 am

Hi there,

who is to decide what is fact and what is fiction 8-) ?

Be careful what you wish for… it might come true!

Greetings
kallaskander

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Gal Granov April 1, 2014 at 10:50 am

happy April fool’s oliver ;)

good 1

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Oliver Klimek April 1, 2014 at 10:58 am

Gotcha! The joke here was that it wasn’t a joke.

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Jeff April 1, 2014 at 11:53 am

Very revealing stuff indeed.

Taken at face value, Nick Morgan’s comment, “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” has even more far-reaching implications. It’s not just NAS-labeled bottles, but also high-priced, high prestige stunts like the Paterson Collection which are performing this promotional role. The message of NAS is that “it’s OK, but you should be drinking the 12”, while the message of the stunt bottles is “on your return to planet Earth, you might want to try the 12 – it comes from the same distillery and you can actually find and buy it.” The folks at NAS launch parties ARE just marketing tools, but how much more so in the case of those who promote the hoopla over crystal-decantered stuff that almost no one can even obtain?

Some other interesting points from the article:

“The dirty little secret of the Scotch industry is they’ve become addicted to high prices, but they’ve run out of old whisky,” says Ian Buxton, the whisky expert and author of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die. I always like reading Ian Buxton as he’s one of the few who, no matter how much he likes the industry or sometimes holds his tongue because of that, he refrains from lying for it. Buxton’s dead on: the industry’s convinced that their product should, and needs, to generate huge revenue EVEN AS it runs out of product which is capable of doing so on the basis of quality. And so…. enter the marketing people with silly legends substituting for age statements, “colour means character” and all the other reality-bending bullshit that’s necessary to prop up the demand, and prices, for a lot of whisky that, in the past, would have been sent to blends before seeing a bottle as a single malt.

“Remember that age doesn’t mean quality, it means rarity.” – well, no, it means more than that; it means cask influence and, properly done, it’s usually the determining factor between whiskies which are just competent in terms of still operation and those which are exceptional as a finished product. Age and cask influence does matter, that’s why the shortage of quality casks to render that influence has become critical in whisky quality’s decline.

Keep up the good work, Oliver!

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Oliver Klimek April 1, 2014 at 1:20 pm

The Ian Buxton quote is actually one of the finest remarks about the industry ever made by a professional whisky writer.

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kallaskander April 3, 2014 at 11:29 am

Hi there,

right. And it translates as: We have pampered our shareholders with high dividends selling aged and mature whisky for premium prices.
Now we have to create a premium priced segment of the whisky market without having whiskies to match any longer.

Macallanisation I called that in a forum today. Sell young for high prices as if it were old. Diageo learning from Edrington Group with their new Mortlachs. Overpriced new entry bottling and older expressions priced out of the common market.

Greetings
kallaskander

Reply

kallaskander April 1, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Hi there,

hi Jeff, I posted this at edinburgwhiskyblog as well

http://misswhisky.com/2014/03/28/mortlach-new-age/

But after reading the Esquire piece I think the quotes of the head of whisky outrage of Diageo quoted herin are in line. Or are they?

Greetings
kallaskander

Reply

Jeff April 2, 2014 at 3:04 am

You could look at Nick Morgan’s comments as extensions of the same perspective: NAS/prestige bottles are a promotional sideshow to Diageo’s mainstay single malts and its single malts are a promotional sideshow to Diageo’s blending division. That said, the manure piles up high and fast: talk of “dishonour”, whisky being “underpriced” and the potential scandal of just “giving whisky away” – as if there was EVER any danger of that.

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kallaskander April 3, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Hi there,

and there is something we should not overlook.
The steady increasing of distilling capacity (Roseisle and many new stills build into established distilleries) and more and more 3yo single malt coming from these extentions has freed malt capacity in the smaller and sought after malts.

That is one of the reasons Diageo can offer youngish Mortlach at all. Three years old Mortlach in JW Red Label can be replaced with Roseisle malt which clears the way for two new NAS expressions of the well known and highly in demand Mortlach.
Top that with two prestigeous Mortlach offerings of 18 and 25 yo and – according to Mr Morgan – you have publicity and macallanesque premiums of a malt with standing and a name.

We will see more bottlings of established Diageo malts that hitherto have only made appearances in the Rare Malts and Flora and Fauna most probably.
That would be good and welcome news… if it were not for the prices asked.

Greetings
kallaskander

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kallaskander April 16, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Hi there,

a bit late but profound.

“The NAS trend has been motivated by the shortage of aged whisky stocks – as unforeseen levels of demand have progressively exceeded supply. These products are motivated less by the desire to make good whisky than by the drive to maintain volume growth. It’s a hard, understandable reality, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it. Macallan has now joined this circus with 1824, its first core range of NAS whiskies. More brutal still, they’ve discontinued their aged range, including the magnificent Sherry Oak, in a variety of “lesser” markets, South Africa being one. Bitter tears…as I’m sure Michael Hutchence would sing if he was alive to see this.

One of my main problems with NAS whiskies is that they’re often (not always) being used to harvest excessive margins. Flavour is subtle, and, very importantly, it’s usually only experienced post purchase, so it’s not the clearest, most reference-able indicator of value, especially for the casual whisky lover. Big brands like the Macallan, freed from the shackles of an age statement, are able to use their marketing power to extract more profit from multi-vintage liquid than if they sold the components separately – great for them, not so good for us.”

From http://wordsonwhisky.com/2014/02/03/a-year-in-whisky/

Greetings
kallaskander

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Jeff April 16, 2014 at 8:41 pm

It is very good comment and the reasoning, and the deconstruction of it, is very valid: if you take relatively young whisky, add some older stuff (mostly for the marketing point of being able to say it’s in there somewhere), withhold age and content proportion information, and then promote the living hell out it, you can sell it for more than what the market would command if the elements were separate and people actually knew what it was they were buying.

That said, it’s surprising that the writer didn’t have far more along these lines to say about Glenlivet Alpha, the ULTIMATE “pig-in-a-poke” expression: a game show bottle where the point is trying to guess what you bought and the prize is finding out whether or not Glenlivet has made a complete fool of you – sort of like a Dan Brown book.

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kallaskander May 6, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Hi there,
late but revealing.
http://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2014/04/top-10-no-age-statement-scotch-whiskies/9/

“The Macallan M

The-Macallan-M-ImperialeEdrington got tongues wagging when it released the luxurious £3,000 Scotch The Macallan M as part of its no-age-statement 1824 series.

Only 1,750 lalique crystal decanters of the Scotch were launched in October last year.

“It is important for us to be able to sustain the range going forward,” said David Cox, director of fine and rare whiskies at The Macallan, “Age is important to us. Our whiskies need to be old, but they also need to be sustainable. Ultimately, we need to manage our stock as much as we can.”

A six-litre decanter of The Macallan M broke the Guinness World Record for the most expensive whisky to ever be sold at auction when it went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in January this year – fetching an astonishing £381,620 (US$628,000)”.

Now that is interesting….. age matters now and then.

Greetings
kallaskander

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Jeff May 6, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Age matters… if talking about it will enhance, rather than discourage, sales. Colour matters… when there’s no real age to speak of because you have to sell it on something. For Macallan, age is now important to them… if it’s important to you, the customer, and Macallan’s whisky now NEEDS to be old – or maybe it’s a typo and should have read “our whiskies need to be sold”.

It probably would help the consumer, and whisky, in the long run if those who claimed to know something even just about press releases, language and logic (let alone actually know something about whisky), would step up and widely denounce this silliness for what it is so that a more realistic “beyond-the-bullshit” dialogue on supply, demand, quality compromise and reasonable pricing can begin.

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