There is a new bottling in the Douglas Laing Old Particular range, apparently exclusive to Tel Aviv Airport Duty Free. It is called “Aultmore XO” and sells for $113. When this was mentioned yesterday in the Malt Maniacs & Friends Facebook group by Israeli Blogger Michael Bendavid it sparked quite a discussion, and I think it is worthwhile to give it a closer look.
Obviously this is a NAS bottling because it does not have a classic age statement. But for anyone mildly familiar with cognac, the term XO rings a bell. In cognac, XO stands for Extra Old. This means a minumum age of 6 years according to the official regulations. Because cognac is usually blended from many vintages, there may be significantly older spirits in the botte as well.
Now how old might the Aultmore XO possibly be? And why has Douglas Laing decided not to use a proper age statement?
If the whisky was old, there would be no reason whatsoever to hide its age. Douglas Laing have been using age statements for the other bottles in the Old Particular range as well. I think it is fair to assume the Aultmore to be on the young side. Coincidentially, there have been a number of very young and rather good Aultmores around, recently. For example there was a 5 yo from Master of Malt that managed to win a bronze medal at the 2012 Malt Manaics Awards, and there also was a 5 yo from Douglas Laing in their Provenance range.
The Scotch Whisky Regulations forbid misleading age statements, so I would be very surprised if the Aultmore XO was not 6 years old. But even if it was older, it is evident that Douglas Laing figured naming it XO could improve the sales of this whisky. XO certainly would be a very nice way of making a young whisky look more exclusive, especially in a duty free shop sitting next to the expensive cognac bottles. But for someone who is only used to cognac, the XO might really be misleading, because of the fact mentioned above that XO cognac usually also contains older spirits.
NAS whisky has usually been defended with the argument that indeed older does not automatically mean better. Which is perfectly true. But one thing which for me is a key issue in NAS whisky has been neglected a bit so far: the pricing. The Aultmore XO highlights this particular problem of NAS whisky because it is not affected by blending issues like cask selection or pressure on stock because of high global demand.
In a recent Spirits Business article, whisky industry insiders are discussing the NAS phenomenon and the problems of convincing the buyers that the decades-old “older is better” mantra was actually wrong.
Older whisky may not be automatically better than young whisky. But higher age has always reflected in a higher price. This is only logical because for example you can sell twice as much 10 year old whisky in 20 years time than you can sell a 20 year old. Obviously the 20 year old whisky must be more expensive than the 10 year old whisky.
But of course this logic also works in the other direction. You can sell twice as much 5 year old whisky in 10 years than you can sell a 10 year old. So it would be only logical that younger whisky is significantly cheaper. Now the Aultmore XO sells for $113 which equals £67. This indeed would be quite a lot for a 6 year old single malt.
All in all the current marketing of NAS whisky appears to be less about true consumer education than about trying to hide the correlation of the price of a whisky with its age, about finding arguments why young whisky should be as expensive as it is. It’s about convincing the buyers that a whisky is worth its money more than about increasing their whisky knowledge. Plenty of fancy stories are being told which usually boil down to “we think it is worth it because it is very good and rare”. If properly educated consumers knew the actual age, higher prices would without a doubt be questioned much more.