Every whisky writer, blogger, producer, drinker, consultant, marketeer and sales person has an opinion on whether whisky is better with or without an age statement on the bottle.
Now, last year I wrote about this and asked various questions around the subject and explained that my viewpoint is that by removing the shackles of having to design and formulate whisky to certain age statements, you actually unleash the creativity of a Master Blender or Master Distiller to create great liquids that could be a mix of young and old.
But why do people get so hung up on age statements?What is it about whisky that means older Whiskies are better and younger ones are worse?Why is there such disdain in the whisky blogging community when a new limited edition NAS is released and priced above £50?
For me it is a bit of a shame that whisky producers are instantly given a load of grief when a bottle such as Laphroaig’s Lore at £75 or Ardbeg’s Dark Cove at £96 are released, to a chorus of ‘… Not another overpriced NAS…’ and ‘… It’s alright for the price, one of the better NAS releases this year…’.
Surely it should not be about the NAS-ness is the main response to a new release?
Recently I was fortunate enough to speak at length with Richard Pattersen on the subject whilst at The Dalmore distillery, and he made a superb point:
“None of my counterparts would ever release anything unless it was up to a very high standard, it just won’t happen, their reputation is always on the line. It takes time to bring whisky together in loving union but age is not the most important thing”
On a recent vineyard visit I started thinking about the NAS debate and how in wine it is perfectly acceptable to blend young and old to create interesting expressions without compromising on quality and without being labelled ‘alright… for an NAS wine’.
When speaking with a winemaker in Carcassone, southern France, he explained that young vines and old vines create a healthy mix of flavours, leading to a solid product.
Specifically, the younger vines gave him more spritely, uninhibited flavour profiles, where the old were used for fruitier notes in the end product, and that was the established way of doing things; to blend wines together to create perfect favours.
Another analogy we could use here is that both winemakers and Master Blenders / Distillers are like painters – the person has all the colours on their board to mix together and create different hues and colour depths and whatnot then choose the best ones to create a perfect picture.
Mixing, matching, choosing high notes, low notes, but all with the vision in their mind about what they want the end image to be, showcasing the dexterity of their talent and, in whisky’s case, the distillery’s character; not creating something that meets the requirements to stamp a number on it.
When speaking with Richard Paterson on this subject, he passionately answered my question thus:
“All my counterparts would never release anything unless it was up to a very high standard, it just won’t happen, their reputation is always on the line. It takes time to bring whisky together in loving union but age is not the most important thing.”
For example; The Dalmore’s 25 Year Old single malt, a divine whisky, has only 1% 25 Year Old whisky in there, the rest is made up of much more aged liquids. You don’t get to know the full composition unless you ask a few questions and have access to certain people but it is interesting once you know that the age is clearly important for this release as it is one of their marquee expressions but that the number is effectively second vs. the liquid quality itself.
This debate will roll on, and several brand teams I’ve spoken to don’t understand the negativity.
Interestingly, new-to-market whisky consumers will be decreasingly reliant on age statements on bottles to navigate the whisky category.
What are your thoughts on the debate?
It’s common sense; waiting for every malt’s coming of age party before it can be bottled puts limitations on proceedings. There are only so many times 21 years come to pass, usually once every couple of decades or so.
It’s not really that we’re running out, more that we have to be willing to be patient, because no one could have predicted this level of demand 20 years ago. But yes, there is a lack of mature stock, and that has prompted the NAS trend.
Of course there are some cases, such as the Rosebank Distillery in the Scottish Lowlands, where production has closed down and we’re feasting on the last of the nectar as it comes to maturation. But there are also new distilleries hoping to begin production, such as Shetland’s Blackwood Distillery in Scotland.
In addition to the lack of mature stock and closing distilleries, NAS has arguably come to pass in an attempt to make Whisky production more creative and shift the ‘focus’ from age to other aspects.
However, there are financial motives, because this is planet Earth. Every year that stock matures, 2% of the liquid a year evaporates, known as the angel’s share. Sharing with the angels is expensive, and the younger the Whisky, the more we can ensure the angel’s don’t take their milkshake from our yard.
If you don’t spot an age on the label, you’ve spotted an NAS Whisky. Hey presto, if only bringing yourself to drink one and escaping the stigma was that easy.
The spirits are usually given a clever, distracting name in place of their age. Classic offenders include things such as ‘Traditional Cask’ (it’s age-old tradition, the same, nothing to see here), ‘Four Wood’ (who cares about years when you can count trees?) or something flash and Gaelic like ‘Cairdeas’ (which could, in some fictitious realms, mean ‘really old’).
In NAS’ defence, their names generally denote their focus. So once you’re over the fact that you’re having an affair with a spring chicken, which generally people manage to do in life, you can enjoy finding out about this malt’s alternative forte.