Tuesday, 18 February 2014

NAS whisky - throwing in my $0.02

If you're a regular reader of the whisky "blogosphere" (I hate that word), you'll have no doubt noticed a number of recent posts giving various viewpoints on the topic of No Age Statement, or "NAS" whiskies. If not, see CaskstrengthWhisky Israel and Edinburgh Whisky Blog for their thoughts - highly reputable blogs (far better blogs than this one, I should add). Given all the debate, the discussions I've been having recently, and the fact that I'm predicting the rise of NAS in my 2014 whisky predictions, I decided it was time to throw my 2c into the mix.

There seems to be two ends of the spectrum - from "NAS will be the death of the whisky industry" to "Meh", with everyone having an opinion somewhere in between the two extremes. My opinion leans heavily towards the latter, and here's why:

1) NAS is not a new concept
Granted, the concept has gained prominence in the last year as we start to see more and more big players release high-publicised NAS whiskies (chief amongst them Macallan, with their 1824 Series retail release, and Glenfiddich with their Global Travel Retail "Cask" releases). NAS has been around for years though, and there's a good chance you've tried an NAS whisk(e)y, possibly without even realising it.

2) NAS does not necessarily mean "young"
Sure, a lack of age statement may (and probably does) mean there's an element of younger whiskies thrown in the mix - if there wasn't, the whisky would probably carry an age statement. But so what? If the liquid inside is quality, and you enjoy the taste, does it really matter? Does anyone chastise Balvenie TUN1401 for being an NAS whisky? No, because it's one of the best Speyside drams going around.

3) ...but even if it does, that doesn't necessarily mean "bad"
There's a common misconception amongst people relatively new to whisky that "older always means better", and that's just absolutely untrue. Yes, there are some excellent older whiskies - the current Glenfiddich 40yo for example still ranks as one of my favourite whiskies of all time, but there are also older whiskies that simply haven't aged well, or should have been bottled years before (I'm reminded of the example of a particular Scottish distillery which bottled a 50yo release at an eye-watering price, described to me as fairly ho-hum by someone who had tried it on more than one occasion).

Then there are plenty of examples of cracking younger whiskies - Old Hobart, for example, have only been in operation since 2005, yet have been producing fantastic whisky for years.

In short, "old" doesn't necessarily mean "good", and "young" doesn't necessarily mean "bad". There are several factors to take into account during whisky production (cask selection, environment, the distillate itself to name just three), and each plays a large part in the ultimate quality of the whisky.

4) There is a lot of excellent, excellent NAS whisky
If I look at the last duty-free (sorry, "Global Travel Retail") purchases Steph and I have made, I don't actually see many age-statement whiskies in there. Laphroaig PX Cask, Aberlour A'bunadh, Ardbeg Corryvreckan. All fantastic whiskies, all NAS. Not to mention Balvenie TUN 1401 Batch 5, Ardbeg Alligator (one of my top three whiskies of all time), Glenfiddich 125th Anniversary and Talisker Storm - also excellent NAS whiskies.

...and that's just the Scotch. Let's not forget George T Stagg, Makers Mark, Sazerac Rye and Balcones Baby Blue - all examples of premium, or ubiquitously popular American whiskies, and all NAS.

5) Not everyone is going to like every whisky
I think some people fall into the trap of trying one bad NAS whisky (or even just one they didn't like), and tarring the whole category with the same brush. Now sure, there are NAS whiskies I don't like. Auchentoshan Three Wood is one example (actually, I'm not a big fan of most Auchentoshan whiskies). White Oak Akashi is another. But there are also popular aged whiskies I don't like too. Macallan 12yo Fine Oak for example - not a whisky I would choose to buy (not a bad whisky, just one I don't love at the moment).

The point is, everyone's palate differs and not everyone is going to enjoy every whisky. To write-off an entire category because of a bad experience or two though, is (in my opinion) foolish, when the category has so many stellar examples.

6) Distilleries realise they have a brand to protect
Some of the NAS talk I've seen is about how the category will ultimately result in a decline in quality. Will it? We're talking about a seriously long-sighted (not to mention old) industry here. One that has to forecast demands years and years in advance. Even with NAS gaining prominence, no distillery is going to distill a whisky today and bottle it tomorrow (well, with a few niche exceptions).

I have no doubt that over the coming years, we'll see bad NAS whiskies (we'll no doubt see bad aged whiskies too), and if enough people think they're bad, they won't buy them, and the whiskies will be pulled from sale. If the distillery continues to release poor whisky (age statement or not), the market will react accordingly. Just as it always has done, and life will continue as normal.

Maybe that was a little more than 2c worth, but thanks for reading. I'd love to hear your thoughts - agree, disagree? Please feel free to comment below and let me know.

 - Martin.

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