June NAS Rant – or Maybe Not

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24050479 - stacked whisky barrels in monochrome vintage style

Warning; – this will be controversial

An announcement this week increases my growing fear about the future of single malt scotch whisky something I care deeply about.

This week Bunnahabhain intimated they would be replacing their excellent 12 year old with Stiuireadair an NAS expression in some markets.  I love Bunnahabhain and feel they  provide exceptional value whisky. This expression may be brilliant, I enjoy their Ceobanach so their track record is sound.  I would miss the 12 if it were to be removed in future from the home market.

We have all seen the dramatic price rises in 18 year old plus whisky to the current outrageous levels of some but not all brands.  Did we notice the slow disappearance of many 15 year old bottlings?  All of this is driven by supply and demand.  Increasing demand overwhelming decreasing and more costly supply,  resulting in increased prices suggests my Higher Economics.

The 10-12 year old market is most competitive as the most widely consumed. If we are to see a move away from aged bottling what does the future hold?  Is it necessarily a bad one? Perhaps it is me who needs to revise my mental models of the whisky market.

We the whisky blogging community must be prepared to be more critical of lower quality poor value NAS expressions and equally praise those better quality good value expressions.  If we don’t, how can the casual buyer make good decisions  on what to buy and why as only taste and comparisons can judge the relative quality and value.  This is not easy as our tastes differ widely.  We could alternatively develop a relationship with a specialist whisky retailer whose advice we could rely on.  This would be a good move.  Amazon reviews are often nonsense.

For my recent birthday both of my children bought me expensive NAS expressions. Now both were lovely drams and I was a happy recipient but they could just as easily have been ripped off.

We must not be sniffy about NAS generally and sort out the good from the bad in both quality and price. There are some awesome drams out there so ignoring these restricts our experience substantially.

I contend the peak of current whisky quality is invariably single cask non chill filtered no colour added whisky but these are not cheap and are completely dependent on individual cask quality.  These are a diminishing stock.  The best Non Age statements also suffer from diminishing stocks being one off expressions difficult to replicate in future.  I will miss Highland Park Dark Origins for one.

Is this all bad? We rightly and increasingly laud the genius of Diageo and Edrington Master Blenders and other great brands. This is good and both quality and price are well served by them.  I hope to be drinking Johnny Walker Black Label many, many years from now. 

Distillery age statement single malts are of course a ‘blend’ of different casks sometimes of different ages.  Ardbeg Ten was rightly lauded and rumoured to contain older casks.  there is of course no restriction on older casks just the youngest cask must be declared if an age statement is declared.  In the case of Ardbeg that stock must be diminishing and the cask stock moving closer to being 10 year old, if indeed this story was true. Of late I have suspected the inclusion of older casks in a number of other 12 year old malts and will enjoy this while I can. 

To achieve an age statement single malt even just the addition of water to get the malt to its preferred ABV and to keep the brand consistent takes skill from the Master  Distiller.

I contend that an NAS just extends the range of barrels available to the Master Distiller to blend. It is still a single malt and to be frank just by adding the date of the youngest malt, say 6 year old and dropping the marketing hype this would become an age statement whisky, Voila!   it is ironic that some younger age statement malts are in demand and not necessarily low priced. 

Now I enjoy the freshness of relatively young spirit and elevating it with a little older Malt is something I have done myself at home and wholly approve of.

I only have 2 issues with NAS

Transparency and Price!

Some of the older NAS contents don’t get the chance to reach a ripe old age and thus contribute to the ridiculously high prices for 18 year old plus malt.

I can live with the transparency issue trusting that only quality will sell for example Ardbeg Corryvrekin and Uigedail are all amongst my favourite drams.

My biggest issue is that of price. Too many but not all have set £65-75 as the price point.  I credit both Glenfarclas and Talisker particularly for bucking this trend and providing excellent value whisky at a reasonable price for high quality.

My initial thought is that we move from age to price and quality (value) not necessarily a bad approach.  I already monitor value as prices have become more detached from age and we all know the mantra that age does not equate to quality.  My current price bands, henceforth called the Anderson Scale are:

<£35 for daily drinking

£35-50 for a bit more interesting Stock

£50-£75 my Sharing bottles

£75-£100 my Indulgent bottles

I don’t spend more than £100 because there is just no need to to find great quality whisky!

Your numbers may be different possibly dramatically different, lucky you.  I suggest we all need a benchmark whatever our budget in this developing and changing market.  It is our defence against marketing hype.  Common Price bands might let us all compare quality on the same basis.

There are of course some much cheaper NAS offerings found in supermarkets and elsewhere that unfortunately fail the quality test and give NAS its bad Rep. Because, there is not the benchmark that the age in age statement provides there is also an extensive middle ground which only our ability to taste can assess for quality and value. For the gift buyer or casual customer this is a mystery confused by branding and hype. This is sad.

As they say ‘Caveat Emptor’.

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