A New Direction

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I have been thinking further and deeply (my brain hurts now) on the vexed topic of Non Aged Statement whisky.  Half of my current collection and many of my favourite drams and two of my daily drams are NAS -Non Age Statement[ i.e. no year on the label] whisky.  NAS is a reality of our Whisky life for the foreseeable future. 

Despite my previous comments that barring minor issues around price and transparency NAS expressions are a very good trend.  Indeed, I have resolved from now to focus my whisky activities predominantly around NAS malts – see my announcement at the end of this Article.

The following points are my reasoning, feel free as always to argue the case against in the comments section I respect that many feel strongly at odds to my view.

In my view Scotch Whisky is entering a brave new era.  NAS is slowly replacing many popular and excellent Age Statement malts.  I believe it is inevitable that its advance will continue to happen and in time will increase as a percentage of the market.  On a quick survey of a well known online retailer of the first 66 Scottish malts which the search ‘whisky’ turned up  I counted 33 Age Statement bottles against 33 Non Age Statement (Scottish origin only) it surprised me that it was already at 50:50.

NAS is great for the industry and the consumer and we should embrace this growing trend which will in time for good reason dominate our whisky shelves.

One of my most important observations is that NAS showcases the Master Distillers skills.  We are aware that the MD already has to ‘blend’ aged malts sometimes adding older casks to maintain consistency and quality.  Shock! Horror! Do I mean to say that our cherished 18 year old might be ‘contaminated’ with small amounts of 21, 25, 30 or even older whisky? 

Does this mean that it is only a suspicion that someone is ‘putting one over on us’ by adding very young whisky to our NAS to save on costs – what a uniquely Scottish viewpoint.  Yet, we queue to buy the Lagavulin 8 year old and other ‘younger’ versions of the classics.  The alleged selling young for the price of old is a viewpoint I believe time and knowledge will disprove.

No Master Distiller would release anything but a great whisky.  Over time I have come to entirely trust the Master Distillers.  Individuals whose commitment and passion would not permit them to let poor quality product be released in their name,  strong willed characters who are not forced to do anything by anyone.  Sure, sometimes a problem barrel slips through or a stray bacteria comes in contact with the whisky but much more is rejected than let through.  This does not mean there are no poor NAS whisky but in the end an MD blends to a budget and generally you get what you pay for.  Not so much poor as lower priced although as often wonderful value.  Even the large Spirits Companies know that their market share depends on delivering quality and value and no amount of marketing will compensate for any less than that in the medium to long term and whisky is undoubtedly a long term business.

I confessed that I have complained in the past about price of some NAS expressions but as in my ignorance I don’t know what is in the recipe; it might for all i know include 6, 13, 22, 26 year old malts.  I moan about pricey Aged malts as well just because I generally cant afford this rare and fine product on a daily basis and as we all know prices have soared. There was a time long past that 25 year old Macallan was my dram of choice!  I have often and increasingly tasted the notes of aged malts in NAS releases so I know and enjoy their presence. I will henceforth just criticise NAS whisky for being poor value compared to its peers.

Young spirit matched with older can produce high quality malts.  Young spirit can be fresh and flavoursome.  Youth does not preclude great flavour and given a cask exerts its initial influence in just 200 days young spirit can exhibit both spirit and cask notes. A friend on mine recently commented on how lovely new spirit tasted to his surprise.  Its not just raw spirit, it was full and flavoursome – very far from ‘just spirit’ .

NAS gives the consumer the chance to taste some older whisky notes which might otherwise be too expensive to taste.  Many of us I argue would pay £10 plus for a 30ml sample of an 25 or 30 year old malt why would we complain about a £10 premium for the same to be added to some mid-aged and younger ingredients in an NAS expression especially if the result is a high quality dram.

We will see increasing transparency of recipe which is a good thing.  Congratulations go to Bruichladdich for their release of ‘Transparency’ its latest Port Charlotte NAS.   By entering online the 5 digit code on the bottle purchasers have access to the ‘recipe’ of their purchase. Chapeau! (I doff my hat) This approach  has now been extended to their Peated Barley expression and I confidently forecast this will become the norm. 

Economics, barrel shortage and high demand have created this opportunity.  As consumers we must acknowledge the commercial pressure our suppliers face and ultimately their commercial success is to our benefit – a strong industry with good completion and profitability reduces prices and increases choice – with apologies for  – Economics 101.  Long maturation costs money and ties up cash flow.    Forecasting demand to meet future consumption is never easy, almost impossible it seems to be even close to accurate, and the current surge in demand on both home and overseas markets is putting pressure on supplies of many ages of spirit in bond.  The changes in U.S. Legislation means that Bourbon barrels can have multiple uses instead of the previous one use only rule.  This has restricted availability of barrels to the Scottish market and beyond.  Barrels are expensive and prices are increasing.  The future barrel trends will be of great interest. Tying up barrels for years in Bond will become a pressure the industry continues to struggle with to keep things in balance.

We will see better whisky and more competition for value to be created.  As distillers move to more NAS expressions consumers will alter their drinking habits but will become more discerning of what represents quality and value.  Whilst one off releases will always have a place consumers will inevitable move to the familiar brands which manage to consistently deliver those expression they enjoy most.  Not all brands will be maintained as availability of good casks in the recipe varies over time.  The disappearance of Highland Park Dark Origins is one such demise that I for one will miss. It is still available but for how long we don’t know.  Over times with many NAS expressions there were variations between batches.  The batches  of Dark Origins I drank were all excellent.  As Highland Park have recently made major moves into NAS with the Viking Hero’s and Elements expressions  I expect from such an excellent distillery those brands they maintain will be consistently good and they must be confident in their ability to do this having made such a bold move.

NAS opens an opportunity for the retailer to add value to the consumer.   I anticipate that the growth of NAS consumption will open up opportunities for specialist retailers as customers demand tasting samples and good advice on which expressions are worth considering.  I see this as a good thing almost a return to the old grocer blender days as a multiplicity of offering requires a knowledgeable guide to help navigate the ever changing market.  Create a relationship and nurture it over time.

NAS gives opportunity for new consumers to enjoy ‘tailored’ whisky and for traditional consumers to enjoy high strength NCF malts hence better for all.  This is the point that gives me most hope.   That the high end NAS expressions are being sold at 46% to 60% ABV bodes well for the future.  If we are to broaden the appeal of Scotch to new markets and demographics home and abroad a variety of tailored expressions that appeal to different tastes can only be a good thing both for these brands and as new consumers interest and palates develop for more and more distillers.  There will be opportunities for some exciting marketing and that is ok indeed, I look forward to it.

NAS helps new distilleries.  Given the time a new Distillery has to wait to produce even younger aged malts never mind older ones, NAS allows the skilful blender to generate cash flow and establish their name.   Whilst some take the Gin route others have made a huge impact on the market almost instantly.  Kilchoman established in 2005  comes to mind as having established an impressive and expanding brand with with an excellent reputation in a relatively short period.  New Distilleries are great for the country, the industry and us as consumers.  They create employment, exports, taxes, support the supply chain including importantly farmers and are often highly  innovative breaking new ground.   As demand increases world wide new manufacturers are great for competition and competition is great for consumers. 

A brave new era indeed which I for one eagerly anticipate.  There will be disappointments I am sure but the continued diversification will create more and more extraordinary expressions.  Sure I will still  enjoy those aged whiskies that I can afford to ensure I maintain a benchmark.   How easily it might be to continuously compete with a 12 year old Highland Park for a new NAS it remains to be seen but my mind will remain open to that possibility.

Having stated my case I will now make my announcement.  Henceforth my blog twitter name and Facebook site will be NASWhisky, it will take a few days to emerge.   My sole focus will be to bring you NAS reviews, news, editorial and interviews.   I commit myself to providing you the consumer the best information on Non Age Statement Whisky. 

Slainte! My friends,

 

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