Let Battle Commence

 

 

chessboard2

A recent photograph I set up led me to compare the rise of the Non Age Statement Whiskies to a of a game of chess.  For a bit of fun I though which bottles each side might select. I have picked price points at which I believe the contest is being fought for market share.   These points will offer us as consumer the price benefits of this competition.  I suggest in the Uk you view Amazon deals each day where there are some real bargains in both age Statement and Non Age statement whisky. I am fairly certain that everyone will have quite different ideas about the pieces in this contest, please feel free to pass yours on in the comments section below. I have purposely kept all prices below £100  and the pawns below £37 as I believe that these price bands are where this contest will be fought.

The Battle Lines are forming.  After a few years of skirmishes, The pieces are formed up on the board.  The White side the experienced Age Statement Malts.  The Blacks drawn up opposite the young upstart Non Age Statement expressions bold, brash but moving to occupy Age Statement territory.  We now review the two opposing formations.

The strong foundation of the age statement malts is a formation of long standing classics.  The pawns of age statement are highly experienced, strong quality players.  Glenffidich 12 their sergeant-major alongside Glenmorangie 10 the oldest and the most steadfast of competitors.  Alongside these are robust talented warriors, Highland Park 12, Talisker 10, Old Poultney 12 and of course Laphroig 10. There are also more versatile younger stars competing the line up with new talents, Deanston 12 a particular favourite of mine and Benromach 12. For this early battle the Age statement army has held back a number of quality warriors preferring to trust the old faithfuls.

At this early stage the NAS army is not so able to compete with these experienced old hands young and nimble warriors are starting to emerge.  Their front line has at it heart Bowmore Number 1, Macallan Gold, Glenlivet Founders Reserve, Talisker Storm,  Jura Superstition, Auchentoshan American Oak, Dalwhinney Winter Gold and Balvennie Double Wood. There are undoubtedly strong warriors in this line up but at this early stage there are some weaknesses .  The ‘supermarket’ brands without the power and reputation of the age statement stalwarts too often are exposed as inconsistent and lacking guile. 

The Age Statement pawns have defended this area for many years against all comers, the Blend Barbarians, The Gin Grenadiers the Japanese Samuri  and the Craft Beer and Nouveau Wine coalition forces.  The outcome may be unclear and the fighting may involve some attrition, as old age statement are obliged to change sides which early skirmishes have demonstrated in some theatres.  The robustness of the opposing armies supply chain logistics will ultimately determine the outcome. 

For both armies the back lines present a very different picture.

The White army has many years of experience maturing and developing craft and power.  It has vast reserves to call on.  For the purposes of this battle the King traditional strong and unassailable is a Glenfarclas 25 year old.  The king’s new queen lighter complex but of equal long standing and from a long family line is a Deanston 18 year old.  The rooks providing strength and stability are a pair of 18 year old Highland Parks,  The Bishops attackers with gravitas and directness are Dalmore 18 year olds.  The knights fast and versatile with complexity are 16year old Lagavulin, completing a sophisticated quality back row.   The aged line up has eschewed single cask or independent bottling to compete at this early stage.

The Non Age Statement Black army has a powerful and varied attack.  At King we have an Ardbeg Tasting Committee release, for this battle, the Kelpie the new upstart ruler from the Inner Hebrides.  His queen is the Bunnahabhain Ceobanach complex , attractive and versatile but with class and attracting different camp followers.  The strongest suit for the Blacks are a selection of high ABV expressions which for this battle the Blacks throw forward the now well established and popular Glenfarclas 105 and Aberlour A’Bunadh.  The Bishops are also high ABV bottles – a pair of Ardbeg expressions Corryvreckin and Uigeadail strong powerful expressions but with a depth and complexity of experience and tradition, already dispaying some considerable gravitas.  At knight in this battle the line up includes Laphroig Quarter Cask with the ability to produce different lines of attack.  Again there are many powerful warriors held in reserve.

Perhaps the earliest of engagements went to the Age Statement Army but the NAS army is gaining experience and benefitting from the craft and knowledge of the Distillery Master Blenders.  Providing they don’t throw too many weaker warriors into the next phase of battles, that will make ground. The Black army is maturing and improving.  It can perhaps afford to lose the odd battle to win the war.

Now neither side will eventually win outright the other being able to run a long and successful guerrilla campaign.  Unlike most wars, the consumer will win either way although something will inevitably be lost in the longer term.

It is interesting to note the price brackets on which this battle is being fought. 

The lowest priced NAS expressions range from £19-£30

These compete directly with the traditional quality 10 – 12 year old classics although their prices are steadily rising. The Distillers will have to work hard to get these new brands to the traditional older drinker but they will be optimistic of securing the casual drinking customers picking them up at the supermarket or the new drinker who spots a bargain and is more open minded to trying new things.

A little ahead of these in the £30-£50 band there are some interesting expressions but they can only just edge the ‘super’ Quality 10-12 year old age statement malts.  Springbnk 12, Macallan 12 instantly spring to mind.  These NAS competitors  include Tullibardine Sovereign, Laphroig Quarter cask and Highland Park Svein.

The £50-£100 band is an interesting one dividing as I see it into two separate groups.

Group 1 is the high ABV  non chill filtered  group.   These expressions have quickly stormed into the sales charts offering as they do high ABV which equates to taste usually, non chill filtered and sometimes no colour added.  This appears a good tactic to adopt  as this is the traditional ground demanded by long term Age Statement fans.  These expressions are priced around £45-£65 and feature such great whiskies as Glanfarclas 105, Aberlous A’Bunadh and Talisker 57 North.  I am  big fan of these.  I believe that the high ABV, NCF and presence or absence of A150e will be a key factor in determining the longer term outcome both for these and the next group.

The other players in this price point are not trying to compete via ABV but rather with quality (not that the cask strength group are in any way inferior quality , quite the opposite).  From £50 to £100 they are competing against super quality 12 year olds and traditional 15, 18 and 21’s.  This is why I suggest that we chose our whisky on value as  this market develops.  Value for money is key i.e. Price and Quality.   There are a large number of whiskies appearing in this market some distilleries producing several.

It is noticeable that some expressions bear a brand name and also an age.    We also see a proliferation of different cask finishes.  Unless you goal is to taste everything just follow the bloggers to get recommendations of those worth purchasing or alternatively buy samples to pick those you prefer. 

The very top end NAS expressions emerging seek to compete at the premium end though still well short of older Age Statement malts.  Dalmore King Alexander III and  Highland Park Sigurd go beyond the £100 mark but as I have said I have at present no means of establishing the recipe so for all I know there could be 30 – 40 year old casks in the mix.      At 40% ABV I would hope there were some interesting contents, these have been generally well received but I would have like them to be produced at a higher  ABV but then I would always like my whisky at higher ABV.  This is a market sector which given the soaring prices of 21 year old and older aged malts I expect we will see more and more NAS expressions.  

The future will see even more changes.  There are two developments I expect to see.  Firstly we already see Batch Numbers appearing and we will see more I believe with Distilleries competing to get more page space than Buffalo Trace in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.  Secondly I expect to see year ‘vintages’ emerge in the NAS space but they might also be extended amongst Age Statement Malts where we already see some single cask releases branded by year.  Vintages would allow a brand to develop over years and would justify minor tweeks.  Older Vintages, especially quality ones might attract  a premium, would become collectable and also allow consumers to track a brands evolution over time.  I would have no problems with this but it will serve to further confuse the casual consumer and irritate those who drink and don’t collect and face high prices for ‘premium’ vintages.   

I’ll have a 1991 Glengoyne please bartender, much smoother than the 2007.  We may have to modify our vocabulary to avoid it becoming a bit winey, although a vertical of Highland Park Valkerie might be something to look forward to tasting.

Check Mate.

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