If Scotch whisky could make a New Year resolution for 2016, what should it be? A few thoughts…
(Takes deep breath…)
This was going to rear its ugly little head at some stage, so might as well get it out there in the open now. I dare say it’s a topic which will re-emerge fairly regularly, like a zombie, or a half-starved dog who has decided you are its new master, or a vindictive partner post-divorce…
(Takes another deep breath…)
There is nothing inherently wrong, evil or nasty about No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies. The reason that there is an increasing number of them is driven primarily by the fact that there currently isn’t sufficient stock to match global demand. This situation will ease, but at the moment producers are faced with this dilemma.
Single malt distilleries are, by their nature, limited in their production. If distillers then say a whisky must be, say, 12 years old before it is released, then that availability is restricted further. Yet demand is rising, and 12 years ago your production levels were low. Do the maths.
The good side of NAS?: Talisker 57˚N
At the centre of the reaction against NAS is the fact that the Scotch industry has spent years persuading people that the older a whisky is, the better it is. That isn’t true. Age is not the sole determinant of quality. There is also a great deal of difference between age (a number) and maturity (character). Age statements blur that reality.
There’s a further underlying issue. In the ‘old’ days, it was generally reckoned that a single malt would hit maturity at around 10 or 12 years of age. The reason for this was that the casks used to mature the whisky were refill, often multiple refill. Today, wood management has not only been improved, but more first-fill casks are being used for single malts, meaning that the whisky can start its mature period at a younger age.
However, since the industry has been wedded to numbers, you can’t just launch an 8-year-old age statement as replacement for a 12-year-old, even if it is better. NAS – the blending of mature young whisky with extra-mature old – is a way around this.
There’s nothing wrong with this as long as the end result is complex and balanced. It is what blenders have been doing successfully since the 19th century, but since the most vociferous opponents of NAS malts are proponents of the paradigm that malts = good, blends = bad, it’s not going to gain any traction.
No Age, therefore, is a way to ease stock pressure and, in theory, make whiskies not by number, but by flavour. It should produce whiskies which are as good, if not in some cases better (Talisker 57˚N is a classic case of the latter).
I get all of that. I defend all of that.
The problem is that not all distillers have played fair. Rather than maintaining (or improving) quality, there have been some (and I would argue it is just some) examples which are less good than the whiskies they are replacing – and they cost more.
My argument would be that if you are making an NAS whisky to replace one with an age statement, then you must ensure that it is better. For me, the issue isn’t NAS, but quality.
I would like to see greater transparency – similar to what Glenrothes has recently done – with distillers declaring what the constituent parts are. They also need to explain why NAS is necessary and what its principles are. So far, they have failed to do so.
Until that happens, the Scotch industry will inevitably face (often unfair) accusations that it is dumbing down quality.
Education is needed. On both sides.
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Latest news 19 September 2016
A new report suggests more whiskies aged under 10 years are to come, complete with age statements.
Latest news 15 April 2016
The independent bottler has introduced age statements in a step ‘toward greater transparency’.
From the editors 20 July 2016
Dave Broom reflects on the site so far and why you won’t see any ‘PR fluff’ on here any time soon.
The whisky virgin 12 December 2016
How old’s that whisky? Does it matter? Numbers have got the Whisky Virgin’s head in a spin.