With the exception of caramel colouring there is perhaps no more divisive issue in the Whisky world than No Age Statements (NAS), love them or hate them there’s no denying they are fast becoming the new normal and that’s unlikely to change. Ultimately the issue is more complex than a simple right or wrong, being open or being closed, the issue needs to be understood through a variety of questions:
- What is an Age Statement?
- Why are Age Statements Misleading?
- Why are Distilleries Dropping Age Statements?
- Are No Age Statements New?
- Why are Whisky connoisseurs concerned?
- Why are No Age Statements here to stay?
What is a Whisky Age Statement?
The age statement on a bottle of whisky indicates the youngest age of the whisky inside the bottle, a bottle of 21 year old whisky may contain some 25, or 35 year old spirit, but the second you add any 3 year old spirit the age statement would need to read 3.
Why are Age Statements Misleading?
Whisky age statements are problematic for three reasons, they are poorly understood, they reinforce the idea that older is better and worse still they prevent brands from being transparent.
Age statements are misunderstood
Even among those who take an interest the age statement is a poorly understood thing, in a survey conducted last year Uisce Beatha asked hundreds of whisky fans to define an age statement, the overwhelming majority defined this as the the average age of the whisky rather than as the youngest. Similarly most whisky fans fail to recognise single malts as blends in their own right.
Older Whisky is not superior to younger whisky
The idea that an older whisky is superior is no more accurate than the idea that strong tea is better, older people are more mature, or that a peated whisky is superior to a sherry finished whisky. Even on a single cask whisky, the age specifies only the time that the whisky has lain in contact with the wood of the barrel. It doesn’t indicate the quality of the barrel, how many times it’s been used or the climate the whisky was aged in all of which hugely impact maturation.
Some whisky fans prefer the leathery, oaky spices imparted by the wood over decades, some prefer the grainy notes of the young spirit. The majority of whiskies work better somewhere in the middle with the wood imparting a complex flavour profile over a well distilled, flavourful grain. Older whiskies are more expensive due to both the increased costs of producing (storing) these, and also due to their relative rarity compared to younger whisky. Price, like age is no indicator of quality.
Age statements complicate the question of transparency
The legislation regarding age statements actually make it harder for distillers and blenders to be open with consumers as they actually require that only the age of the youngest whisky be stated on the label.
As an example the Compass Box 3 Year Old Deluxe is a blend of 0.4% 3 year old whisky, the remainder is far older spirit. Compass Box by law are compelled not to advise consumers of the ages of these spirits, they can only hint that 90.3% from the Clynelish distillery and 9.3% produced by Talisker, with no reference made to age.
If you want more information on this you can find out more from the Compass Box campaign for transparency and in the Bruichladdich article of support.
Why are Distilleries Dropping Age Statements
Through years of advertising promoting Age Statements as a sign of quality, consumers now put faith in the number on the front of their bottle. Now we’re facing a shortage of older spirit, Whisky demand has now far exceeded supply, in part due to the loss of so many distilleries and the Age Statement actually threatens the ability of the industry to sell spirit. Put a 3 on the front of the bottle and it isn’t likely to shift many cases, release a no age statement with a catchy name instead and the consumer will likely never question it.
That is not to suggest that distilleries are likely to be reckless with their brands, or even that a no age statement whisky means an inferior quality. Japanese whiskies such as the Yamazake Distiller’s Reserve or the Hibiki Harmony are a superb example to the contrary, Ardbeg’s Uigeadail is for many superior to the standard 10 year old expression. Regardless there are two obvious reasons for brands to look to No Age Statements:
NAS allow the creation of new and interesting whiskies
A NAS whisky enables the blending of single malts of different ages to create fantastic expressions without being hamstrung by a specific age. The reality is that in absence of lots of older spirit the small addition of younger spirit into the mix may well result in better malts.
NAS whiskies are very profitable
A shortage of older expressions within the distillery means reduced output as the whisky waits to reach an arguably arbitrary age before bottling, this means increased storage costs and lower alcohol by volume (due to the loss known as the angels share). John Campbell Laphroaig’s master distiller reports that the distillery’s Quarter Cask is now “the fastest-growing brand in our portfolio, making up 25% of our sales”, nor are they alone.
Are No Age Statements New?
This is actually nothing new, Glenmorangie and Ardbeg have been making No Age Statements for ages, the Aberlour a’bundah has never, to my knowledge been challenged, for lack of a number. Similarly while all my peat loving friends rave (justifiably) about the relatively new and unheard of Kilchoman distiller on Islay I’ve never seen one with an age statement.
Age statements are nothing new, and frankly for the more discerning consumer the number on the front should be of no more significance than the typeface so long as the spirit is Good. As Bill Lumsden (master distiller for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg put it when given the change “I wasn’t considering the age, I considered the taste profile, this is more important. The starting point is having good whisky spirit, if you have that then you need good wood, then you have a range of flavours available. Regardless of what you are doing, young whisky in bad wood will be ruthlessly exposed.”
Why are Whisky fans up in arms about No Age Statements
Although No Age Statements are nothing new they are fan more common and more of a concern to whisky fans than ever before for two simple reasons.
No age statements displace favoured expressions
You need look no further than The Macallan, the distillery pushed its colour coded 1824 NAS offerings in favour of the brands popular fine oak whiskies. This began due to popular response to their travel retail only bottlings and ended up removing a much loved range from the shelves. As I’ve covered previously the Glenlivet Founders Reserve has displaced the standard 12 year old in the UK market.
Similarly my own favourite the Laphroiag 18 is now no more, but the Quarter Cask has been joined with Select Casks, PX Cask, An Cuan Mòr Whisky and Lore (the latter being the only one of these I don’t enjoy) abound aplenty. If the 10 were to be removed, replaced by a some generic no age statement everyone from friends and family to those unlucky enough to have me on Facebook would hear about it. At length.
No age statements drive up prices is a common critique; Talisker storm a No Age Statement sells for £x, surely the ten year old is worth £y goes the rationale. This is a little bit chicken and egg as rising costs, then rarity and increased demand push up prices rather just profiteering businesses, nonetheless the price of NAS whiskies is often eye-watering. I won’t touch on the degree that NAS whiskies are a rip off as ultimately they sell for whatever price we the consumer is willing to pay, nothing more nothing less.
Regardless consumers used to being able to take home a favoured tipple with a number find themselves instead putting a NAS in their shopping basket for close to the same price. This rankles on some level, but nevermore when the product in question is deemed to be inferior.
Why are No Age Statements here to stay?
No age statements allow brands to make profits by introducing interesting spirits without the stigma of an age statement. This is why these businesses exist, so long as this remains true no age statements aren’t going anywhere.
No age statements aren’t a good thing, giving consumers less information is never going to be a positive thing they are not, as some have amusingly commented, going to kill us all. The age statement was championed by marketers of established brands against the less established and the only people they mislead were non whisky drinkers.
Personally I’d rather know exactly what’s in my whisky, I want to know if anyones added colouring, if it’s been chill filtered, I want to know the grain used and what the youngest whisky in the mix is. That’s because I’m a whisky geek. Regardless if the whisky inside is of a high enough quality, I’ll be buying it. If it’s not up to standard then brands have only a finite time to resolve this before they’ll be bit where it hurts most, in salves revenue.