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NAS vs Age statement whisky

NAS vs Age statement whisky

I must admit that when this whole NAS thing first started to become a thing, I felt quite jaded about it. I was doing consultancy work for some big brands and I felt the quality between their age statement whiskies, and their non-age statement whiskies was significant. Whether this was simply caused as a matter of my own prejudices I’m not sure, but I maintain the opinion that quite often NAS whiskies fall short of my expectations when price is taken into consideration.

These days I’ve come to be more accepting of NAS whisky, but much of it I still am wary of and certain bottlings simply scream “style” over substance, or even worse: gimmicky.

But before we go deeper into this rabbit hole, let’s take a quick look at what NAS is and how it’s become such a big deal.

 

What is NAS?

NAS stands for Non Age Statement Whisky and it means what it says. NAS is simply a bottle of whisky that is made available for sale without displaying the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. No age needs to be displayed at all. The only guarantee, in the case of Scotch Whisky, is that the liquid is at least three years old.

For the old school whisky drinker this may seem like heresy. Whilst age may not be an exact science when trying to gauge the value or quality of whisky, it has been the most relied upon method for most drinkers. Even so for the brands themselves who have taken delight in charging quadruple the price for a whisky that may only be thirty percent older than their 18 year old whisky.

Remove the age statement and there goes the yardstick by which you traditionally would compare whiskies both in terms of taste and price.

However, this is not the main concern I had. What normally would get me worked up would be the release of another NAS whisky, differentiated by name (think Storm, Superstition, Ealanta or Ruby etc) not age or any other indictor of quality or provenance. Yet often this NAS whisky would be priced at a premium to one of their staple age statement single malts, presumably because this (we can assume it) younger whisky most likely were made in smaller quantities… Not because the quality is superior. (Note, I am not saying any of these were bad whiskies. Glenmorangie Ealanta got the gong from Bill Murray as World’s Best Whisky in 2014)

More blatant examples of pure marketing constructs include so called brand collaboration, where a well known brand simply releases a limited release run of co-branded whisky. Diageo’s partnership would possibly be the most famous example where such a partnership has been made.

I suppose it’s us the drinkers who are the fools, as it is we who are willing to pay more money for a lesser whisky, just because there is less of it, than the cheaper, but better quality whisky… Make sense of that

The whole NAS category has mostly been born out of recent shortages of whisky. Because whisky is a product that takes many years to produce (for most brands their youngest whisky will be a 10 or a 12-year-old), forecasting can be hard, and most whisky brands did not predict the current boom we’re in 10-15 years ago. As a result whisky stock has been running low and companies have been struggling to meet demand.

I have no doubt that a great number of NAS whiskies out there have been released too early and represent a poor deal for the end drinker. But that can of course also be said about age-statement whisky. Some of the older whiskies out there, that command crazy prices, are far too woody and flat (at least for my tastes), and again are priced highly because of the scarcity rather than due to any superiority of product.

Taste & Innovation

NAS may seem like a relatively new thing, however, it’s been around for some time. Its most famous example may indeed come from the world of blends, but single malts, as Johnnie Walker is a NAS whisky. But so is also Johnnie Walker Red Label. (Apparently, Red Label was originally a 9 year old whisky, but the age came statements came off both Red and Black label due to whisky shortages after World War II. Only in the 1970’s was Black Label restored back as a 12 year old). In fact NAS Whisky has been common amongst blends for a century.

Although Red Label has been around far longer than Blue Label, Blue Label would have been one of the very first premium or super premium (if you prescribe to those kinds of terms) whiskies to not display the age of its youngest whisky on the label. Age statement whiskies historically displayed their age specifically to show that they had been aged for a significantly longer time than the legal minimum (of three years), and should therefore be both of better quality, and thus also worth more.

Blue Label bucked this trend when it launched in 1992, instead proclaiming that the whisky was a blend of very rare and old whiskies (some allegedly as old as 60 years) as well as younger ones, all chosen to create a whisky that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

With regards to single malts one of the earliest, and most enduring NAS whiskies is Aberlour’s A'bunadh. This cask strength whisky is aged exclusively in Olorosso Sherry casks and the whiskies used range from 5 to 25 years in age. It was first released in 1997 and as of writing more than 60 different releases have been made.

Other famous examples includes aforementioned Glenmorangie Ealanta, Ardbeg ‘An Oa’, Glenlivet Nadurra, The Macallan Ruby, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, all delicious whiskies.

So, since I’ve indicated I’ve changed my tune a little, what are the pro’s with regards to NAS whiskies?

 

Flexibility & Taste by Design

In theory NAS whiskies frees up distilleries to be more creative and innovative. Not constrained by pre-determined age requirements the distillery can in theory choose to bottle a cask exclusively based on flavour, rather than age. Say a 9 year old cask already has reached the maturity of its namesake 12 year old. Pre NAS this whisky would most likely continue to age in a warehouse for another three years, at which point the flavour may become too woody and no longer be suitable for their core 12 year old, whereas in an NAS world, that 9 year old whisky can for part of a product which may have whiskies as young as 5 and as old as 20 or more.

This idea of being able to bottle the whisky when its at its finest, rather than awaiting a “golden age” in the distant future, sounds grand on paper, but for most of the people I speak to, it has yet to eventuate in the bottle, or the glass.

In my opinion NAS whiskies fail to overall meet the standards, taste wise, of their price comparative age statement brothers and sisters.

 

From an Economic Perspective

Where NAS whiskies are extremely successful however is in achieving a high return of investment for the brand owners.

Traditionally the value of a Single Malt Scotch Whisky has had a close correlation with its age. Take any single malt brand and compare their prices for their 12 year old vs, their 15, 18, 21 & say 25 year old whiskies, and you’ll find that in more or less every case the older the whisky, the more expensive it is.

No-one is saying older whisky is necessarily better, but it’s definitely considered to be worth more, as this is how every brand has been prized in the past.

The introduction of NAS whiskies seems to have changed this.

A great number of NAS whiskies that are hitting the market are being promoted without any indication as to why this particular bottle should be sold at a higher price, other than the fact that it’s part of a “limited release”. Obviously scarcity is another driver for value, but in this case we’re not talking about whisky that is naturally scare, but a scarcity of whiskies bottled under a certain name. Chances are the distillery could have gone on to produce whatever Limited release whisky it is on an ongoing basis. However once they increase supply, demand and price would fall.

A great example of this is the Highland Park Valhalla series. I am guilty as can be of buying every bottle of Highland Park Odin and Highland Park Loki I could find. Even after they were all sold out, I was happy to keep purchasing them at inflated prices. Not because I had read that the whisky was outstanding, nor had I tried it myself to verify it. Nope. I just did it because those are the names of my two sons and I’d like to have some of these bottles around for future special occasions when they are adults (they are about to turn nine at time of writing ;-)

From what I can see NAS whiskies offer several benefits for the distillers:

1. They can fetch a higher price for a younger whisky than what the market typically would allow. NAS allows a distillery to sell whisky at a price far superior to its market value by removing the traditional goal post of age from the equation.
2. NAS whiskies are often new news. This can generate PR and more excitement around the brand and may in the long-term drive more consumption of the distillery’s core offering not just the NAS. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact the Game of Thrones collaboration Diageo did in 2019 with its classic malts range will have on their core malt range. How many people would be trying Oban after buying the Black “Night’s Watch” bottling, or how many new drinkers would flock to Dalwhinne after trying the Stark branded NAS bottling.
3. Finally it also does allow for innovation to some degree. However, this is kind of a mute point in that all of the innovation that is available to them via NAS is already available to them. The pitch that NAS allows distilleries to focus on flavour over age is largely a result of their own previous efforts driving a premium price for high age statement whiskies… Something that’s unlikely to change.

Talk about how NAS is a way for a distillery to fetch higher price on their whisky with less investment – i.e with younger whisky which has cost less to produce. The idea that age correlates to value with regards to whisky.

 

Some of my favourite NAS Whiskies

Laphroaig Quarter Cask & Aberlour A'bunadh

Skål.

Sven Almenning

 

Sven is the founder and co-owner of the Speakeasy Group, ANANAS, and Whisky Freaks, and has been writing and talking about whisky for well over a decade. He was inducted into the prestigious Keepers of the Quaich in 2018. His dog of 14 years is named Talisker.

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