I have, of late, had a number of very interesting conversations with folks in the whisky industry, people who’ve seen its ups and downs, watched whisky soar high and crash low over many decades. And I’ve noticed a trend amongst them: most of them comment on their confusion and frustration at ever-more demanding ‘whisky snobs’.
One conversation that comes to mind, in particular, was when one person related to me how they’d met a group of particularly fervent folks at a festival who would only drink unchill-filtered (UCF) single malt whiskies. After rolling my eyes, I couldn’t help but think: how much are these people actually missing out on when it comes to whisky by binding themselves to that perameter? That commentator made a good point to me during our conversation: to UCF or not is only one potential component of a whisky. It’s not the be all and end all folks. It is one part. And it does not always mean the whisky in the bottle is better.
Which is what brings me to this post. You see, if you’ve been keeping in tune with whisky commentators, you’ll probably know that one of the big ‘discussion points’ has been about NAS – or no-age statement whiskies.
We are seeing it more and more these days: companies moving away from only having whiskies in the product range with 12, 15, or 18 years on the label (that number, of course, reflecting the youngest whisky in its making) and substituting them with products that have quirky names or colours representing distillery heritage or cask influence.
And lots of people don’t like it. They see it as a way for companies to sell under-matured stock at a higher price to consumers because it has a pretty label or an interesting story. They see it as the marketers getting involved in the whisky game too much; of economics ‘ruining’ the great heritage of the water of life or potentially eroding stocks that could be saved for future. This generally leads to many people bemoaning the very existence of NAS whiskies or commenting that they aren’t any good.
And this annoys me.
It falls under the same category as my annoyance with ‘single malt snobs’ who wouldn’t dare be seen drinking a blended whisky.
My annoyance with the anti-NAS argument is partly due to the fact I’m confident many of the people who deride NAS whiskies would probably (at some point) have been supporting Bruichladdich as it launched many NAS whiskies to help it through its revival; and those same people would probably also enjoy whiskies from young craft distillers, despite there being a high likelihood of those whiskies being sans age statement. They would have been potentially curious about Ardbeg’s “Very Young” or “Still Young” releases, and might also give props to Chichibu’s foray into whisky making. So long as someone crafty is doing it, it’s cool; if one of the big players in the game tries to, it’s bad.
I see myself as a whisky lover. I am seriously passionate about it and anyone who’s met me will know that. I’m as much of a fan of curling up on a bed of malting barley at a traditional floor maltings and wiggling my hands into the warm layers as the next whisky anorak. But I’m also happy to try a range of whiskies, from boutique distilleries to ones produced by global giants. In fact, I’m confident that if whisky asked me on a date, I’d be all like: “Hell yes – you are one sexy mofo.” But I wouldn’t expect for whisky to show up dressed for our dates exactly the same each time. I like knowing it in all its various guises. NAS…blended…single malt…single cask…Scottish…Japanese…craft…
And that’s what makes me sad. I can’t help but feel that a lot of people are just messing around with whisky. From my viewpoint, what is actually happening is this: for a long time, people fell out of love with whisky – left it abandoned over the decades to love other spirits instead. This created a large supply of whiskies that – if the company that owned it could afford to – were left sitting in warehouses or on back-room shelves. Then suddenly, a few people started getting interested in it again, decided to call it up on a lonely Friday night. And whisky was there, saying: “Come back, I’ve missed you too!” These first people got a hold of bottles at ridiculously low prices for what was on offer because whisky had been left putting ads in the Lonely Hearts column for so long. And these people got used to it. Then more people started joining the club. And whisky distilleries started producing more liquid to help satiate that demand. Then whisky companies started realising that they shouldn’t have ever been offering their beloved whisky at such a low price in the first place and now the market is going through a correction. Prices are going up and product ranges are getting wider to meet demand, which includes the use of more younger whisky. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
The key reason for that is this: for the past 20 years a lot more has been understood about cask management, about the effects of casks on maturation, about how to increase the speed of maturation and how to work with the new make spirit to bring it into its prime a bit earlier, about how to use wood finishes to create a differentiation in the product. Combine that with the skills of the blenders making NAS whiskies (and it is a skill – you try making a great whisky with loads of different casks of different ages, and making it the same each time and see how you get on. Go on…I’ll wait…) and you’re likely going to find more whiskies you actually like than ones you don’t.
NAS does not equate to bad whisky. And if you think it does, I would love for you to sit down with me and do a blind tasting with a range of whiskies, including NAS ones. If you can tell me exactly which ones are NAS, I’ll give you a prize. But I bet most people wouldn’t. As my friend who used to work in the wine trade discovered when she tried to get some of the world’s preeminent wine writers to do a blind tasting, those two who accepted the challenge couldn’t tell you which were the most expensive ones, and the rest of them wouldn’t even step up to the plate because they didn’t want to put their reputations on the line by preferring ones with a lower price tag.
The main things I care about? Does it taste good…does its aromas evoke memories of times past…does it give me pleasure? If so, then that’s all good. If it can do that at three years, great; if it does it at 40 years, fab. And, honestly, I think that’s what most of the world’s whisky drinkers (92% of whom consume blended whisky, mind) likely care about too.
My main point in all of this is: don’t let yourself be blinded by one part of a label. Saying a whisky is better with an age statement is simply the same as saying it’s always better being matured in an ex-bourbon cask, or always better if it’s been stored in a dunnage warehouse. It may be. It may not be.
All in all, when it comes to whisky we are actually incredibly spoiled. And companies actually give a shit about what whisky drinkers think, even if they do get annoyed at the snobbery at times. So if you have an NAS whisky that is genuinely no good, call them on it. But don’t tell me that they’re all bad or that they’re the end of things. And don’t count yourself as a ‘whisky lover’ if you only love one tiny sub-segment of the category – poor whisky was played around with for too long; maybe it’s now just getting its own back.
So, in the heart of all this, here’s my review of a recent NAS whisky I tried from Johnnie Walker (that’s right folks: NAS AND Diageo!) – sorry…couldn’t help myself.
The last in the JW The Directors Blend series – bottled for directors and friends of the company – this release looked specifically at ‘Old Malts’ and their influence in a blend. This follows from the releases from 2008-2012, which each looked at a different influence in blending, such as peat and virgin oak and meant to celebrate the skills of blenders.
(n): Really creamy at first before lots of fruit: fresh pears, then apricots, peaches, oranges and a bit of cooled candle wax.
(p): Very silky texturally, with notes of cream, beeswax, honey, apples, pears, white flowers – very juicy and big on the palate.