NAS whisky has been on the rise and not everyone is happy
When it takes 12 years to make something, what do you do when demand increases strongly overnight? That’s a challenge faced by the whisky industry in recent years and NAS is part of the solution.
The Rise of NAS Whisky – a Triumph or a Tragedy?
The Blessing and Challenge
When whisky started to boom about 15 years ago, distilleries rubbed their hands together with glee. After all, greater demand means more revenue. Retailers, distributors, distillers, investors and bloggers stood to gain from the tremendous surge in demand and appreciation.
But the blessing soon quickly into a great challenge for distillers. Most manufacturers faced with demand increases will simply increase production to meet that demand. Things are different for whisky; it takes more than 12 years to produce a 12-year-old whisky. If demand increases slowly over decades, they can make do with reserves while they increase production. If demand increases rapidly, more novel solutions are required.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat and more than one way to address whisky supply shortfalls. Distillers around the world have employed numerous responses to modern demand surges, including:
- Reducing reserves
- Increasing price
- Reducing ABV to stretch stocks
- Selling younger whisky
All of these and more have been engaged but it’s selling younger whisky that has generated the most discussion. Buried within this is the rise of whisky with no age statement on the bottle. It’s usually referred to as ‘NAS’ whisky.
The Rise of NAS
It’s simple – if you can’t wait 12 years to bottle your whisky for sale, bottle it at a younger age. There’s no real legal impediment, Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey must be aged three years, and some counties mandate two. Heck, American whiskey has no legal minimum. As soon as you have reached the legal minimum a cask is fair game for bottling. Younger whiskies, specifically NAS whiskies, have been the most common strategy to address this challenge. Why is that so controversial? We need a little background.
The Hole They Dug
Prior to this boom, the whisky industry dug a deep hole for themselves. After decades of lackluster sales, starting with a terrible slump in the early 80s, they had huge aging stock reserves. Whisky just wasn’t considered all that cool or interesting. So the whisky sat in warehouses, biding time.
To make the best of this slow-moving older stock, the industry told us all how valuable it was. It was a key part of whisky marketing that fully permeated the cultural zeitgeist. ‘Age Matters’ was a slogan used extensively by one major whisky conglomerate. ‘The older the better’ became a commonly held belief. Many people still believe it. To get greater revenue from their aging reserves in leaner times, they convinced us we should pay more. A lot more.
The Rock and the Hard Place
That’s fine and good until you want to start selling younger whisky at a good margin to help fund distillery expansion. Time in warehouses doesn’t actually cost that much, it’s the people, equipment, taxes, marketing and distribution that you pay for. These costs are largely are the same for whiskies that are three years old and 63 years old. Five-year-old whisky will simply never be half the price of ten-year-old whisky.
Distilleries can bottle younger whisky and get it into market faster, but will people want to pay good money for it? That’s a challenge at the best of times, but when you’ve spent decades saying older whisky is better, it’s even harder. If older whisky is better, it must surely be true that younger whisky is worse? That’s a tough nut to crack.
The Way Out
The solution was NAS whisky. With the mindset distilleries had created it would be tough to sell five-year-old whisky at a small discount to their 12. But in fact, they don’t have to put the age on the bottle at all. If an age statement is given, it must reflect the youngest whisky in the bottle, but it does not have to be given. So long as the whisky meets the minimum age laws it can bottled and sold, and it can be done with no age statement. This is the eponymous NAS whisky.
Most Scotch whisky distilleries have taken advantage of this fact. Some have bottled young, raw whisky and charged a premium giving NAS something of a bad name. Others have combined older and younger stock to maintaining a fairly sophisticated flavour. One of my favourites, Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, is both an iconic whisky bottling and an NAS. Of course, it contains whiskies aged 13 to 30 year, not rough and ready three-year-old stock
As with any other framework for looking at whisky, there are good and bad among NAS whiskies.
The Truth About Age
The reality is, that while maturation is incredibly important to whisky, older does not necessarily mean better. Try asking any whisky lover what is their favourite whisky and the oldest they have ever tried. You’ll rarely get the same answer.
Sure, a lot of three-year-old stock isn’t great, it can be solventy and aggressive on the nose and palate. But a lot of 50-year-old stock isn’t great either, it can be woody to the point of extreme bitterness. For me the sweet spot is usually between 15 and 25 years. Sure, there are exceptions, but most of my favourites are in that range.
But whisky lovers weren’t actually angry about being sold young whisky. They were angry about the missing age statement. Angry that distillers told them ‘older is better’ when it suited and that it wasn’t better when it no longer suited. It’s the lack of transparency and lack of honesty that rankle.
The Other Truth About Age
When distillers were saying that age was so important, they were wrong. Age is a small part of what makes a whisky, not the only thing. Now that they’re saying that it doesn’t matter quite so much, they are right. They are now telling the convenient truth.
There are many NAS whiskies I like, and many I don’t much care for. But that’s also true of whisky with an age statement. I don’t have an issue with NAS whisky per se but I do believe in transparency. If a whisky is three years old I think it should say so on the bottle. They should never just dodge the question. I feel the same about E150A and chill filtration – make the whisky as you please and then tell us how you made it, please.
The Sensible Thing To Do
Unfortunately, I’m not going to get distillers to change their mind. They’ll keep making NAS whiskies, probably until the next global slump in demand. Then they’ll likely switch back to telling us the great importance of age again.
As a consumer, I accept that the age of most NAS whiskies will remain a mystery to me. And as there are good ones and bad ones, I’ll have to take precautions. I never buy a bottle of whisky unless I have tasted it myself or had it recommended to me by a friend whose tastes I trust. That’s true of NAS and age statement whisky alike.
While we’re talking about recommendations, here’s an NAS I thoroughly recommend. After all, I helped make it – Glenfiddich Project XX. Or how about the Teeling Irish Whiskey in the image above? They make great stuff too.
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Written for and first published in Glenfiddich Expert Blog.