Are NAS whiskies days numbered?

Non Age Statement whiskies or NAS because who not like an acronym are whisky bottles which do not state an age on the label. In 2017 these shy whiskies have a pretty bad reputation with both casual and regular whisky consumers. If that really is the case and whisky producers make cold decisions based on the sales how long will NAS be around for and are they already on their way out?

First of all lets dial the argument back and get some background information sorted out. For scotch whisky the age on the bottle of whisky must refer to the youngest cask used in the bottle. Therefore, if you have 30 casks of 30 year old whisky and you accidentally empty in a 3 year old cask by mistake then you can only put “Aged 3 Years” on the label. Even though this age refers to only 3% of the bottle you are selling that is the rule. This is sensible because what you do not want to happen is the opposite that 30 casks of 3 year old stuff is blended with one cask of 30  year old well aged whisky and they slap on a cool “Aged 30 long years” statement and charge thousands.

Now we have established how the system works we have to consider why that is a problem. The answer to that is simple and ultimately self inflicted by the industry. Since at least the 1960’s whisky producers have been marketing there whiskies and pushing the message that age is important for whisky. The basic premise is that the older the whisky the better the quality. This meant producers could charge more for their older whiskies which they had a good supply back then.

This system works well when stocks are high and demand for whisky is low. The problem comes when whisky demand is high and your well aged stocks start to run out. Now you do not want to empty all your lead casks and have nothing left to sell, you want to start rationing them. The way to do this is to use filler casks which haven’t aged as actively in your bottlings or haven’t been in a cask as long. Once you get to the point your filler casks are a lot younger than the leading flavoursome casks you do not want to display the age because the target price for your bottle is more than the lower age stated bracket will take. At this point you drop the age statement and construct a marketing narrative to justify the price without being overly transparent about the whiskies within.

That is the root cause of why age statements have been dropped. The consumer has been so well educated that age is the definitive reason for price that a low age statement will be a barrier to consumers considering your product regardless of quality. That is an important point to remember here that just because a bottle does not have an age does not mean the quality is poor or that the producer has removed the age to con you out of your hard earned money.

There is absolutely a case that going NAS frees up producers to produce interesting and exciting new batches of whisky. For example we know that the younger the whisky the more vibrant and punchy a peated whisky will be. If those punchy young casks which have matured well are married with older mature stocks with lots of depth and layers then you have the potential for a great product. The worry would be that the market cannot stomach a bottle with a face age of 6 years at £80 (for example) even though the whisky provides great value if tasted blind so what other option does the distillery have? It is not allowed to be fully transparent so it must be fully opaque.

So if the only issue is some number not being printed on a bottle of whisky that is actually very good what is the problem? Well the problem is really two fold: Firstly the whisky is not always great, sometimes under matured whisky is being put in a bottle with a flashy advertising campaign and pushed heavily by a catchy narrative. Once bitten twice shy as they say and humans always seem to remember and moan loudly about bad experiences over good ones. Eventually, you get a critical mass of disdain and all NAS whiskies are tarred with the same brush.

The second problem  revolves around product placement and pricing. If the producer has a core range of age stated bottles but also a similarly sized range of NAS bottles which are all offset by a price increase over the aged bottles you have to wonder why that is. Are you just being sold essentially the same product but in a nicer box and being charged for the privilege? Again, trust in the producer is lost and sales will ultimately be affected.

From the summer of last year I have noticed a change in the new releases. We are seeing a lot more of the large producers releasing age statement whiskies with single digit ages. Eight and nine year old whiskies are becoming more common place where the minimum age used to be ten or twelve. The quality of these is not bad either a particular stand out example is the Travel Retail Exclusive Bruichladdich Eight Year Old which really highlights the fruity clean spirit from my favourite Islay distillery.

The few years of NAS releases from 2013 to 2015 has reset the consumer expectation away from entry level malts being aged to nearly a teenager. Now the entry grade whisky can proudly display 8 or 9 and still sell well. Previous entry level bottles of 12-15 years can now be pushed up the price ladder and profits blossom accordingly.

Perhaps that was the plan all along?

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