To state or not to state?

Age Matters CampaignThe world’s leading producer of luxury Scotch whisky, Chivas Brothers, is today launching a global campaign to advocate the importance and value of age statements to consumers – Reads the first paragraph of a press release that has just landed in my inbox. Surprised?

A lot has been said recently about moving away from age statements and judging whiskies purely on their merit. In various publications, on blogs and through discussion forums numerous examples have been brought up to support the thesis that age does not really matter, young can be as good as old and the ‘very old malt blended together with very young malt’ approach has produced some stunning results last year and the year before (think Uigeadail). But recent market research ordered by Chivas shows that 94% of consumers still believe the age statement serves as an indicator of quality, 93% believe that older whiskies are better quality and 89% actively look for an age statement when making a decision to purchase. In the same time only 10% understand that an age statement refers to the youngest whisky in the bottle. From 1 July Chivas Brothers will start encouraging customers to look for age statements on their whiskies, through point-of-sale display, advertising and PR.

What does it mean?

Chivas Brothers are making a clear statement here. Enough of cheap young stock being sold under the ‘rare and limited’ umbrella. If you want to charge premium, offer premium in return. Stop fiddling with the process, make good and honest whisky and the results will come… It’s all easy to say while sitting on a heap of great old stock, don’t you think? And where would the industry be without innovation?

Both age statement and no age statement approaches make sense to me. I have tried enough ‘ancient disasters’ to know the value of a great entry level whisky. But I have also seen enough disrespectful marketing, milking enthusiasts and collectors. I’m interested to know what you guys think! Tomorrow morning I’ll be talking to Neil Macdonald from Chivas, I can pass on questions/praise/criticism so don’t be shy and leave a comment.

Lucas

Comments

  1. The age statement attached to the England football team was greater than that of the Germans, but who played the better match?

    If Chivas were committed to informing the public and honestly assisting in steering them beyond the, let’s be honest, initially rather inscrutable facade of style and legality which, for good and bad, encumbers the industry they would not confuse marketing with education. They say that “Much of the complexity of Scotch whisky comes mainly from its time in oak casks in Scotland; with outstanding spirit and excellent wood management, it follows that the longer the maturation period, the more complex the whisky.” (Taken from the full press release on What Does John Know?) To their credit they did not come out explicitly and say that older is better. However, the equation is certainly heavily implied. Putting aside the fact that almost all of Chivas’s products come with age statements, it is a gross abuse of influence to dupe the confused man in the supermarket with sales agenda, not fact for it does not, as sadly only the more experienced whisky drinker can begin to appreciate, always follow. If Chivas are spawning customers who will graze the offerings of this ever-expanding and diversifying drink with only that consideration in mind, the initiative risks back-firing and driving them away again when a couple of bad experiences shake the entire belief system of those age-statement disciples, and they are back at Square One.

    It is rather worrying, though, is it not, that 94% of people believe age indicates quality, but 90% of those haven’t the faintest idea what that number actually refers to in the contents of the product they are buying? It is a prejudice which has, of course, served the companies who label by age well in the past. Is this Chivas rather reasserting the conservative and misleading myths which of course are being challenged and made out-dated by the recent spate of NAS bottlings and the coverage and acclaim they have received?

    To finish with my own experiences with the “older is better” chestnut, I came by a sample of 30yo single cask, cask strength Caol Ila which was, as far as flavour was concerned, 99.9% wood. Last night I tasted the Second Release from Kilchoman and was astounded by how good it was. A tenth of the age but ten times more satisfying.

  2. To sum up, if this approach from Chivas also includes examples of how their “outstanding spirit and excellent wood management” create stunning whiskies at any age (for this, I would have thought, “follows”, too), then they are to be applauded for responsibly demonstrating the variety and variables at the heart of this spectacular drink, all of which make it so very special.

    Any move to educate is praise-worthy, but I feel it should be more transparent: objective as opposed to prescriptive. Please Chivas; don’t serve a mixed message. Are you saying that your 18yo is better than your 12yo? Or is it simply DIFFERENT to it, with different qualities appreciable in different contexts to different people? Whiskies are as individual and variable as the people who buy it, and that should be the key mantra.

  3. I partially agree with Chivas’ statement. I agree that premium prices should give premium whiskies and age statements are a small part of it.

    Not that I think that young whisky is worse than older varieties per se, but I do agree that rediculous prices are asked for increasingly young whiskies.

    I am a bit afraid of what the rise of interest in new make is going to do to prices of aged whisky in a couple of years.

    I don’t say that I require an old whisky, but I think it should be priced accordingly. A cheaper product to make should be cheaper on the shelf.

  4. I believe that the reasons behind why this topic is so contested is that the word “premium” is being stretched to cover many aspects of malt whisky, and let’s not forget that it is the single malt side of the coin we have taken and ran with for the purposes of this post. Chivas may be focusing on the blended sector, in which it is one of very few brands to provide an age statement on entry level bottlings and I would imagine where most people gain their first introduction to whisky. For every one person who buys a bottle of malt, eleven others will buy a blend so it is fair to interpret that this is perhaps the angle Chivas are coming from.

    To return to malt whisky, though, and something Lucas mentioned, would an enforced age statement on Ardbeg Rollercoaster have lowered the price or created a more moderate purchasing environment? No, because for collectors and increasing numbers of malt enthusiasts, the concept behind the bottling was “premium”. With the well-documented official website troubles and sign-up rates for the Ardbeg Committee on the day of release, Glenmorangie Plc. could have charged triple, such was the demand. In the malt sector especially, more and more people are not led by the nose with age statements. Age statements are partly an attempt at determining a consistent character for a brand or expression so that customers may pick another bottle from the shelf six months after polishing off their last one and know they are drinking the same dram. But then why have Laphroaig turned to releasing their 10yo Cask Strength in batches? The variety in malt whisky which is brought about by the inexact and unpredictable science of making it is now precisely what appeals most. Individuality and uniqueness is now “premium”, too.

    There is a line, of course. Companies cannot squirt out sub-standard products with “premium” price tags just because it is single cask or was originally put in cask for some minor dignitary, for example. Therefore, education must go deeper than age statements: type of cask, fill of cask, filtration etc. You wouldn’t necessarily want a delicate malt like Jura or Auchentoshan after it had been left in first-fill Sherry for 25 years. You also wouldn’t necessarily want a marriage of any malt out of third-fill casks after only 10 years.

    More comprehensive education in the whisky sector will mean that there is a customer base who operate like arbiters to keep the whisky makers honest about what they are putting out there, and would ensure that marketing does not preclude quality. Then again, on that basis maybe it is in the industry’s best interests to keep as many of us confused and in the dark as possible… Is this the first of many forthcoming exercises in disinformation?

  5. I think that Chivas are likely to agree that age is just one factor that can have an influence the quality of a whisky. To argue or even suggest implicitly (as Chivas appear to be doing) that older = better is misleading.

    I’d be interested to know whether anyone at Chivas thinks that a 12 year old Ardbeg is a better whisky than a 10 year old Chivas bottling, for example?

  6. Hi there,

    since posting over at Maltadvocate I watched the Chivas video that goes with the campaign here

    http://www.moodiereport.com/document.php?c_id=31&doc_id=24548

    My feeling is that the catch phrase is “Look for the numbers!”

    And I do not know what to make of a campaign of a self declared “The world’s leading producer of luxury Scotch whisky, Chivas Brothers.” for educating the masses about the age of whisky in a way that seems a bit undeclared to me and who has just extended the capacity of its major single malt whisky distillery Glenlivet at about 75%.

    What do I mean with that? Maturing whisky to a certain age is not all. Industrial mass-production increases the possibilities of mis-production and mass has always been the enemy of quality. Big distilleries need big cask storages to fill the whisky for maturing.

    I am repeating myself.

    And the whole thing uncomfortably reminds my of something Diageo has recently done to its “premium” rum Zacapa 23.

    23 meant 23 anos, 23 years old. In the same cardboard box with the same features and colours and octogonal form is now a rum which calls itself “Systema Solera 23″. In that the 23 is still prominent in the middle of the label but it no longer stands for 23 anaos, 23 years old.

    Cardhu repeating itself but as it is a rum the outcry has not yet been heard.

    Look for the numbers! They alone will not tell you much and could be deceiving.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

  7. Age statements eh? Complicated stuff. The discussion becomes complicated because it has many elements. Price, value, taste, personal preferance.

    Perhaps the best way to decide for yourself is pick your top 5 favourite whiskies. Even maybe top ten, then work out the average age. You could do mean, median and mode to see the spread of your results. If they are all above the 15 year mark, perhaps you agree with Chivas statement.

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