One thing that sets us firmly apart from animals is the ability to think strategically. Sure, all sorts of wild beasts think ahead but I’m pretty sure we’re the only species on the planet with the ability to plot a five-year plan onto a spreadsheet. And it’s not just our big brains and all the modern aids that let us do it. Planning is not really about looking ahead and imagining things. It’s more about looking back, finding patterns and figuring out when and how things that happened in the past are going to happen again.
That’s why we (and I’m saying ‘we’ because whisky pays my bills and I guess that means I have to carry my share of the blame), the whisky industry, in our infinite wisdom have decided that since we’re booming at the moment there is absolutely nothing to worry about and we can stop all that nonsense about the quality of our product being both our shield and sword in the fight against other categories, global economy, governments blaming us for people dying after drinking gallons of cheap lager every day, etcetera. That’s it. We have reached the end of history. A lot of wise people sitting in their offices all around the country, and indeed abroad, have read that big fat book about the history of whisky and they have decided that nothing bad was ever going to happen to us again. This is great news, we can now reverse the trends we worked so hard to establish, we can stop caring about informing consumers what’s in the bottle, how old it is, who made it and how. All we have to give them is the brand. The brand is all that matters. We have built so much equity that we’re practically drowning in it. Please, oh please, let us spend some.
The whole modern no-age-statement movement started fairly innocently. There were quality releases from well established names, there was a good deal of innovation and thought being put into it and off the back of that there was success. For me the turning point was Glenmorangie Signet which with its elaborate packaging, great story, big price tag and, above all, great liquid was the pinnacle achievement of the 21st century Scotch no-age-statement. But also in its all-too-pleased-with-itself way it became a one bottle Mannerism to the Renaissance of focusing on the liquid regardless of its age. A swan song of an era and a cue for everyone else to start abusing this new found cash cow. Every man and his dog is after NAS now and some of the liquid out there makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Not in a good way.
And innovation? What innovation, let’s make money!
I’m not going to name names on this occasion as I think it’s only fair to criticise liquid when you actually have it in front of you in a controlled environment. There will be time and place for that. But you know who you are. All I want to say is that this new and evil no-age-statement trend while bringing you quick cash for young stock is also badly damaging your brands and the industry in the long run. Not to mention the weird things it’s doing to the stock profiles… every bottle of single malt whisky sold at the age of 5 today is one less bottle of 12 year old in seven year’s time. Call me Einstein.
A top brand exec at one of the famous blended whiskies recently half jokingly referred to his colleagues in the single malt part of the business as those who’re after the ‘easy money’. He meant it in the nicest possible way, single malts are booming and people want them badly so arguably selling them isn’t exactly rocket science. But what he said rang true with me on a different level. In my opinion the category has become complacent and careless with what is being released. The gap between the great classics and the entry level is widening. Some of the icons are making right fools of themselves. Brands which have ranges spanning über premium decanters filled with ancient whisky destined for some oil baron’s office to 6 year old no-age-statement which differs from my wife’s nail polish remover mainly in colour, shouldn’t be surprised when they see their credibility with the international whisky audience plummet.
Commentators hate it, distillers hate it and, above all, single malt enthusiasts hate it. But shareholders love it. So the category will keep acting like that dog that eats and eats and eats until it throws up. And then the stupid beast eats more and eventually, if there is enough food around and nobody there to stop the poor fucker, it will die. That’s strategic planning dog-style and that’s precisely what we seem to be doing.