An illogical ageist

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Following my recent post about poor quality no-age-statement releases we have received many comments here on the blog, on social media, by email etc. From all of us here at EWB – massive thank you! The community is what makes this blog tick and we always welcome your opinions. Most of you agreed with what I said, some of you didn’t and that’s what gave the discussion flavour.

Other whisky bloggers also decided to chip in which was again very welcome. We saw early contributions from Billy and Gal and some time later also opinions from Jason, Neil, Miss Whisky and others (also worth noting are past and present post by the ever-ranting Oliver the Barbarian). They are all friends and it was really good to see the blogging circuit finally discuss something. Frankly, amidst its undeniable boom the whisky blogging scene has missed a little bit of its claw. Sheer focus on individual expression reviews and a good volume of purely informational pieces has made us all, as whisky enthusiasts, better equipped to make good purchase decisions than ever before. But somewhere along the way we have, in my opinion, lost what made whisky blogging appealing in the first place and that’s relevance to the big picture. A piece of software can generate news articles but it takes a human to have an opinion and, oh horror,  it takes a funny, well-informed or at least an annoying one to have an opinion others are going to bother reading. I’m as guilty of this pedestrianisation of whisky writing as any of my esteemed colleagues blogging from the depths of their whisky dens around the world, so it was really refreshing and personally satisfying to finally have people disagree with me again. What a relief, we’re not dead.

But as in every situation when people disagree, there is a slightly bitter side to the story. While a lot of the points made, whether in agreement or disagreement with my own, were very good and valid, some of the criticism I received, chiefly at the hands of our good friends at caskstrength.net and Miss Whisky, was, in my opinion, fired off in the wrong direction. Some of the opinions I have been challenged on I never expressed and never will. I’m afraid in some cases predictive reading was employed and while my unashamedly linkbaiting title No-age-statement will kill us all may look like a prelude to an all-out criticism of all NAS whiskies, in fact not only my intentions but indeed the words under the title were nowhere near there. I’m really struggling to see where I said all NAS whiskies were shit or where it says mature whisky is always better. I mean, the only NAS whisky I actually named was one I loved. I praised the innovative nature of many NAS releases. I referred to the problematic NAS as the ‘modern NAS’, the ‘new NAS’, the ’21st century NAS’ and simply ‘taking the piss’, these are of course all shorthands for ‘let me begin by stating loud and clear that not all NAS whiskies are bad and yes, I have seen a bottle of Red Label before and I realise NAS is at the foundation of this industry’.

Did I really have to say that? What are we, ten? Am I really condemned to the back seat if I don’t call shotgun in time?

I have been showered with examples of good NAS whiskies. Aberlour A’bunadh, Balvenie Tun 1401 and various Ardbeg releases being the most popular projectiles. Thank you, I have tried them, I love them, I have nothing against them and yes, I agree they have personality and flair and I’m sure they are appealing to many consumers as they are to me. You win. And everything I said about the money people taking the piss, the infuriating trend of replacing information with ‘copy’, stock profiles suffering and the bad NAS releases damaging brands and category, well, just disregard it. You know examples of good NAS so clearly no further investigation is needed.

(See what I’m doing here, I’m painting unfair caricatures of your opinions to my readers just to make it easy to counter them. I’m good at it, right?)

But hey, it’s all good fun. What matters is that we all care. Show me a heated discussion among vodka bloggers about production in the premium segment shifting from potatoes to cereals… I’m pretty sure they don’t feel that strongly about it. Probably too busy beating their wives anyway. Having opinions and showing a bit of attitude is the perfect sign that NAS won’t really kill us all (and no, in my previous post I didn’t mean we were physically going to die of drinking NAS whiskies).

What I really speak out against, and I can’t stress it hard enough, is greed and leniency. Yes, market is going though a correction but that’s no excuse for idiotic inconsistent pricing which does not reflect quality. Yes, I know NAS won’t really kill the category, I’m just warning against the potential threats of abusing it with raw stock, especially at price points where newcomers to the category are most vulnerable. Yes, I know NAS whiskies allow blenders to use their stock more efficiently but I don’t want the final result sacrificed in the process.

Hopefully you can see that calling me an ageist based on this is like calling me a racist because I’m not colour blind. Sorry but I won’t let you do it.

To sum up, I think my respectable critics and I actually agree on something like 93.8% of the whole argument but we’ve somehow missed each other in this discussion, talked about slightly different things. Despite me implying some of my colleagues didn’t read my post carefully, I’m probably the one to blame for not spelling out the obvious basics. To my defence, I had no way of knowing how big the discussion would get, had I known I would have prepared the ground better.

It would be great to read more opinions about NAS whiskies and their role in shaping the futire of the category.  Please keep them coming.

Comments

  1. Good points here Lucas. I should point out that the piece I wrote wasn’t specified at you personally or the piece you wrote; it was about a lot of things I hear across the spectrum of whisky conversation both with people on the blogging side and at the production side, although I may not have spelled that out entirely clearly. Hopefully that makes sense :) – Cheers – MW

  2. Ah. But surely everything ever written is about me, me, ME! (spot the narcissist)

    Sorry, MW. Should have checked. Would you like me to make a note of it in the body of the post?

  3. There is no such thing as NAS whisky, only NAS labels – there is NO whisky process involved in making a bottle “NAS” or not, just a decision whether or not to withhold the age from the consumer. As the label, by itself, can neither enhance, nor detract from, the whisky’s actual quality, all NAS really represents IS the withholding of production information from the consumer, and it only benefits the industry and not the consumer at all – and so NAS-labelled products should be opposed by consumers on that basis alone.

  4. Chaps,

    I’ll give you my two-cents:

    The Scotch Whisky regulations state that it’s only legal to disclose (either on the label, or in marketing materials*) the age of the youngest whisky in a bottling.

    This means therefore that if a bottler were to put together a single malt containing:

    95% 35yo Beautifully subtle, floral, tropical-fruit laden Refil-Bourbon casks
    5% 10yo Raisinny, Christmas-cake-packed Top Quality Brand-New-Oloroso-Sherry-matured casks the colour of treacle

    They would legally be obliged to:

    1) label the single malt as 10yo
    2) not mention, ever, in any capacity the fact that it’s composed almost entirely of 35yo whisky.

    Leaving aside for a moment the rationale behind creating such a bottling (we’ll come back to that later), I don’t agree that providing the consumer with the only information about its age allowed by law (10yo) is beneficial in the larger picture.

    It’s obvious that many bottlers are frustrated by this (myself included). For an example, just have a look at the Fact Sheet provided by Compass Box for The (absolutely superb BTW) General, and read between the (already pretty punchy) lines: http://www.compassboxwhisky.com/pdf/TheGeneral.pdf

    A quick skim of the Scotch Whisky Regulations referred to in that PDF (here for reference: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2009/2890/regulation/12/made) reveals that they’ve been made so incredibly simple that no-one can get it wrong, and no-one unscrupulous can fuck with spurious wordingabout to the detriment of consumers.

    I can see what the SWRs were trying to achieve by simplifying things, but my view is that the over-simplification may be to the detriment of consumers in some (not all, and probably not even ‘most’) cases. My personal view is that should bottlers choose to disclose the age of the whiskies in a bottling, they should be able to, within tightly controlled parameters. Maybe this should just be appended to the existing clause 12 in those regs? Something like:

    (4)

    (a) Any reference made to more than one ‘Maturation Period’ (including both year of distillation and year of bottling or age) must be accompanied by a reference to the proportion (to the nearest integer percentile) of that whisky contained in the blend.
    (b) The percentiles referred to in (a) must total 100.
    (c) All statements made with reference to (a) must be in the same field of view, and equally prominent.

    To come back briefly to the rationale for a bottler creating that whisky – if you read that and thought ‘but what – that’s mental – you’re mixing really old whisky with really young whisky’, (be honest now) then YOU, my friend, are part of the bigger problem.

    You can’t drink an age statement, you do drink a liquid. If the blender feels that the liquid needs to have something younger injected into it to provide notes not present in older stock (a real consideration given wood-management policies of 35 years ago), why should we be upset about that happening? It’d be like storming into the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant and telling the chef that he can’t use pepper in his dish because it’s not the right age.

    This said, I do want to know whether or not my lunch contains pepper. The problem is that as the law stands, I’m not allowed to know, because the chef isn’t allowed to put it on the menu.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to prepare an invoice for legal drafting services to post to the SWA.

    *which includes fora such as this one

  5. Ben, very good points. Lucas, also very good points, though perhaps a bit pointy, in part. There are clearly high quality NAS whiskies. But, there are also rather doubtful characters within the NAS category. And they are pushed hard by the marketing side of the business (hey, we all need to make money…). I do not like that. It is to the detriment of the industry as a whole, in my opinion. Hence, when we are now releasing our first whisky (Smögen, Swedish malt), it is very clearly indicated that this is a 3 yo whisky, complete with type of casks, Barley strain and phenolic content. More information is, to a certain extent, always good. NAS equals less information and that is therefore not good, as a general standard. But the vatting (!) of a 35 with a 10 yo should mean a high quality whisky and within today’s set of rules in force, there is a case to be brought for NAS, just as evidenced by Ben. Tricky issue, easy to mis-manage.

  6. Ah, yes – the old “age statements would do terrible injustice to all the old malt which REALLY is in that NAS bottle” argument – said, of course, in the same breath as “it’s really in there but we can’t tell you how much”, which is pretty convenient – and which drives the marketing of Blue Label to this day.

    “To come back briefly to the rationale for a bottler creating that whisky – if you read that and thought ‘but what – that’s mental – you’re mixing really old whisky with really young whisky’, (be honest now) then YOU, my friend, are part of the bigger problem.’ – say what? I’ll believe that I’m part of the problem when you show me an NAS that’s 95/5, 35 and 10. How many producers are almost filling NAS-labeled bottles with 35, spoiling a HUGE money-making age statement with a smidgen of 10, and then putting no age statement on it at all? If you reverse those percentages, you’d be much closer to the composition of the VAST majority of NAS-labeled whiskies – and that’s still being very generous with the amount of 35, isn’t it (be honest now)?

    That said, Ben’s idea about complete disclosure of composition would, of course, solve the entire problem, but it won’t become a reality because the industry wouldn’t want it – it’s having far too much fun selling the urban legend that NAS-labeled bottles are almost filled with 35.

  7. Hi there,

    exactly Jeff. Sorry for repeating myself but I find the technique of NASing whisky thoroughly dishonest if I may say so.

    First you prep youngish whisky up with an infusion of some old and mature casks – to give it substance and to make it palatable in some cases?
    The freedom of the blender can not exist on young whisky on its own it seems.

    As Jeff says what are the proportions of old to new whisky? Are these older casks justifying the high prices of most NAS bottlings? Not in reality most of the time but at the point of sale they have to. How else would you be able to sell 3-5 yo offerings for the prices they ask from you?

    And if you pay this price with the promise that your NAS contains some real old whisky – you get that old whisky watered down with 3-5 yo youngish stuff.

    The EC should make it a rule to disclose the contents of NAS bottlings in percentages of the ages of whiskies used for any NAS bottling.

    „This NAS bottling of Glenwhatsitsname consists of 90% malts between 3-5 years, 5% of malts 5-10 years 3% of 10-15 years and 2% of 15-20 years of age.“

    Then you can decide if its worth 50 Pounds to you if you are prepared much money for a dishonest fake whisky.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

  8. NAS is to age statement to what lab-created diamond is to a diamond from a mine. Lab created diamonds might be clearer, cleaner and better in every aspect, but the reason to ask for a lot of money is gone, and only a fool would pay the same price for it as a diamond.

  9. I don’t find NAS labels better than age-statement labels; they sometimes tell me a nice story (more often than not understood to be fable), but they don’t give me more information. As for “NAS whisky”, there is no such thing – there’s no process that makes a whisky “NAS” except at the label printer – unlike age statement whisky, in which the process of oak maturation is guaranteed for a minimum duration.

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