How to determine what is worthwhile to purchase.
How do you pick your whisky? Do you pick a cheap or known brand after staring at the bottles on the shelves in Tesco, desperately trying to make a boring trip for the bread and bog roll that little bit more exciting? Or are you like a kid in a candy store when in a specialist whisky retailer, wildly trying to guess what is good and wanting to buy it all? I’m both, and will often take a punt based on recommendations or knowledge of the distillery.
But based on a couple of questions asked by a follower of this page why age and abv makes a difference, I have decided to write some more words of advice. The concept I am going to follow is from a fellow whisky blogger, Roy at Aqvavitae.com who has done a useful guide on this, and its the concept of A, B, C, D. While I expand on this, anything I write here is my own words and thoughts and not plagiarism. This is because what we are going to discuss is common to all whisky fanatics, and some duplication is inevitable. Certainly Roy’s system is a very useful one.
The A, B, C, D’s of whisky in choosing a bottle are
A = Age Statement
B = Bottling Strength
C = Chill Filtration
D = Dye
In essence, you can read the label on the bottle, and by applying the ABCD principle, it will assist you in sorting the whisky wheat from the chaff.
In the first section, this week we will look at the age statement.
What is an age statement?
The age statement is the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. Under the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009, a spirit has to be matured for at least 3 years in an oak cask as part of the rules to be called Scottish Whisky.
In order to produce a range of whisky of thousands of bottles, casks of various ages and types will be ‘married’ together to make up a consistent flavour profile, and is repeatable across the batches. This blending is still a single malt, as it is the produce of one distillery only.
The age statement is the youngest whisky in the recipe, regardless of the volume that whisky in the mix.
A single cask whisky will normally always have an age or vintage attached to it, as it is the produce of one cask only.
Why is age important?
Age is important as it tells us the youngest whisky in our mix. It is a benchmark of value. Although I would imagine that the bulk of a whisky bottle will contain liquid of the age stated, I also know that there will be older whisky in there. But we won’t know the proportions of the mix, unless we have inside knowledge. So the age statement gives us a benchmark to a minimum value.
Is there an alternative to the age statement?
Yes. Some whiskies have a year on them, also known as a vintage. This is the year that all the whisky in the bottle was distilled. This doesn’t always tell us the age, unless the bottle says when it was distilled and bottled. Some do also carry a stated age. This is sometimes the case with single cask bottlings. Otherwise to tell how old the spirit is, you will have to know when that bottling was released to have an idea of the age.
What is a Non Age Statement? (NAS)
A whisky that has no vintage or age on it is known as a Non Age Statement. They will just have an edition name such as Talisker Storm, Macallan Genesis, Ardmore Legacy, Glenmorangie Signet.
Why use a Non Age Statement?
NAS whisky is produced mainly because of one fact. Due to the rise in popularity of whisky, there is now a shortage of aged whiskies for the drinks companies to make their blends, or to make up the single malt recipes. So they have to use younger spirit.
The problem is, due to the SWA regulations about stating an age, even if there is a drop of young whisky in a bottle that otherwise has an average age of 12 years, if it has a younger whisky in the vatting, that is the age in the bottle, regardless of the average age.
And here is the issue that the manufacturer is trying to overcome – what would you reach for on the shelf? Would it be a whisky that is largely 12 year old spirit that has to be labelled as 3 year old due to a tiny proportion of young whisky in the mix, or a bottle that has a minimum of 12 year old whisky in it? Pretty much the same drams, but the perception is people will go for the older labelled whisky.
The other things that companies may use younger stock for is to perhaps aim for a price point or to stretch out a range. The young whisky in my mind is used as a filler spirit.
Essentially the whisky companies are trying to avoid stating the fact they are using young spirit.
Is using NAS an issue?
While the companies are trying to avoid consumers knowing the fact they are using young spirit, this shouldn’t be a problem, as young whisky doesn’t mean poor quality all the time. But younger whisky is cheaper, and if you put a young age on the bottle, the manufacturer will maybe struggle to charge the price for the older whisky that is in the mix. Of course price is a good guide as to what is in an NAS whisky, but the problem is this :- you don’t know the proportion of cheap whisky in it. Young whisky also has less cask influence and is more spirit led. If the new make is poor, the young whisky will be awful as the cask hasn’t had time to condition the spirit into something palatable.
If it is a cheap bottle, there is the clue, yet Macallan regularly sell NAS for hundreds of pounds, but you have no guarantee of what’s in there. Again the price is the guide, but there is no guarantee of the value you are getting unless you drink it to find out.
How many of us would be able to tell the proportions of the age by taste? The more experienced can, but I personally think it’s madness to pay hundreds on NAS whisky. This is more an issue if buying on the secondary market – a £500 bottle probably contains £250 of whisky. Pay more on the secondary market as a collector or drinker then you are paying for hype, packaging and are possibly caught in the cycle of supply and demand.
Therefore only an age statement sets the benchmark of what we can expect in the bottle.
Another YouTube vBlogger, Ralf Mitchell (ralfy.com) refuses to review NAS whisky. This is a man who certainly knows his fine spirits. He’s reviewed 3 year old drams though, and given positive feedback, which is a sign young spirit isn’t unnecessarily bad, but he does push that the age statement is the sign of a measurable quality.
Yes, my whisky friends, he is not wrong. I often wonder what the age statement on Jura Journey would be…. Point proven.
So young or NAS whisky is rubbish then?
No. Not by any means. I’ve had some cracking drams that were under 8 years old (See my Octomore Review – only 5 years old), and I’ve had disappointing drams at 12 years old in the past. For a review in the next month or so, I sampled a Glenlivet NAS, and I kept wanting to have another. It wasn’t even an expensive one, but had an unusual finishing. You’ll have to wait and see what it was. The age statement is no absolute guarantee that you are going to enjoy yourself when you have a nip.
Personally, I’ll give kudos to a distillery that are confident enough in their product to be up front about the age, regardless of how young it is. The simple fact is you will eventually have to taste to find out.
Read reviews before you buy. Try in a whisky bar. Or just take the plunge and buy a bottle. It is up to you if you want to risk the cost, as you are then relying on your knowledge of the brand and are at the mercy of marketing. But one way of looking at it is that a decent bottle is usually only 27 more nips away….. However, the vast majority of Single Malt NAS whiskies are very good. You just don’t fully know the value. Age is only a guide.
I have tasted many NAS statement whiskies, and in many cases have been satisfied with what I’ve had, but in common with Roy from Aqvavitae, I’ve found something lacking. In some cases they just feel engineered, tinkered with, or something just not right. Or, they taste exactly what you’d expect from a young whisky, raw, rough around the edges, bit of a let down. That’s not to say that the distillery is bad – it just might need a couple more years maturation. As an example, see my review of Kilchoman Machir Bay. It is a young whisky as it isn’t an old distillery, but this has the making of a great whisky and I do look forward to trying other expressions in the future.
One has to take their hat off to distilleries that start up and don’t use NAS statements to get the money coming in. That’s why I can’t wait for Ballindalloch to eventually release bottles. They are waiting until it’s ready. Being a small distillery, supply will be limited, so perhaps the price may be higher, but it will be worth it.
A vintage or age statement is a benchmark to help us evaluate the quality and value of a whisky. To be fair, some age stated whiskies can still be disappointing, but at least you have a clue as to what you are buying with a stated age. Don’t be afraid to try NAS bottles – there are rewards to be had. I’ve tried Laphroig Select, Dalmore King Alexander III, Allt-a-Bhainne and enjoyed them all. Perhaps not as good as their age statement equivalent. Remember that an age statement is only one method of looking for a good whisky. If you taste it, your palate should be your guide and there is no issue if you prefer an NAS expression. Each to their own, and drinking pleasure is what whisky is all about.
But, when comparing whiskies on a shelf, there are other clues to look for on a bottle – the next one being bottling strength.
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