Thursday, September 6, 2012

The NAS Dilemma: Blessing, Curse, or Simple Reality? Part I

One of the growing trends in both the scotch whisky and American whiskey industries is the proliferation of 'no age statement' spirits. In some cases, these are new expressions, in other cases spirits that were previously age dated have dropped their claims. Change is almost always contentious, especially from long-time consumers who want to keep buying the same whisk(e)y that they always have. So is this good, bad, or something that we're simply going to have to live with?

Age dates present a certain amount of difficulty for distillers. First and foremost it means that they have to sit on stocks of whisk(e)y until they pass a certain point before they can be blended together to make their final products. Whiskeys/whiskies must be labeled with the youngest spirit going into the bottle. Even if, say, a bottle contained 99% 30 year old spirit and 1% 5 year old, the label would have to say that it was a 5 year old spirit.

In a sense this is a bind of the distillers' own making. For decades, marketing departments have created a perception among consumers that older spirits are inherently better and should command exponentially increasing prices with age. Old spirits were made to embody luxury and sophistication, while younger expressions were often thought to be downright plebeian.

Whether this is actually true is extremely complicated. Spirits extract flavors from barrels and oxidize at varying rates depending on a host of factors including temperature shifts (as the liquid heats up, its volume increases, pushing it into the pores of the wood), location in the warehouse, the quality and type of wood that the barrels are made from, and any other number of things that are difficult to quantify (though Buffalo Trace is striving mightily to nail some of them down via their Single Oak Project). So when new make spirit is dumped into two nearly identical barrels that are stored side by side in the same warehouse, it's entirely possible that years down the road they will taste very different from each other. This is why single cask/barrel releases are often so fascinating, as we get to see the variation that is normally swallowed by the skill of the master blender in creating a consistent flavor profile from a wide variety of casks or barrels.

So while most distillers have used the system of age dating to their advantage, many are now presented with a dilemma: demand for scotch and bourbon is increasing strongly right now, but few predicted this rise ten or twenty years ago when the stocks that are now ready to be bottled were originally laid down. So many are struggling to keep up with demand. But there is a potential out - dropping the age statements. Without that constraint, it's theoretically possible to use younger stocks that have the flavor profile the blenders are looking for to create something the same or at least very similar to their previous age dated expressions.

This is the tack that that Macallan is currently taking with their whiskies in the UK. The company recently announced that all of their whiskies younger than 18 years old would become NAS and from here on out be graded by color. Reactions have been, to say the least, mixed. As some have pointed out, Macallan has been selling NAS whiskies for years now, but they haven't always been flying off shelves. It is kind of galling to hear a major distiller intimate that there is any correlation between quality and color, though Macallan has stated that their whiskies will not be artificially colored with E150 caramel color. Older whiskies can actually be quite pale, while newer whiskies can absorb quite a lot of color quickly, especially from first-fill casks. So as far as I can tell, this is mostly a gimmick and just replaces the old constraint of age with a new one, which means that the blenders now have to find barrels with the appropriate color, not just the appropriate smells and flavors, to make their whiskies.

Macallan's new NAS "1824 Series" via Master of Malt

And we get to the ultimate question: are customers willing to pay the same, or sometimes more, money for younger whisk(e)y in the bottle, even if it tastes the same? There is a certain logic behind paying more money for older spirits. Evaporation means that a barrel can lose anywhere between twenty and seventy percent of the spirit it started with over the course of a decade. Warehousing isn't free. Aging whisk(e)y means that capital is tied up for a very long time. Older whisk(e)y can become over-oaked, making it nearly useless for anything but bucking up younger whiskies.

The announced prices for Macallan's new whiskies mirror the old age-dated expressions, with the entry level single malt coming in around $55 (same as the old 12 year) and rising from there. On the one hand, it doesn't feel quite right to be paying the same amount of money for younger whisky. However, it might take more work from the blenders to sample a larger range of casks to pull the NAS whiskies together. But ultimately we don't know and it's harder for a regular customer to judge what an NAS whisk(e)y should be worth.

Ultimately that may not matter. As David Driscoll of K&L Wines has noted, a lot of customers really just don't care. They're buying an NAS whisk(e)y because a friend suggested it, they heard good things about it, the brand has been talked up, or any other number of reasons. Some, like Black Maple Hill bourbon, have been flying off shelves despite the lack of age statements on their labels. And many will argue quite rightly that how the whisky tastes is more important than anything else. But for distillers, it is still a risk. They can do all the market research ever, but no change is guaranteed to succeed. Only time will tell whether Macallan's almost wholesale switch will come off well or if consumers will drift to other brands that continue to use age statements.

What are your feelings about the trend so far?

8 comments:

  1. I think Erik Vanderhoff says it best in the comment section from that Atlantic link: "I do not even what the entire f*ck."

    A whisky's sensory experience is what is most important, so Ardbeg's Uigedail and Corryvreckan make it very difficult for me to criticize big prices for NAS bottlings. But (I think) those are amongst the exceptions and not the rule.

    The Macallan brand maneuver seems so wrong-headed that I'm still waiting for it to be revealed as a joke. Darker color means better? Then Famous Grouse must be fabulous. Yes, the Grouse has e150a, but so do hundreds of other "dark" whiskys. They're saying, "Yes, but the Macallans are dark, for real!" But that seems like a weak foundation to base a brand.

    It only got worse when they revealed their pricing. The entry whisky's price is higher than the 10yr Fine Oaks and Sherry Oaks, about the same price as the Cask Strength, and slightly more than the 12yr. How are they going to get people to buy it? How are they going to get people to pay $200 for "Ruby"? This is quite the challenge for their marketing folks.

    Macallan 12 was one of THE iconic modern whiskys. Why should Mac 12 fans buy "Gold" when there are many other "Gold" whiskys out there?

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    1. I think they're banking on entry level single malts going up to the $50+ level across the board. If that's the case then Macallan's name recognition might be enough to carry the day. But, as I've discussed with a few people before, a pretty healthy chunk of Macallan's sales are to people who are buying it for prestige and age dates were a big part of that. Will those people feel the same way with NAS expressions? It's hard to say, but it's definitely a risky move.

      Personally, I kind of hope Glenfarclas gets some love out of this. I like their 12 year a lot more than Macallan's and it's usually cheaper to boot.

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    2. I'm rooting for Glenfarclas here too. They release great whisky, probably my favorite sherried bottlings, and do it without a marketing/luxury machine.

      That's a good point about those folks who buy Macallan for prestige and age dates. Again, more risk. That's probably why Mac's continuing the 18 year.

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    3. I agree re the Glenfarclas. It's actually one of my go-tos when introducing people to whisky. It definitely seems like a risky move on the part of Macallan. And color is no indicator of quality, while there is at least some correlation with age....so I for one am going to avoid the NAS Macallans.

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  2. Now I'm really confused. According to a recent posting on Whisky For Everyone, Macallan will continue to sell the age statement line in the US, Southeast Asia, and Russia. This means we won't be getting the 1824 Series. At least for now.

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    1. You're right Eric. But if it's not a flop in the U.K., then you can bet that the NAS whiskies will be coming to other markets.

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  3. Personally, I hate NAS, but only because I'm a curious little bugger. I'm perfectly happy to buy whisky which is a good value for money. I'm not going to stop buying Bowmore Legend because I know it's only a 7-year-old, or several bourbons if I know they're technically 4-year-old. However, I'd love to know. If the new basic Macallan is a mix of 8, 10, and 12 year old stocks, that's fine. Tell me. I'll buy the whisky if [1] I like it [2] it's competitively priced. Still want to be a little cagy? Break out the cognac labels. VSOP / XO / Bonnie Prince Charlie, or whatnot.

    As a marketing tool, I really think it's a mistake from Macallan. Their brand in particular is a 'bragging rights' whisky. They sell a lot of it to people who want to be seen to have an expensive whisky. These color names? Who can tell which is the most expensive just by listening to the name? For another distillery, that probably wouldn't be a problem. If this was even something like Glenmorangie, then it wouldn't seem quite as stupid.

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    1. I think a lot of it is that the blends will probably change significantly from bottle to bottle and Macallan wants to preserve a sense of continuity. Admittedly, that's also true for age dated whiskies (except for Laphroaig, which seems to just use a fixed formula for their blending), but the variation is probably smaller.

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