Thursday, October 4, 2012

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

In my first post on the subject of NAS whiskies, I talked about how some distillers are shifting major parts of their lines towards NAS whiskies, largely under the pressure of increased demand. Here I'd like to talk a bit about a second type of NAS release, the whiskies that have become the trademark of distilleries like Ardbeg over the last ten years. These are often special releases, meant to generate interest in the distillery. Sometimes this came about because the distillery was shuttered for a period of time, leaving a hole in their stocks that makes it difficult to put out a full range of age dated releases. Alternatively, whiskies are labeled NAS so that the distillers can experiment with new maturation techniques.

As I noted, Ardbeg has become the almost undisputed king of the NAS special release. The distillery was founded in 1815 and continued production until it was closed from 1983-1989. Production resumed, though at a low level, until the distillery was bought by Glenmorangie in 1997.

The new ownership began with a release of a 17 year old whisky, which was able to draw on stocks produced before the 1980s closure. At the beginning of the millennium, 10 year old stocks made after production restarted were finally available and a 10 year old was also released. However, the 17 year old expression was dropped back in 2004, leaving the 10 year old as the only regular whisky they put out with a standard age date (there are also occasional releases of 25+ year old whiskies for huge amounts of money). There have been a few vintage releases such as Feis Ile and Airigh Nam Beist special editions, but nearly everything else has been NAS.

The trend caught in 2003 with the release of Uigeadail. This whisky was initially a blend of very old sherry cask Ardbeg from the 1970s combined with much younger bourbon cask whisky from the 1990-1993 period. An age statement would have required them to label it as a 10 year old, even though a significant portion of it came from casks that were 20-30 years old. The idea was to balance out the older, sweeter sherry cask whisky with younger, beefier bourbon cask malt. And the results have garnered a lot of praise.

Since then Ardbeg has put out a bevy of NAS releases including:

Corryvrecken - a replacement for the vintage-dated Airigh Nam Beist
Blasda - a nominally unpeated Ardbeg (though a fair bit of peatiness crept in simply because their stills are likely full of the stuff)
Supernova - an extremely peated whisky clocking in at 100 ppm
•Rollercoaster - a vatting of whiskies from the first ten years of Glenmorangie ownership
Alligator - whisky aged in barrels charred to the point where the oak takes on the appearance of alligator skin
•Day - 8, 9, and 12 year old whiskies finished in sherry casks for 6 months, released for Ardbeg Day in 2012
•Gallileo - commemorating an experiment sending samples of Ardbeg whisky up into space, this was a vatting of ex-bourbon and ex-marsala cask whiskies

Ardbeg's marketing machine is second to none and sales of these special additions has been robust to say the least. Many have acquired "collectable" status, being snapped up and resold on the secondary market for significantly more than their MSRP. However, this means that it's very difficult to find anything other than the now standard 10 YO, Uigeadail, and Corryvrecken releases on store shelves.

Two problems present themselves: the first is whether or not the quality of these NAS releases matches up to the hype and the attendant price points. Take, for instance, Ardbeg's two latest releases, Day and Gallileo. Both were snapped up almost instantly, despite running near $100 a bottle for what even Ardbeg admits is pretty young whisky. However, there are rumblings that they might not have really been up to snuff, leading to some whisky connoisseurs starting to question whether Ardbeg is reaching the point of being overrated. Jokes are made about combining special releases to eke out another one and the proliferation of Gaelic names on special releases.

More important than the special releases is the question of whether the consistency of regular NAS releases can be maintained. Uigeadail has been part of Ardbeg's core range for almost ten years now and you've got to wonder how long the sherry cask whisky from the 1970s will/did last. Blind tastings of half a dozen releases of Uigeadail suggest that it's slipping in quality and if nothing else, it's simply changing. Sherry casks have been relatively rare in Ardbeg's warehouses and it's unlikely that many more were laid down during the 1990s. Which leaves new stock produced since Glenmorangie's takeover. Are they making it with 10-15 year old sherry casks now? Or is it whisky finished in sherry casks instead of a vatting?  It's hard to imagine that they could maintain the same flavor profile, even with first-fill sherry casks, but once the old stock runs out they will either have to drop the expression, which seems unlikely, or find new ways to produce it. And as the whisky is NAS, there's no way to know exactly what's going into each year's release. Would customers still pay $75 a bottle for whisky that's 1/2 to 1/3 as old as what went into the original releases? So far it seems like everyone is happy enough in the dark, but only time will tell if quality keeps up.

However, I don't want it to look like I'm simply wailing on Ardbeg as they are far from alone.

Just on Islay, almost every distillery has put out some kind of NAS release and often quite a number of them. Bruichladdich has any number of them, including their entry-level Rocks, Waves, and Peat expressions, which are all on the young side. Bowmore has their entry-level Legend, though most of the reviews are... not so good. Bunnahabhain has recently put out its NAS peated Toiteach. Caol Ila puts out an NAS cask strength release. And more instructively, Laphroaig has tossed its hat into the ring with the much more well-regarded Quarter Cask and Triple Wood offerings.

Laphroaig is an interesting case as they seem to be charting a middle way. They have several age dated whiskies in their 10- and 18-year old expressions, but there are also a number of NAS whiskies that have crept into the lineup over the last decade. Their Quarter Cask whisky offers a very interesting comparison with their entry-level 10 year old. The basic idea is that that slightly younger whisky is finished in 13 gallon (a quarter the size of standard 53 gallon bourbon barrels) casks, which imparts flavor to the whisky much more quickly due to the 30% increased contact between the wood and spirit. The logic for making Quarter Cask NAS is that maturation rates are much more variable with small casks, so the blenders need to be able to pick casks when they smell and taste right, rather than at a predetermined age. This is something of a radical departure for Laphroaig, which puts together their age-dated whiskies with formulas (X 10-year old casks, Y 11-year old casks, Z 12-year old casks, etc). And they have also chosen to price their standard 10-year old and QC at roughly the same place, with ~$5 between the two in most locations. So the question is, do you want to pay for more time in the barrel and a consistent flavor profile or would you rather pay for the time of the master blender who has to sample the casks more frequently to put together, what one hopes is, a relatively consistent whisky? In this case they both seem like valid positions and each has its partisans. Additionally, Laphroaig also introduced their Triple Wood expression, which takes the Quarter Cask system and adds an additional wood finish via aging in oloroso sherry casks. This whisky is positioned and priced to compete directly with Ardbeg's Uigeadail. Again, there are partisans on both sides, some preferring Ardbeg's old sherry casks, while others prefer the more heavily peated Laphraoaig.

Closer to the mainland, other distilleries have also hopped on the bandwagon. I've already reviewed a trio of NAS whiskies from Springbank that were created because the distillery was shuttered for most of the 1980s, which left a large gap in their aged stocks during the late 90s and early 2000s. So they put some younger whisky and a bit of old whisky together and tried to produce something that would taste reasonably good at a lower price point than their age dated expressions. As you can see from my review, the results were... mixed... The heavily peated Longrow was quite tasty, as tends to be the case with peated whiskies, and the Hazelburn had a certain purity to it, but the Springbank was a little bit flat. The whiskies don't seem to be the most balanced, which isn't terribly surprising given that they seem to have been created to hit a price point, rather than a flavor profile. And now that Springbank has a full line of 8-10 year old releases for their whiskies, it remains to be seen how necessary the CV range is going forward.

Similar to Laphroaig, Ardmore has also experimented with quarter cask aging for their Traditional Cask release. Reviews have ranged from the effusive to pleased to a resounding 'meh'. While I haven't seen any suggestions that its too young, complexity doesn't seem to be its strong suit, suggesting that most of the whisky is probably on the younger side. With that said, it's not terribly expensive, so it's something that I'll try sooner or later.

So what kinds of conclusions can be drawn from all of this? I think Ardbeg is the most interesting case, as they have taken NAS whiskies further than just about any other distillery, replacing most of their line-up with young, burley releases that have allowed them to reap incredible financial rewards. It is interesting that unlike Macallan, they have chosen to keep an age-dated whisky as their entry-level malt, filling in the higher reaches of their line with NAS whiskies. Laphroaig is taking a more complicated approach, with age dates above and below their NAS whiskies, which seem to be filling the area that would usually be occupied by a 14- or 15-year old whisky. Springbank is also being cautious, using NAS expressions as a cheaper way to get into their range of single malts, but also retaining a full assortment of age-dated whiskies.

Where will the trend go? I think a lot of it depends on Macallan and Ardbeg. If they can maintain their status and profit margins with NAS whiskies, then I have a feeling that many others will start to follow suit. NAS allows distillers much more flexibility and better margins by letting them bottle younger whiskies and still charge premium prices for them. But if scotch drinkers become disillusioned and stop snapping up Ardbeg's every special release, end up preferring Laphroaig's 10-year old to its Quarter Cask, or drop Macallan for, say, Glenfarclas, then we may see a return to the preeminence of age dates. I'm not a betting man, but if I had to put down a wager it would be that we'll eventually find a new equilibrium where age dates and NAS whiskies coexist fairly peacefully side-by-side. I think Laphroaig is probably the best example of how distilleries can handle this, putting out both for similar prices and letting customers choose whichever they happen to enjoy more. Wholesale switches to NAS seem more risky as age dates still hold a significant amount of power, both in understanding the cost of whiskies and as a status symbol (there's a good reason Macallan is keeping age dates for their 18+ year old whiskies). But ultimately time will tell and I will keep making my buying decisions on a case-by-case basis.


  1. An interesting and well considered analysis. NAS expressions are a symptom and a tool both. In situations like Uigeadail & Balvenie Tun1401 they can serve to push boundaries and create stunning new flavor profiles that can transcend mere issues of age. At the other end NAS can be a way to get us to buy under aged juice camouflaged with some mature stuff. (for the record, I don't necessarily mind that stuff if it's cheap and acknowledged - such as Glen Grant Major's Reserve).

    The trouble is how to recognize when it's done for creativity and when it's done as a blanket to hide slipping quality caused by scarcity of mature stocks. In old dusty Bourbon from the 70s-80s you sometime find "Glut" stocks - where more mature Bourbon was bottled labelled a younger age because there wa too much aging warehoused juice. Now we're seeing the opposite. So NAS is a dual edged sword. We will be discussing whether NAS expressions as they come up are "Dr. Jeckyll" or "Mr. Hyde" for years to come no doubt.

  2. Great post, Jordan!

    This is such an interesting time for whisky, as we witness NAS bottlings born from invention and those born from desperation / supply issues.

    I concur with Josh about the NAS successes like Uigeadail and Tun1401 (capital 'T' Tremendous noses on both). They seem like Modern whiskies, or Post-Age-Statement, as opposed to the obvious we're-low-on-our-usual-stuff NAS lineup arriving from Macallan.

    Since it's very difficult to know what to spend or how to value unknown spirits, I'm with you on the case-by-case (sadly not a case-of-whisky) basis.

  3. Balvenie Tun 1401 doesn't hide its age, though, and I wouldn't call it NAS. They list the ages of each cask in the mix, even if that list varies each batch.

    In many ways, I think it's a model. They blend based on flavor, achieve something reportedly awesome, and don't feel bound to make an 'ordinary' 25/30 yo. However, they also have absolute transparency. I'm perfectly fine on No-Fixed-Age, or No-Age-Priority, but I don't like the secrecy of NAS. I think most whisky drinkers don't care much if a whisky isn't that old if it's good, but many of us just like the info.

    An idea I've been kicking around in my head is a three-part age statement on whiskies [1] the minimum age of whiskies in the mix [2] the median age, where at least half the whiskies are the age [3] and the 90th percentile, where 90% of the whiskies are younger, and 10% are older. Something like that gives a good picture of what's in a whisky, but allows a bit more flexibility to distillers to bottle what they feel like.

    1. That would be an ideal solution. I have a bad feeling that the distillers would rather not. They've argued for so long that older = better that it's a bit of egg on their faces to now turn around and put in younger whiskies, especially since customers might look down on those expressions.