If you’re new to the modern whisky/scotch market, you might be confused to read about the term “NAS”, even if you know that it stands for “No Age Statement”. How can a whisky have no age? Why does the term matter, and why does it seem to cause such controversy in online discussions? Let’s dive in a little bit.
First, know that NAS is just a new term for an old concept. Labeling laws in most whisky-producing countries specify that if an age statement appears on a bottle of spirits, that number must reflect the age of the youngest component in the bottle. You can’t combine 10 year-old whisky and 30 year-old whisky and claim a “30” on the label. This is a consumer protection regulation that was created in the middle of the 20th century (in many parts of the world) to combat misleading labels. During and immediately after Prohibition in the United States, for example, the fraudulent labeling of illicit (and later legal) alcohol was rampant. Still, only a few types of products actually required an age statement (such as American straight whisky aged under 4 years), and as the vast majority of products available in the 1900s were blended products, many did not carry a number at all, leaning instead on vague marketing terms such as “Very Old” or “Ancient”.
In fact, it wasn’t until the so-called “whisky loch” of the 1960s, when a drop in demand caused a vast buildup of ever-increasing-in-age barreled whisky in Scotland (hence the image of a “lake” of whisky), that desperate producers began pushing the advanced barrel age of their products to distinguish them in a market flooded with cheap and trendy vodkas and gins. This eventually created a consumer perception that aged whisky was better whisky, and that there must be a direct correlation between age and quality (there was, after all, a measurable correlation between age and price). The concurrent marketing push that created the single malt category (nearly all malt created in Scotland was used for blending until this point) further gave credence to the idea that an age statement (as well as the name of the distillery of origin) was a mark of quality.
Fast-forward to the early 20-teens, when scotch whisky producers finally began getting what they’d been asking for: demand. A confluence of Internet social media, the growth of the kind of hipster-ism that values authenticity and legacy in products, and relatively low prices left over from the whisky loch created a global frenzy for aged brown spirits. Seemingly overnight, the industry went from dumping barrels of older Lagavulin into batches of the 16 year-old because Diageo had no market for old distinctive casks, to finding their stocks stretched so thin that store shelves were staying bare for weeks or months between deliveries. Those old barrels suddenly found a home as producers discovered they could sell anything with a recognizable distillery name and an age statement. There’s the rub: with all of those old whisky loch stocks eaten up, and not enough mature whisky in the warehouse to bottle a brand’s standard age-stated lineup, producers found themselves with a Catch-22. If they met demand by releasing younger whisky, they’d have to lower the age statements. After all the marketing work and consumer re-education of the 1960s, this seemed like brand suicide. If, however, they stuck to the stated age statements, they’d be unable to capitalize on the whisky craze when the shelves went bare, which was unacceptable to shareholders. The answer was obvious: drop the age statement altogether.
Whisky producers were clever about this, however. Knowing that modern whisky consumers were a sensitive, trend-driven bunch with the Information Age at their fingertips (and after seeing what happened when even minor changes were attempted), they looked to turn a negative into a marketing positive. Re-write the narrative: release a special-edition, limited-run concoction with an obscure Gaelic name and a somewhat relevant backstory, and say it was created by the semi-celebrity house “master blender”. Claim that this special blend required some younger whisky to be mixed with the older stuff, and explain away the lack of an age statement. However you feel about this, it turns out to have been a genius move, and was quickly copied by just about everybody in the industry. Some brands even began replacing their standard lineup with NAS stand-ins.
Now, before you take to the streets with picket signs demonizing NAS, realize that the approach is not all smoke and mirrors. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house or commit a violent crime, NAS can be used as a tool for the creation of a whisky that is better than the numeric sum of its parts. Two shining examples of this are Aberlour a’bunadh and Ardbeg Corryvreckan. These are both outstanding distilleries and prove that you can make a better whisky by carefully combining the vibrancy and potency of young whisky with the mellowing concentrated sophistication of old whisky. The a’bunadh is a better sherry bomb for that vein of bright fresh red fruit running through it, just as the Corryvreckan is better for the tart, youthful peat that balances the settled, round, mature Ardbeg. One cannot claim that either of these is an attempt to stretch stocks because they are both bottled at (or near) cask strength. If these companies were just looking at the bottom line and cutting corners, they could have easily released 50% more cases by bottling at the minimum of 40% ABV and keeping the Gaelic name (and probably the price).
Here’s the problem: The advent and proliferation of NAS, while not inherently an evil thing, removes information that was previously available for customers to make informed choices. Because of NAS, it is now somewhat harder to pick a bottle, untasted, from a shelf and have a reasonable expectation of the quality of its contents based on the label. Without an age statement to go by, you might pick up a gem like a’bunadh or Corryvreckan, or you might end up with a dud like Talisker Storm, which has dropped in price 50% in the 6 years since its release. NAS forces customers to either become better informed or to take a higher risk at the register. A downside, no doubt, but a historically unavoidable consequence of the burgeoning popularity of our favorite spirit.
One last note, because this always comes up. The aging of whisky in oak, in general, makes it better. The relationship is not linear, however. The improvement from 1 year to 3 years is amazing (indeed, it turns “malt spirit” into whisky). The improvement from 10 years to 15 years is somewhat reliable. The improvement from 20 years to 40 years is by no means certain. Many an old bottle of whisky has turned out to be a sludgy, over-oaked blandfest not even remotely worth the tax dollars it took to keep that barrel on premises for so many years. Similarly, some types of whiskies are arguably better at younger ages: many bourbons become undrinkable after the 15 to 20 year mark due to the use of new oak and hot warehouse conditions. Peated whiskies often lose a significant degree of smokey potency after the 16 to 18 year mark (becoming different, not necessarily worse). The use of some finishing barrels (still wet with their previous contents) can completely mask the subtleties of a malt whisky if left to age for more than a year or two.
In conclusion, I’d like to point out that while I prefer age statements to NAS labels, I can appreciate the market forces that brought us to this point. In the ideal fantasy world in my mind, all whiskies would have a detailed chart on the back of the bottle, showing every component in the blend/vatting, including the exact barrel provenance, warehouse location, barley strain, percentage of volume, and age of each. Producers who failed to reveal this information would be shamed out of the market, and legal oversight would penalize those without records to verify and support the published data. Alas, this is not the world we live in, so instead I taste NAS whiskies alongside their age-stated brethren, and I report back to you, dear reader, so that you can make a more informed choice.