In the last few years more and more whiskies have come to the market lacking a feature that few decent whiskies ever used to be seen without: an age statement. In this feature we'll be celebrating some of our favourites of this new breed of single malt.
Why are so many No-Age-Statement (NAS) whiskies appearing now? The answer lies in a study of the recent history and trends in the single malt market. Since the single malt boom took off in the early 1990s, distilleries have been releasing older and older whiskies onto the market at ever increasing prices, and consumers have naturally come to associate aged whisky with quality, exclusivity and high prices. In a nutshell, the formula was Older = Better = More Expensive.
This may be broadly true, but it's also problematic. Whisky is rather too complex for such a simple rule - for example, what about those people who don't like oaky whiskies and prefer the vibrant freshness and drinkability of younger single malts? The other problem is that after the catastrophic slump of 25 years ago, a lot of producers now have gaps in their inventories and find it difficult to keep up with demand for aged expressions.
NAS whiskies are the industry's clever answer to all these issues, but they're not a new phenomenon. Around the turn of the 20th century some early single malts occasionally declared their vintages - we've illustrated this article with a few very early NAS whiskies from Sukhinder's stash - but age statements were relatively rare and it's only relatively recently that they've become so important.
Glenfarclas were bucking the trend when they dropped their '105' edition's age statement in the early 1990s (it's now been restored as a 10 year-old), but even Glenfiddich, the world's best-selling single malt whisky, spent several years without an age statement and became a 12 year-old only a few years ago.
So what are the benefits of the new NAS single malts, and what makes them different from earlier no-age-statment whiskies?
Well, the benefits are clear: NAS whiskies mean almost unlimited flexibility for distillers and blenders to stay true to their distillery character without the shackles imposed by the law's minimum age rules, which state that if a whisky has a declared age it must be the age of the youngest whisky used. The embedded consumer idea that Older = Better means that producers feel they can no longer put an age statement on expressions using whisky less than 10 years old, as people will not buy it. The solution has been to simply drop the age statement altogether.
When Ardbeg's new owners had to discontinue their much-loved 17 year old due to lack of stocks, it was replaced with Ardbeg Uigeadail, which is a multi-vintage blend: a mix of old and young casks that enables the company to ration their remaining older whisky while ensuring continuity of supply. The old whisky gives Uigeadail complexity, while the younger casks supply vim and vigour.
This idea has caught on like wildfire with distillers keen to grow volumes without compromising on quality.
The wildly popular Aberlour a'bunadh is a classic example. Although a variety of different ages are used for each batch of a'bunadh, some malts in the mix are regularly under ten years old. Would a'bunadh be equally successful if some batches had an 8 year old age statement (even though some of the whisky used may have been up to 15 years old)? We doubt it.
Therein lies the difference between today's NAS whiskies and those of 25 years ago and longer. While early history's NAS malts were the norm and those of the 1980s or '90s were whiskies that started out with an age statement that had to be dropped (the Glenfiddich or Glenfarclas above), today's multivintage malts are created deliberately rather than by default. This means that they are NAS by design - in other words, the age of the 'concept' NAS whisky is here.
In the end, removing the age statement from a whisky elegantly sidesteps consumer prejudices about 'young' whisky and liberates the master blender to express his distillery's character in a creative way. It also forces people to judge the whisky on its own merits, without any preconceptions caused by a number on the label - and that can only be a good thing.