This post will appeal best to those who read The Economist. If that’s not you, this entry will appear rather wonkish; you might want to skip to the bottom for the summary of tested expressions.
NAS as a concept has taken the industry by storm in the last five years. This trend is driven by two factors: a restriction in supply of aged whisky used in traditional expressions and increased demand in the Far East (backstopped by continuing popularity in the West). And unlike other products, the supply of suitably aged whisky is restrained in an insurmountable way: there is no way to go back in time and put more whisky in barrels.
The supply and demand interaction has two facets: if the distillers don’t react to higher demand with higher volume, the inevitable result is higher prices for their product and customer discontent; secondly, if the distillers fail to capture their share of the growing market, they risk losing market share to rivals.
There industry has been able to increase production in recent years and thus has more younger whisky available. If they can sell younger whisky, a distiller can capture an expanding market. The result? The invention of NAS expressions.
That begs the question: does single-malt whisky benefit by being aged 10 to 12 years? And if so, aren’t distillers losing something by selling younger whiskies? After all, if aging is good, the sale of NAS expressions involves selling less aged product, hence less good. But would the distillers admit that? I mean, really, can we trust big business to come clean, admit they did not plan well and offer lesser whiskies, but at a lower price?
No, of course not. When has any big business admitted a shortcoming?
Tradition vs. innovation
I’ve worked for a range of businesses from small startups with a handful of people to the present 150,000-employee monster I work for now. Some trends are self-evident. Bigger companies veer towards marketing to drive business, and the product can suffer from too many analysts and not enough visionaries. These are people paid to create image and sell image — products that pretend to do something, but really don’t (I’ve seen this countless times in the tech industry)*.
Most of the companies exporting Scotch worldwide are large; most are businesses within multinational conglomerates. I suspect in many cases the business is heavily influenced by marketers and businessmen looking to grow revenues and expand margins, less so than by the malt masters. And Marketing? Well, I think it is…
The great evil
In the original Bedazzled of 1967, Peter Cook’s Spiggot (the devil in human form) explains to Stanley that he has been in a rut: “I thought up the Seven Deadly Sins in one afternoon. The only thing I’ve come up with recently is advertising.” Since then, he’s added marketing.
Marketing forbids the admission of any shortcoming in a product; it is the art of positive reinforcement. Hence, we are told that designing a NAS expression “frees the malt master from artificial restrictions on which casks they choose for a bottling.” It makes whisky better! Which is total BS…they have always had the ability to mix casks. In a 12-year old for example, they can pick any cask they like, so long as it’s 12 or more years old. Or they can use 8-year (and older) casks, just call the result an 8-year expression. A free hand, within the law. Instead, in a no-age-statement bottle we have to suspect casks as young as the legal limit (3 years) may be included. And I defy you to make the logical argument that, on average, younger whiskies are going to be better than aged, given the number of barrels under consideration.
Here is where the sleight-of-hand comes in. The distillers often play with different finishes to crank up the taste (cover the taste?) of their NAS expressions. They offer finishing for some time in smaller casks, wine casks, port casks, and so on; each approach adds flavor. Fair enough. They also have gussied up the packaging and marketing with Legends, Superstitions, Magnuses and Storms aplenty. This bit of redirection serves to distract the consumer from the expedient behind the NAS concoction. Again, tolerable, I can tune that out. What does set me back is, as I previously I pointed out, NAS whiskies often sell at higher prices than the distillery’s traditional expressions. (!) This defies the law of supply and demand.
The whole point of NAS being to overcome the restricted supply of 10-to-12-year old casks. It follows there is more of the younger stuff, and a higher supply of a product should force prices down. Here’s a chart of increasing supply — note how price drops, given a steady demand. That’s pretty wonkish, but it tells the story.
Interestingly, in the last six months, a number of NAS whiskies have gone on steep discount, so perhaps market forces (as opposed to marketing forces) have begun to tell.
Tasting and the bottom line
So by now you’ve tagged me as unromantic and practical. In reality, I do enjoy the history and tradition behind my dram. For example, I was mightily impressed by the Balvenie’s superb presentation of their operation, and a bit put off by Glenmorangie’s big-business slickness. Although the distillery-prepared malt is only 10% of the product, the Balvenie’s presentation was not smoke and mirrors, and the product lives up to the hype. In the end, it is mostly about the taste, relative to price.
So, do the NAS expressions taste any good? I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of the NAS whiskies I’ve tried. A couple made sense after a discount in price. Some just do not work at all. Ardbeg and Bruichladdich seem to get it, Talisker and Highland Park came around with sensible discounts, others are still not ‘woke.’
Here’s a recap with my unabashed opinions.
Ardbeg Corryvrecken: Pricey, but delivering the promised intensity and craft. This is a major step-up from their 10-year expression and, though expensive, delivers on impact, intensity and finesse.
Bruichladdich Scottish Barley: Young and delightfully so. Not really part of the NAS trend so much as Bruichladdich’s unabashed approach to terroir as their focus. A good value for a craft whisky.
Dalmore King Alexander III: Overpriced and over-presented for what they deliver.
Glenmorangie Astar: This is a near-miss. A better whisky than the 10-year but also costs more than double the cost; overshadowed by the distillery’s own 18-year expression which, for just a few more dollars delivers far more luxury, taste and smoothness.
Highland Park Magnus: Originally priced higher than, and is inferior to, their 12-year. Given the current (discounted) price point, perfectly sensible as an alternative to the 12. HP has a number of new NAS expressions, and all pricier than the 12-year-old in my burgh. I’ll give them a review in the future with some interest and skepticism.
Jura Superstition: Just not a good whisky, and priced ridiculously, at least here in the US.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask: Many love this offering from Laphroaig, such as the Whisky Waffle guys (though they admitted “There is without doubt still a sense of rawness about it” – my issue exactly). Did not light my fire; I prefer the 10-year, which is a favorite.
Talisker Storm: Like the HP Magnus, it originally came out priced at a significant premium to the standard, in this case Talisker 10. Storm’s current pricing makes sense, and at a discount provides a sensible alternative to their traditional (and excellent) 10-year.
Bottom line: A few expressions you see above changed my expectations. I’ve found distillers who create a really good NAS and put high quality product into it. Some produce almost all NAS, but craft their style around a young whisky. Others seem to have tried to pass off a lesser product as superior, and came up short. As always, your palate may come to other conclusions.
*The reason I write under an alias is so I can say stuff like this. And keep my job.