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.
Why NAS? 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.
This whisky, the Dalmore King Alexander III (KA III forthwith) was a gift, and I am grateful for it. Especially as this retailed for over $300 when our local stocked it (it’s a state-owned store and they rotate brands, it is gone now). That price is definitely out of my ‘I’ll try it on a whim’ range. One wonders at the price, especially for a NAS whisky. What are we buying? There is a fancy box, as you can see (bottom of post), and all those flaps provide lots of inspiring verbiage:
A note on the box art, The Death of the Stag, a fine painting at the Scottish National Galleries (I saw it, an impressive painting indeed) on the right inner flap.
A note about the Dalmore Custodians, their loyalty program on the left inner flap.
Dalmore history, Dalmore’s general approach to marrying spirit, and KA III tasting notes (box rear).
So what does Dalmore bring to the party? Does this hyped-up NAS hold up?
Known alternately as Scottish Barley and The Classic Laddie, this expression from craft-distiller Bruichladdich is a NAS whisky.
I have to admit a fondness for the place after having visited; I like their style. It was our last day on Islay, and after a busy morning walking from Port Ellen to Ardbeg (more on that later!) we decided to head out into the hinterlands for a drive. We took the road out to Port Charlotte, a tiny village at the end of which the A847 went from two lanes to one. That was all for me, I had had a bellyful of driving on tiny little roads and we headed back the way we came. Portnahaven would wait for next trip!
On the way back, we dropped by Bruichladdich. The distillery had been enthusiastically recommended to us by ‘Uncle Charlie,’ our taxi driver for the Bunnahabhain/Caol Isla visits (more on that later as well). I unfortunately has well tired of photography (and the day was spitting rain as well) so I have no photos, sad to say. Except this one, of some local creatures which had just scurried out of our way:
It’s an interesting little place, a whitewashed structure and wall, through which you pass into an intimate little courtyard to park. The tasting room is through a brightly painted (turquoise) door, low-ceilinged, liberally provided with couches on which whisky overs lounged in quiet repose. There was the usual display of t-shirts, jackets and the like, and a wide bar where a kindly woman of mature years welcomed us gaily and immediately offered us a taste. Why, of course, why not? I expected the usual: “Here’s our standard, if you want more sign up for a tour.” But she led us energetically through tastings of four expressions (of which I took the tiniest sips, as I was still driving, grr.) We had the Classic Laddie, the Islay Barley (both unpeated), the Port Charlotte and Octomore (latter two peated). Note: though I growl about NAS whiskies, these all lacked an age statement and yet I enjoyed them all.
Sure NAS whiskies get flack from whisky lovers. We consider the age statement a definitive mark of quality, care, and investment by the distiller. The distillers will come back at us with arguments that ‘no age statement’ expressions give them the freedom to pick the best casks, etc. But I have to think, if we as consumers roll over and accept this, we’ll be on the road to what wine has become. Manufactured. And there will be apologists for manufactured whisky as there are apologists for manufactured wine. Take the article in the New York Times by Bianca Bosker just last March. When I read it I was certain, until it concluded, that the piece was a tongue in cheek sendup. I mean, oak dust? Liquid oak tannin ‘(pick between “mocha” and “vanilla”)’ — really? Ms. Bosker promoted the idea that we should accept products designed by committee for easy drinking palates, further straining credulity. I do not exaggerate:
“many mass-market wines are designed by sensory scientists with the help of data-driven focus groups and dozens of additives that can, say, enhance a wine’s purple hue or add a mocha taste. The goal is to turn wine into an everyday beverage with the broad appeal of beer or soda.”
We’re still on Island expressions, and time to address a No Age Statement offering from Laphroaig: the Quarter Cask. A quarter cask is a cask one quarter the capacity of a hogshead. Sounds official and specific, doesn’t it? It does, until you start looking at what a hogshead is, which is ‘a large cask or barrel‘ of anywhere from 55 to 63 US gallons. It depends. The Laphroaig folks explain that they use a ‘small‘ cask, which gives, compared the their normal casks, a 30% greater cask (interior) surface area for a given volume of whisky. A higher whisky-to-oak ratio, if you will.
That ratio, it is presumed, allows the goodness of the charred oak to infuse more quickly with the spirit, rendering a quicker maturation. They also point out that the surface-to-spirit ratio also increases the ‘Angel’s share’ of alcohol which evaporates out of the oak. True enough, and that evaporation is displaced with good sea air, of which Laphroaig distillery has plenty. In the end, this is a gambit to allow the whisky master to create a whisky with the balance and sophistication of a fully (e.g., 10 or 12-year) matured whisky with spirit what hasn’t aged as long. Alchemy, I say! Can you get gold from lead (well, without a nuclear reactor)?
We’re still on Island expressions, and the first No Age Statement release I’ve reviewed is coming Real Soon Now (Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask). But let’s talk NAS first. The lads at Whisky Waffle did an entire week on NAS; they tightened their belts and screwed down their green eyeshades and really went at it with as much seriousness as they can muster (they were pretty tough, actually). Their series is worth a read for getting some background on NAS, so I’m not going to re-fight that campaign. However, before I get to Quarter Cask, I’d like to get a couple facts about the NAS expressions we are seeing out in front.
The odd Supply and Demand Curve for Whisky
My feeling is that, while these days of rising sales and a limited supply of aged whisky have led to high prices for aged single malt, NAS should be a way for distilleries to produce more volume of good whisky. They can be a bit creative and mix in some newer whisky with the old and bottle more product. NAS should be a way of increasing supply, thus reducing price. I know this, I took a major in Economics, ceteris paribus and all that.
However, the opposite has happened. We’ve got more expressions than ever, and I have to surmise more whisky being shipped, but at higher prices. That’s counter-intuitive, and that got me curious. Here is a short survey of current aged and NAS offerings in my home state, Oregon. (Prices are set by the state, so are not affected by locality or time of year.) I have rounded to the nearest buck.