NAS Whisky Wars

by Curt

NAS whisky.  Non-age-stated whisky, for those not up on their whisky geek acronyms. The concept refers to those products that now sag the shelves in the Scotch whisky sections of your favourite spirit sellers, boasting clever names, garish packaging and a very noticeable lack of numbers on the label.  You know the digits I’m referring to. The ones that often influence the decision-making when it comes down to purchase time. The much-lauded/occasionally-resented age statement. The big, bold numbers that tell you just how long that precious amber liquid in the bottle has spent slumbering away in a barrel in some dark corner of a warehouse beneath the grey skies of our beloved Scotland.

So, just how important is that number on the bottle?  Depends who you ask. I suppose one way to gather a bit more data in the quest for enlightenment would be to pit some of these NAS malts against comparable age-stated compatriots and see who comes out on top, right?  Hmmm…perhaps. But not really. Because the debate really isn’t about good or bad. But we’ll come back to this shortly. In the meantime, dram versus dram. Winner decided via show of hands from those in attendance.

Cool idea for a tasting, right?  Yup. But someone has to talk about it.  Someone has to be the referee between the malts that were toeing up to battle head-to-head for supremacy.  Wonder who that someone could be?

It’s no small secret in the whisky world that I’ve been quite vocal with my stance on the subject.  Not only that, but I’ve been burdened with both a moral compass that steers me far from the philosophy that justifies NAS whisky and a deep-seated polyamorous affair with a few of the distilleries and brands most directly responsible for leading the foray into NAS territory.  Reconciling these two has been trying at times, to say the least.

Call me a cynic, but I can just see Andrew and Evan gleefully rubbing their hands together as they plotted this out over drams of Ledaig or Loch Dhu or whatever it is they sip in the solitude of the malt lair (ahem…Andrew’s office) and pencilled in my name next to ‘event host’.

So…sure.  Why not? Throw the new guy into the middle of the big controversy and let the proverbial sh*t hit the proverbial fan, right?

It would almost be a cop-out at this stage of the game to say that NAS whisky is the most controversial subject in the whisky world.  It may well be, but at this point, we’re beating a dead horse in front of an indifferent audience. The debate still rages on some blogs and forums, of course, and it does still generate a huge amount of dissension and vitriolic industry apologism (as well as countless unmerited attacks by brand ambassadors unwilling to separate their day jobs from consumer empathy), but the most stinging of the barbs and arrows slung in this war between sippers and sellers were fired several years back now.  Hopefully we’re at a point of civil discourse and forward-thinking.

I recognize that it’s not exactly a good time to quote Kevin Spacey, but let’s insist this is a movie quote, and not a Kevin Spacey quote per se.  And the reality is this is nothing more than a paraphrasing of the great Charles Baudelaire: “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

In a way, that’s what NAS whisky is really about.  Convincing the consumers that what they’re looking for on the label is irrelevant, inconsequential and…in a truly incredible leap of logic…that those age statements are actually a hindrance to progress.  When you boil it down to brass tacks, it’s all about audacity.

Having said that (causing saying any more would become a blue pill/red pill situation)…

I could have stacked the deck when it came to picking the line-up for this event.  I had half a mind to, but it would have been both contrived and disingenuous. And being disingenuous is what got us into this mess in the first place.  Not my style. The fact that I refer to it as a ‘mess’ should tell you all you need to know about how I feel about this matter.

My goal was to play it straight.  Let the whisky speak for itself and, while it did so, to share a few words about why the whole concept stinks like week old fish in the trash can.

And why did I want to do it this way?  Simple, really. This debate has never been about quality, no matter what the industry would have you believe.  It’s about transparency and allowing the consumer to have access to the information that allows them to make informed buying decisions.  Ultimately transparency puts all other arguments about the NAS controversy to bed. Because what happens when the discussion turns to transparency and its relation to quality is that there is an elephant in the room that inevitably gets addressed by the astute in the room.  The elephant is called ‘Price’. As soon as that factor is taken into account, suddenly age becomes more than relevant. It becomes paramount. How do we know what a ‘fair’ price is if we have no idea just what we’re drinking? And this…this…is the crux of the discussion that ensued.  While we chatted – and yes, it was a dialogue, not a diatribe – we let the whiskies tell their own tale (of the tape).

So…I dialed back the vitriol, boned up on a few releases I hadn’t spent too much time with in the recent past, and pulled together a range of whiskies that were bound to be both palate-pleasers and low-hanging fruit in terms of having easily-digestible nuggets of lore for expounding upon and discussing with the good folks who snapped up seats for this event.

First up:

Macallan vs Macallan

Is there a more polarizing brand out there when it comes to the NAS debate?  Doubtful. Macallan may not have been the first culprit, but many critics argue it has maybe been the worst.  The 1824 series the brand launched in 2012 set the bar (quite low, unfortunately) as to what is generally acceptable for NAS marketing tactics.  I mean, we’ve swallowed obtuse Gaelic references, wee Scottish beasties, historical nuggets and linguistic gymnastics, but shifting your entire brand’s marketing focus to colour?  Really? This range was not-so-affectionately referred to by many out there as the ‘stripper series’ due to the rather unfortunate adoption of monikers such as ‘Gold’, ‘Amber’, ‘Sienna’ and ‘Ruby’ for the four expressions in the stable.  But what’s in a name, right?

We threw one of these releases – Amber – up against the new(ish) Macallan 12 y.o. Double Cask.  Not the same old Mac 12 we once knew and loved, but a hybrid dram with far less depth of sherry influence than its predecessor.  Similar stylistically. Similar price points. Fair fight.

After letting ‘em duke it out for a few minutes while yours truly rambled and muttered, old man style, about the pitfalls of buying into any sort of campaign that markets opacity as a virtue, a show of hands said the winner was…

Amber.  Who knows how old she is, but let’s assume this ‘stripper’ is at least legal (let’s say that’s about 10 in whisky years).  Either way, she was pretty enough to pip the new 12 year old.

Round two:

The Berry Bros take on John Glaser and team Compass Box

Two blends with a substantial amount of age in their back pocket (but in one case, an undisclosed amount of age, to be clear).  The two whiskies throwing haymakers in round two were Kensington Wine Market bespoke bottlings released in 2017 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Calgary’s best liquor store.  The Berry Bros release is a fantastic 25 year old dram, delicate and clean, with a price tag far below what a 25 year old of this calibre should be wearing.  The Compass Box KWM Blend is an ultra-complex dram with a helluva pedigree and some absolutely stunning component whiskies.

In the end…

Compass Box scores the knockout.  NAS, perhaps, but while the bottle may not disclose all the details, that doesn’t mean we can’t.  Pop into the shop for a wee taste and a bit of pulling back the curtain on this one, if you find time.  We’ll let you in on a few secrets.

Round three:

Amrut Peated Port Pipe vs Ardbeg Uigeadail

Some similarities. Some differences. But close enough in style to be in the same weight class.

I wanted some peat in the line-up. It’s fun to talk about volatiles and half-lives and the merits of drinking your ‘liquid turf’ young or patiently waiting for mature peated malts. Not only that, but this little bit of friendly sparring allowed me to showcase a whisky from beyond the Scottish borders and a little off the beaten path. Always fun.

Breaking down preconceptions is one of the many job perks, I must admit. Uigeadail has a more earthy and robust peaty profile than even the most heavily smoky of Amrut’s offerings, but that’s not where the truest difference is to be found. The Islay bruiser also has a deeper vein of salinity and a medicinal edge that only comes from the coastal rain-saturated peat harvested from the oceanic regions of Scotland. Namely, Islay.

The Amrut, at a mere four years on, punched well above its weight class, but in the end was no match for the monstrosity of Ardbeg’s old school uppercut. Uigeadail, in all its smoky, sherried splendour, won out easily, in spite of much love shown for the syrupy and jammy top notes that cushion the sharpest tors of the Peated Port Pipe.

Three matches on the card. And in every case, the NAS offering won out. Fair ‘nough. But the seeds were sown, and by the end of the night, the questions that were flying spoke volumes as to which side of the fence the audience sat. I’ll say no more. Wink, wink.

But we had to close out with one more for posterity. And to drive home a point.

No battle here, just a chance to wind down and chat over a nice young drink that goes to show that whisky can be both young and delicious. That is incontestable. I wanted to include a dram of Kavalan Solist in the night’s range. Solist is another non-Scotch whisky that is bottled at about three or four years of age and drinks well-beyond its years. It is drams like this – not held to the same regulated standards as Scotch whisky (due to them not falling under the jurisdiction of the Scotch Whisky Association) – that make us question why its not becoming more commonplace to just say it and be proud of it: “I’m a five year old whisky, and I’m bloody delicious”. One day perhaps, one day.
This particular Solist was matured in ex-Portuguese wine barrels and is marketed as ‘Vinho Barrique’. Its intense and incomparable fruitiness is like nothing else on the market. Something about the subtropical climate in Taiwan brings out an amazing exotic and spicy edge to the whiskies produced at Kavalan. The casks breathe easy in the warmth and humidity and the depth of wood saturation can rarely be matched elsewhere on the planet. As for flavours? Nutty, with deep, dark fruit notes, Chinese five spice, orange zest and marzipan. Brilliant stuff. And a heck of a closer that should make anyone out there suspend their biases and admit that young whisky can be spectacular. In this day and age, there’s really no need to hide behind the cheat of NAS.

I could have spun the narrative differently, of course, but you don’t make a legit point when it’s based on manipulation and deceit. Instead, we keep the dialogue open and friendly, the information clear and easily-digestible and we march toward a day when the regulations that govern these things are put in place by parties with less of a vested interest in ensuring their fiscal bottom line supercedes the longevity of reputation.

- Curt
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Twitter: @allthingswhisky
Instagram: @curtrobinson7

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