The NAS debate

I don’t think I’ve ever written a post on the NAS debate that’s keeping the whisky industry and aficionados in its grips ever, except the April Fools post a couple of months ago, but I have mingled in the discussions on Twitter and Facebook every now and then.

What it boils down to is this (and this is a generalization, at best):

On one end of the spectrum there’s ‘the industry’ who see their stocks rapidly dwindling because of huge demand. They, being a business, capitalize on that by selling for increased prices and bottling younger stock to cope with demand. A lot of this younger stock is bottled under the NAS label. This means there’s no age stated on the label.

On the other end of the spectrum are ‘we’, the whisky geeks. People who want to know all ins and outs of the industry and preferably each dram we drink. The whisky geeks feel ripped off by all these NAS labels, since they feel they’re being sold younger (and often worse) whisky at higher prices. If the quality of a decade ago is what you’re after, you have to shell out big.

Of course, there’s a lot more to this debate, but above standpoints are more or less what it boils down to. Other arguments are that NAS is flavour driven instead of age driven. Also that the quality and consistency has increased by not limiting oneself to a certain age bracket. Counter arguments are (and there are some examples that stave this argument) that the quality generally is lower than what it used to be, you’re being sold crappy whisky at premium prices, and the industry is trying to hide itself behind all kinds of excuses.

Anyway, I’ve tried to go against my usual demeanor by not being overly cynical about people who try to sell me stuff. I try to evaluate a whisky based on its merits, and not on what the label or PR company tries to tell me. I do have to admit, however, that I have barely ever bought a NAS whisky of over € 50. I just can’t bring myself to spend € 140 on Glenmorangie Signet, although it’s good.

Yesterday, in a post written by Gert Claus, of the Belgian ‘Tasty Dram‘ blog I found a statement that rang very true to me:

Once a certain price ceiling is reached, I do think an educated customer is entitled to more then the basic marketing lingo.

I think this hits the nail on its head. Not because it flames NAS whisky for what it is, but more what we whisky geeks want. We want info. We want to be in the know (Yes, like Redbreast).

This is what bothers me about most of the NAS bottlings. I don’t care that some whisky is technically only 6 years old, but expensive. As long as it’s good. And the producer/bottler has the guts to tell me what I’m drinking. Like Gert said, the colour doesn’t tell you anything. Colour like the Macallan Ruby can be achieved in half a year.

I spent quite a lot of hours reading about whisky. About the chemical processes creating flavours. About how maturation affects flavour. About barley strains used. About ‘terroir’ in distillery’s products. About marketing, production, history and future. Many geeks do this too. We want to know.

There are some notable exceptions, and I hope people will do this more and more often. Ardbeg Rollercoaster had on the label how old each cask was that went into it, and how big the overal percentage in that age bracket was. Balvenie’s Tun 1401 bottlings have a list of used casks on the label. Batch contained a cask from 1991 and older ones. There’s only cask numbers but with some effort you can figure out what’s what. I hope this will become a trend. We whisky geeks don’t mind flavour driven whisky. We don’t mind young whisky. We don’t (generally) even mind paying good money for a decent dram. But we want to know what we’re drinking.

Even this whisky industry used to want us to know what we were drinking. When, in the 80s, Single Malt started to take flight age statements were rapidly added along with more and more info on labels to make ‘us’ (between quotes, since in the 80s I was mostly drinking milk) more discerning drinkers. It was used by ‘the industry’ to stand out from the crowd. “Look at us giving you a 14 year old whisky!”

About Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer

I'm very interested in booze, with a focus on whisky. I like to listen to loads of music and play lots of Magic: the Gathering, and board games too. I'm married to Anneke, have two daughters Ot and Cato, a son Moos and a cat called Kikker (which means Frog, in Dutch). I live in Krommenie, The Netherlands.
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