Opinion: Non age statement whisky

Queen whisky

With age everything changes; it matures and oxidizes. Whisky is no exception, because as whisky ages in oak casks its flavours develop and its chemicals change due to interacting with the oak. When I was growing up most whisky brands had a range of ages; an entry level 12 year old whisky, then an 18 year old whisky, then a 21 year old whisky etc. Such age statements are disappearing from whisky bottles. When I was walking through duty free in an international airport recently, I noticed that I was hard pressed to find anything with an age statement on it. In this post I argue that consumers should bear in mind that all that is guaranteed is that the whisky in these non-age statement bottles are at least 3 or 4 years old; a far cry from the “entry level” 12 year old expressions that are fading from our market. Take heed.  

I was speaking with a retired senior executive of one of the world’s major spirits producers one evening (let’s call him Bruce), who proudly said that he was largely responsible for introducing a number of iconic brands into the market. Among them were non-age statement whisky; being whisky that does not have an age (i.e: 12, 15, 18, 21 etc) on the bottle. “Oh”, he paused during the chat, and then said something like “you need to be wary of those non-age statement whiskies; they let whisky producers get away with putting very young whisky in a bottle”. Whisky is usually a blend of whisky from different casks, either from the one distillery or multiple distilleries (apart from single cask whisky, of course). The impression I got was that when a bottle of whisky has no age statement on it, there seems to be a real risk that very young whisky can be – and is probably likely to be – included in the bottle and skillfully masked with older whiskies.

This makes sense. Let’s think about it for a moment. There has been an explosion of non-age statement whisky on the market over recent years. Whisky sales have increased around 70% over the last year, according to one brand ambassador with whom I recently spoke. That means it is bad business to wait 10-12 years to mature a whisky, which was probably the minimum age of most single malts before the whisky boom. Consumers are thirsty. They want whisky and they want whisky now. More importantly, they are prepared to pay big bucks. The solution to this situation where demand for whisky outstrips supply of whisky appears to be, at least from what I am told, releasing non-age statement whisky.   

This brings me back to my chat with Bruce, which I wrote about above. Bruce shared a number of his war stories, but one of those war stories was lobbying government to introduce laws to make it a legal requirement for whisky producers to put the age of the youngest whiskies used in a bottle on the front of the bottle. So, for example, if a bottle of whisky is a blend of 12, 13, and 27 year old whisky the whisky is to be labeled as “12 years old”. That is the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. Those laws were eventually introduced, and it became law for whisky producers to use the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle as the age statement. This is why certain European and British regulations require ‘that any maturation period or age may only be specified in the description, presentation or labelling of a spirit drink where it refers to the youngest alcoholic component in the drink’. Laws are usually introduced for good reasons and it seems that protecting consumers is one of the main reasons for this law.  

Sure, there are reasons to have non-age statement whisky on the market. By allowing whisky producer to release non-age statement whisky it may mean that they can release more whisky more often without having to wait 10 to 12 years for it to mature. This may mean that, despite heightened demand, whisky prices are within a range which most people can still afford because supply of whisky continues to meet demand for whisky. But, this argument doesn’t seem to make sense when you think about the abundance of whisky producers which still have age statements and who still sell whisky for reasonable prices – Glenfarclas, Benromach, Glengoyne, Glenfiddich, Lagavulin, Coal Ila as well as blends such as Chivas Regal 12 and 18 year old, and, Johnnie Walker Black 12 year old and Platinum 18 year old just to name a few. Even Hellyer’s Road, a brand of Tasmanian whisky, have whisky aged at least 10 years and 12 years; uncommon for “new world” whisky.  I have heard brand ambassador after brand ambassador claim that the age of a whisky (i.e: how long it spends in oak casks) does not reflect the quality of a whisky and that they have tried 6 year old whisky that tastes, and I quote, “a million times better” than any 15 year old they have tried. Fine, so why keep the age of a whisky a secret? One reason may be because consumers put a lot of weight into the age of a whisky and, this would suggest consumers don’t know what is good for them. How very caring of the spirit companies. But isn’t it anyone’s prerogative to know what they are buying, how old it is, what its ingredients are etc?

This all goes to show, at least in my opinion, that all we can be really sure about is that non-age statement whisky is – based on the laws Bruce and others fought so hard to have introduced – at least 3 years old.  Logic would suggest that if the age of the youngest whisky in a bottle is significantly higher than 3 years, a whisky producer would be happy to market that fact. If they aren’t happy to market that fact, something doesn’t quite add up in my humble opinion. Bruce says it all smells fishy. I’d agree. So next time you see a non-age statement whisky bear in mind that there is nothing preventing the addition of very young whisky – 3 or 4 years old – in that bottle.

I have tasted some absolutely delicious non-age statement whisky. This post makes no assertions about the quality or flavour of such whisky, it just highlights the issue of lack of transparency. Whenever I taste a non-age statement whisky the nagging thought enters my mind: “I wonder how much of this whisky is 3 or 4 years old?”. 

Sláinte.

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